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Driven: 2014 Volkswagen Passat 1.8T SEL

SAMSUNG CSC When Volkswagen introduced the current North American market, US-built Passat in 2011, it was a move seen as either heresy or necessity, depending on which side of the VW enthusiast fence you sat on. After all, if the company wasn’t going to trade on its “Continental manufacturing for the mainstream” appeal, what was the point? At least, that was the counterargument to VW's claim that a midsize sedan designed specifically for the North American market would finally allow them to compete on price, size and content with competitors from Asia and the US. Despite being three model years in, we haven’t yet covered the “NMS” Passat on these pages. No time like the present… SAMSUNG CSC While it may be known internally as the NMS (new midsize sedan), H.M.S. might have been a more appropriate designation – this thing is a yacht. Rear seat legroom, even behind a tall driver, is enough for any budding taxi or livery fleet to bank their success on; ditto the trunk. If merit was based purely on rear seat accommodations, the Passat would surely be a homerun. Of course, it’s not quite that easy, as VW has discovered – the Passat has been relegated to the bottom half of the segment sales charts since introduction. As I would come to find out during my week with the car, that probably has more to do with the stalwarts in this class and the competence of those challengers than any major shortcomings on the Passat’s part. SAMSUNG CSC Still, it must be said – one problem the Passat faces in this larger-than-life marketplace is its styling: it’s conservative almost to a fault. While I find it to be quite classy and unassuming (which is what some would expect in a German car), its competitors sport more visual flash and still manage to put butts in the seats. It’s especially restrained on lower trim levels, where 16-inch alloys or even wheel covers stand in for our SEL’s tasty 18-inch split-five alloys. Still, while the styling may not light hearts afire, the paint quality and shutlines are better than average for the class. SAMSUNG CSC The interior continues the theme of restraint, with Coal Bin Black™ being the color theme of the day, aside from a few wood trim flourishes on the dash and doors. For this lover of mid-90s Japanese autos, the large side windows and low cowl/short dash combination bring back the airy greenhouse feeling of some of my favorites – 1990-93 Accord, I’m looking in your direction. So even though the materials used are dark, the interior still feels bright and spacious, and assembly quality is typically VW/Audi tight. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Out on the road, the Passat drives like a big, laid back cruiser – far from the buttoned-down home market feel of its German-made B7 predecessor. Large undulations are felt in two complete up-and-down motions rather than just one, and while a smooth ride is fine, more damper control would be nice. Cornering attitude actually remains quite flat, which is unexpected given the soft ride quality, and the steering is light in effort but accurate and trustworthy. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Replacing the previous 2.5-liter naturally aspirated 5-cylinder power unit is a standard 1.8-liter turbocharged and direct-injected four cylinder from the EA888 family, which pumps out 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet. While not much stronger on paper, real-world grunt over the old five-cylinder is palpable, and the real reason it’s here – for improved fuel economy – is immediately apparent in the EPA ratings. Ratings of 24 city and 34 highway trounce the old engine’s 22/31, and with the torque peak now occurring at just 1,500 rpm instead of 4,250, the six-speed auto can upshift early on a wave of torque while still providing adequate forward progress. It’s more than a little reminiscent of the TDI/6-speed DSG combo also available in the Passat, right down to the clattery engine note – though at idle, virtually no engine noise or vibration enters the cabin. Mileage-wise, I was only able to eke out a 27.6 MPG average in mixed conditions, which makes me wonder whether an engine start-stop system might be a worthwhile mid-cycle addition to improve around-town mileage. Highway mileage registered in the low 30s. SAMSUNG CSC With a monster 18.5 gallon tank and honest 30+ MPG highway capability, the Passat is truly a mile crusher – 550-mile ranges are well within reach on road trips. The rest of the car certainly won’t beat you up, either. The seats are comfortable, the Fender-branded stereo is strong (though touchscreen inputs sometimes lag before registering), and all controls feel properly judged and weighted. It’s a nice place to spend time, and it’s quiet – really quiet. Unless you’re on rough pavement, that is – our tester’s 18-inch, 235-section tires and an utter lack of wind noise probably conspired to amplify perceived road noise more than a decibel meter could confirm, but there was enough of a sound difference between smooth and pitted pavement for me to notice. Is it a deal-breaker? No. But if you’re shopping the Passat, you may want to try a trim level with 16- or 17-inch wheels back to back with the SEL to see if there’s an improvement. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Overall, then, the Passat is a bit of a mixed success. Is it a nice car? Absolutely. And it certainly feels built to hold up in the long run and remain cheap to operate, something its complex forebears couldn’t always say. But does it retain that “Germanic” feel that drew so many now-loyalists to the VW nameplate in the first place? It looks German, but in every other aspect, this is a car built to (perceived) American tastes of roominess and ride quality – whether or not those are current mid-size shoppers’ actual values is still up in the air.  SAMSUNG CSC 2014 Volkswagen Passat 1.8T SEL Premium Base price: $31,715 Price as tested: $31,715 Options on test car: None Powertrain: 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive – 170 horsepower, 184 lbs-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 27.6 mpg VW provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

First Drive: 2015 Volkswagen Golf TSI and TDI

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Such a feelin's comin' over me There is wonder in most everything I see Not a cloud in the sky, got the sun in my eyes And I won't be surprised if it's a dream

It’s 9:45 a.m., local time. I’m standing at one of what must be a hundred overlooks in Wildcat Canyon Park, looking down on, well, everything.  If you’ve never been to the Bay area (as I had not until this point), there’s no way for me to describe to you the view before me—one that photography has no hope of doing justice. There’s so much going on, yet it’s all encapsulated in a way. One could easily convince a child that the entire world exists within the geography visible from this vantage point. That goes a long way toward explaining the mindset of the average resident, I think. Twenty-four hours ago, I was boarding a plane in Baltimore. In another 24, I should be landing there again. Neither mind nor body has caught up to the change of venue (not to mention the change in time). No point in trying to adjust now, I suppose. “That car is hot,” remarks my co-driver, breaking my reverie. “Hmm?” “It’s hot. Can you smell it?” Indeed, the Golf smells strongly of friction material. Whether it’s from the brakes or the transmission, I can’t quite tell. But my companion has a point. We’ve only done maybe half a mile of non-abusive, uphill canyon driving to this point. There’s no reason for the car to be in any sort of distress. We both chew on the observation for another minute or two, try in vain to snap a smartphone picture that could do the view justice, and then hop back into the car. The new 1.8L Golf TSI may look like a baby GTI on paper. On the road, it’s a different story. Our tester is a four-door “S” model with the sunroof package and six-speed automatic. You have to upgrade to the “SE” trim for 17-inch alloys or “SEL” for 18-inchers. Consequently, our tester is a bit more prone to lean than some of the others may have been. The ride is still quite composed and the handling sharp enough for a little hustling, but the car likes to push and squeal a bit when the corners get tight.

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On the inside, the 2015 is still 100% Golf. The layout is simple and attractive. The plastics are of reasonable quality and the aluminum (Aluminum? Aluminum-look? Alum-enough, regardless) trim is tasteful and judiciously applied. I have only two gripes here. First off, the knobs and other switchgear are still a bit so-so. The HVAC knobs and such don’t feel particularly robust, for example, and as the former owner of a fourth-generation Passat whose radio knob and center console lid lasted all of a month, such things draw my attention. Secondly, what does it take to get a simple USB port in a Volkswagen product? It’s also worth mentioning as well that VW’s competitors are rapidly catching up. The new Mazda3, for example, is easily the VW’s equal. It feels strange to say it, but that makes it no less true. The VW’s cabin is quieter, but the Mazda’s feedback more granular. A wash on paper, maybe, but that’s the sort of thing that can sway a buying decision, depending on the customer. On the bright side, the 1.8L TSI engine is an excellent companion. The small turbocharger means quick spools for excellent response all over the rev range, and since the engine isn’t spun very high, it pulls nicely pretty much all the way to redline. It’s a great package for a daily driver, and while those of us who prefer naturally aspirated engines may miss the character of the old inline-five, the new turbo mill delivers 20% better highway fuel economy without the ridiculously tall gearing of the most recent 2.5L-equipped cars. It’s hard to argue with gaining 6 mpg, especially if you’re in marketing.

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After lunch, we grab a TDI for the drive back to the hotel. The route will take us across the Bay from Richmond to San Rafael, then south on 101, crossing the Golden Gate on the way back into town. Unlike the TSI, the TDI is just a new shell around the same driving experience. The new, two-liter engine is up 10 horsepower from the previous generation. Volkswagen claims it offers a one-mile-per-gallon improvement in both city and mixed driving, but the towering streets of downtown San Francisco are hardly the venue to substantiate that. The TDI is incredibly quiet, punchy and well-suited to highway slogs, and it’s the car to get if you’re the type to travel long distances at constant speeds. It’s no surprise to anybody that the new Golf lineup is stuffed with excellent vehicles; these cars have never suffered from negative critical reception. Where they typically suffer is in value proposition, and to their credit, Volkswagen has made an effort to rectify that.

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Most significantly, the TDI now starts at $21,995. That’s a nice drop from its previous starting MSRP, but at the expense of options. You’ll have to jump up to the $25,495 TDI “SE” if you want a car equipped comparably to the entry-level MkVI. This is a strategy VW has seen success with in the Jetta lineup, and I expect it will do equally well here. On the TSI side, there are no dramatic price shifts, but some options have been re-bundled to make the lower-level trims a better value compared to their outgoing equivalents. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it should help bring more eyes to the showroom, which is exactly what Volkswagen needs if they’re going to reverse the past year’s sales trends. The Golf’s a winner; that should be no surprise. Whether it’s enough to keep VW’s sales numbers afloat while they work to plug the holes in their lineup still remains to be seen.

Driven: 2014 VW Tiguan SE

SAMSUNG CSC VW’s first major foray into the US’s highly competitive (and highly important) small SUV marketplace was with the Tiguan back in 2008. The SE model pictured here is now six model years old, but largely unchanged. Has the Tiguan blossomed for the brand, or been left to wither on the vine? SAMSUNG CSC The fact that the Tiguan sells in largely the same format as it did when first introduced says more about the basic goodness of this “GTI on stilts” than any negligence on VW’s part. In fact, the car still feels fresh and competitive in 2014. Much of that is down to the level of construction and fit and finish in the cabin – a VW hallmark, but worth noting just the same. Despite having all the color variety of a coal bin, the Tiguan’s interior is airy and impeccably screwed together, feeling like something Audi could have sold to an unwitting customer who didn’t notice the VW badge on the grille. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC That solidity extends to the chassis and powertrain matchup; the 2.0 TSI engine from the GTI is pinned for duty here, matched up to a traditional 6-speed automatic instead of that car’s DSG gearbox. Throttle tip-in and midrange response are both well-judged, though the Tiguan’s extra few pounds do somewhat diminish the playfulness of this engine when installed in the GTI. Nevertheless, the 2.0T never feels out of breath and totes the Tiguan around with more than enough vigor. The 6-speed auto is smooth but tends to seek out the highest gear and stay there unless you’re really prodding the throttle, but that helped net an encouraging 25.3 miles per gallon overall out of the cute-ute during its time with me. At least you can call on the turbo four’s torque to pull you around slower traffic without necessitating a downshift, a feat few naturally aspirated competitors can accomplish. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Handling isn’t quite GTI tight, but it’s nip-and-tuck: the Tiguan is extremely agile for a compact SUV. The ride-and-handling tradeoff is well-judged; larger impacts are more heard than felt and all the rough edges are polished off the smaller divots in the road surface. SAMSUNG CSC The Tiguan’s really only been dinged in the past for its lack of cargo space compared with competitors, though honestly, the size and shape of the cargo bay, especially with the back seats folded flat, provides a meaningful argument in the Tiguan’s favor over other practical family mates like the GTI 5-door or Jetta Sportwagen. It’s also handier to park and a fair bit more nimble than its larger competition. To accommodate larger parcels, the front passenger seat folds flat – a trick not always included in this class. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC The Tiguan proves good things from Germany usually come in small packages, and with a redesign looming on the horizon, let’s hope VW doesn’t engineer any of that GTI DNA and build quality out of the current Tiguan’s successor. SAMSUNG CSC   2014 Volkswagen Tiguan SE Base price: $28,205 Price as tested: $28,205 Options on test car: None Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission – 200 horsepower, 207 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 25.3 mpg VW provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.  

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2012 NAIAS: Volkswagen Bugster Concept

This is the Beetle based e-Bugster concept from Volkswagen for the 2012 NAIAS.  While this chopped hot rod Beetle is just a concept, VW hopes to highlight the "Blue E-motion"  114hp all-electric powertrain which Volkswagen says has a range of 100+ miles.  The e-Bugster uses a 695 lb. lithium-ion battery which sits where the rear seats would normally be in a regular Beetle. While this all sounds good on paper, we've yet to see VW actually build any of the concepts it shows at the NAIAS.  That's a shame, because the e-Bugster is the best looking Beetle yet.

Volkswagen Announces Passat Alltrack

Volkswagen has announced an addition to the Passat lineup with the Passat Alltrack for the European market.  Available only in estate form, the Passat Alltrack features Volkswagen's 4MOTION all-wheel drive system and is powered by a 2.0-liter TDI engine in either 140 PS or 170 PS flavors.  The 140 PS models are mated to a six-speed manual transmission while the 170 PS models get a six-speed DSG transmission as standard. To back up the Alltrack name, Volkswagen has fitted the Passat with front and rear underbody skid plates, and has increased ground clearance from 135mm to 165mm.  As a result, breakaway angle has increased from 9.5 degrees to 12.8 degrees and restyled bumpers increase approach angle from 13.5 to 16 degrees.  Volkswagen has also altered the ESP programming on the Passat Alltrack to make it better suited for loose surfaces by making use of an electronic differential to control wheel spin. The Passat Alltrack will make its debut at the upcoming Tokyo Motor Show and will go on sale in Europe in July, though there is no word on this model making its way over to the North American market.  

Driven: 2012 Volkswagen Beetle

Photos courtesy of Volkswagen of America. If you read my review of Volkswagen's 2012 Golf R, you already know I found it to be a bit of a let down. The R isn't a bad car by any means, but it didn't quite stack up quite the way I'd hoped it would. No small part of that is due to the other two cars I drove the same day. In fact, if the Golf R had been the only performance Volkswagen in the bunch, I probably would have thought much more highly of it. After all, just about anything can be good in a vacuum. But the R won't exist on its own as a sporty compact in this market. Indeed, it won't even exist as such in its own showroom. For 2012, Volkswagen will sell no fewer than four compact cars powered by some variant of their two-liter, direct-injected, turbocharged four-cylinder--the aforementioned Golf R, the GTI, the new MkVI GLI, and the new (lower case "n") Beetle. That's right, Volkswagen has ditched the "New." For 2012, it's just Beetle. It makes sense if you think about it; the New Beetle hasn't really lived up to its name since 1997. And while the revived icon soldiered on gracefully for nearly 14 years without a major overhaul, it was losing a bit of its luster. The dated platform and lack of enthusiast drive train options (the Turbo model was dropped after 2005)  meant the cars built in the waning years of the New Beetle's production run were destined for the driveways of teenaged girls and nostalgic boomers. And now? Well, let's put it this way: Neither Beetle I've driven has been equipped with a dash-mounted flower vase.

This one might be turbocharged.

What can you get? Let's start with the basics. You have two engine and chassis configurations to choose from, and there's no interchanging them. The base model includes Volkswagen's now-ubiquitous 2.5L inline five-cylinder engine in its usual 170hp configuration. With this, you get the same torsion beam rear end (Volkswagen's words, not mine) that has been a fixture of many lukewarm reviews of the MkVI Jetta. You have your choice of a 5-speed manual or 6-speed Tiptronic gearbox, both of which do their respective jobs quite well. If you opt for the aforementioned 200-horsepower Turbo model however, you get a fully-independent, multi-link rear suspension, an additional gear in the manual, and VW's quick-shifting DSG in place of the tip-shift auto. Volkswagen also plans to introduce their critically-acclaimed, 2.0L turbo-diesel engine later in 2012, catching the Beetle up to the Golf and Jetta in engine choices. Unfortunately, all of the Beetles available to us were equipped with automatic transmissions. If you're starting to wonder if the Beetle Turbo is simply a GTI in a drag, you're not far off the mark. The Beetle is a little softer and heavier than the GTI, but it's still a fairly credible performance machine; you even get the same XDS "electronic differential" system. But the Beetle just isn't quite as sharp or playful. To make a more familiar comparison, the Beetle Turbo feels a bit closer in overall dynamics to the Golf TDI than the GTI. There can only be one, right?

Turbo interior (note the cloth seats). Body-colored dash trim livens up an otherwise uncharismatic interior.

Fortunately, the base car puts its suspension-sister, the Jetta, to complete shame. While neither will light the world on fire in the handling or ride quality departments, the Beetle is far and away the more eager of the two. The Jetta's heavy-at-all-the-wrong-times steering effort and feeling of excessive size aren't found here. It never feels awkwardly large from behind the wheel the way the Jetta does. Steering feel is still lacking, unfortunately, as seems to be happening more and more in modern Volkswagens. Neither the base car nor the Turbo shines in this regard It's not all good news though. While the Turbo's brakes inspire confidence, the base car's stopping power isn't nearly as comforting. It may simply be down to tire compound, but it's something to consider. And of course, a solid rear end is a solid rear end, and high speed bumps--especially those that aren't uniform across the road surface--will upset the Beetle's otherwise silky highway demeanor. Surface streets are hit or miss. At certain speeds, the rear end is easily forgotten. At others, the Volkswagen pops and dips awkwardly, with an accompanying unpleasant, boomy resonance in the cabin. It's rare, but noticeable considering how effectively Volkswagen otherwise isolates road noise and surface imperfections.

Torsion Beam rear axle isn't compatible with local surface streets.

Fortunately, our longer-term evaluation vehicle came equipped with the fantastic Fender audio system, about which I have nothing but great things to say. Under the brandwashing, the head unit is actually designed and tuned by Panasonic, and it's worth every penny, though you do lose some hatch real estate to the sub-woofer. With the stereo cranked, the occasional unpleasant aural intrusion is easily drowned out. Inside, with few exceptions, it's a Volkswagen through and through--clinical and comfortable. The seats are firm but supportive, shod with V-tex leatherette in all 2.5L models. If you spring for the Turbo, you get cloth seats standard with leather-clad sport seats as an option. Breaking up the might-as-well-be-a-Jetta interior is the Beetle's party piece. The dash, door panels and gauge hood are now available in either gloss or carbon-look trim painted to match the car's exterior color. And yes, they've brought back the kaeferfach or "Beetle bin," which is Volkswagenese for "A second glove box situated on the upper dash to the front of which we can fasten a genuine aluminum handle that we will later pass around at press events." And while body-painted plastic trim on the inside of a car is usually just a clever way for manufacturers to get away with cheap, high-gloss interior plastics, I have to say it works here better than it does in, say, a Nissan Juke. The only other car I can think of that pulls it off this well is the Fiat 500.

Fender audio system lives up to the hype.

Speaking of the little Americanized Italian, I suspect that these two cars will be the subject of comparisons in the coming months, and let me be the first to tell you that they have very little in common. The Fiat, like the Mini, is a true subcompact. The Beetle, like its Golf and Jetta relatives, could easily qualify as mid-size. Just for kicks, I parked the Beetle next to our 2005 Focus 5-Door last night and was alarmed to find that the Volkswagen is actually bigger. They're equal in length, but the Volkswagen's cartoonish fender flares and Jetta-influenced underpinnings translate to a waistline that is a full 4.5 inches wider than our Ford's. And while you could simply chalk that up to generational bloat, it's worth noting that it's still almost an inch and a half wider than its platform mates. Them's some big hips. So while the 500, Cooper and Beetle may all offer similar levels of Taylor Swift crowd exterior appeal, the Italian and the almost-Brit are delicate purses to Volkswagen's massive satchel. The verdict? I was pleasantly surprised, quite frankly. While the New Beetle was never a bad car, it hasn't really held its ground in the cute car niche since neighbor BMW revived the Mini brand for the United States market. Enthusiasts have largely ignored it since the Turbo and Turbo-S models dried up. Even in the VW community, it ranks a distant third to the turbocharged fourth-generation GTI and Jetta models that share its underlying architecture. Those hoping for a budget alternative to a two-door GTI will be disappointed, as the Turbo's price advantage is only a few hundred dollars, but at least it presents another option for those who aren't fans of the traditional hatchback or sedan styling offered by its siblings. The author drove the 2012 Beetle Turbo at a manufacturer-sponsored event to which many members of the automotive media were invited. The non-turbo model was a press vehicle also provided by Volkswagen.

Driven: Volkswagen Golf R (European Spec)

Yes, we're a little late to the game. Most of the mainstream publications have already been invited to drive Volkswagen's European market Golf R, but with your humble author's 9-5 day job and our modest (read: non-existent) travel budget, well, we just didn't have the opportunity. So when Volkswagen extended an invitation to sample their full U.S. line-up (caveat to be explained later) near their U.S. headquarters in Herndon, Virginia, well, I just couldn't pass that up. Doing my best impression of modern journalistic largesse, I promptly reserved my space in the event (and my room at the hotel which, mind you, is only about sixty miles from my home outside Annapolis, MD). What can I say? They don't give out bonus points for good behavior. Might as well enjoy it. But first, that caveat. See, when Volkswagen said we could test their entire 2012 U.S. lineup, what they actually meant was that we could test almost all of the cars that will be available at one point or another, and in one form or another, for said model year. As we learned during the rather German morning "brief"ing, there was a catch. While two Volkswagen Golf Rs would be available to sample during the afternoon session, they were both European-spec models rather than the mildly reworked package we'll be seeing in showrooms next year. Indeed, when my driving partner and I finally got our turn behind the wheel of a beautiful red five-door model, the first thing that greeted us was a detailed sheet explaining outlining which options we won't be getting--namely the headlights, taillights, DSG and sport seats--and listing the base and up-trim configurations for the eventual U.S. release. Volkswagen's "Halo" performance car will feature 4Motion all-wheel drive, 256 crank horsepower (down from more than 260 overseas) and as alluded to above and in a complete reversal of their decision with the last-gen R32, a 6-Speed manual gearbox only. You read that correctly. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the DSG gearbox will not be available stateside at all. You can choose from either a three- or five-door model in one of five colors and one of two trims: loaded (self-explanatory) and more loaded. The latter throws navigation and a sunroof on top of any already robust feature list, along with a couple of other trivial features. Inside, it's all Golf. The only hints that anything is amiss are the R-branded steering wheel and contrast-stitched leather seats, and knowing Volkswagen owners' propensity for raiding upper-trim parts bins to trick out their pizza delivery machines, those won't be reliable indicators for long. Turn the key though, and the R quickly asserts itself. The engine comes to life with an authoritative burble, which settles into what I have to say is a somewhat unremarkable tone. It's louder than the GTI, GLI and the New Beetle for sure, but it's not terribly pleasant. It's not unpleasant either; it's just there. Constantly. So how does it drive? For the sake of context, know that we drove this car back-to-back with Volkswagen's MkVI GLI and their new New Beetle, both of which are powered by the 2.0L, 200hp, turbocharged, direct-injected "TSI" four-cylinder. While the Golf R says "TSI" under the hood too, the engine is actually based on the earlier "FSI"-branded variant of the same family. And while the modestly-rated 200hp variants found in the Golf R's front-wheel drive cousins feel somewhat stouter than their power ratings suggest, this supposedly 265hp mill feels rather the opposite. Surely, a lot of that is down to the heft carried by the four-wheeling hatchback, and at what we expect will be a roughly 3,400lb curb weight, the R will indeed be the fat kid in the U.S. Golf family. So while there's plenty of extra power, there's also a good deal more work to be done.You can feel it in the steering too. Rather, they've made it feel that way with the steering. Allow me to elaborate. The R utilizes the same electro-mechanical power steering unit that VW has been using since the MkV GTI debuted. This is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, this supposedly yields improvements in fuel economy and refinement, but what they don't tell you is that they've essentially severed the last remaining physical connection between your hands and the front wheels. The refinement advantage is obvious--if you can't feel what the wheels are doing, then you can't feel what they're running over, either. And that's all well and good in a Lexus or a Rolls-Royce, but the Golf R is neither. Appropriately then, Volkswagen spent what I can only imagine were thousands of man-hours tuning the feedback in the system, teaching the computer to recognize mechanical feedback from the wheels and transmit it back to the driver. And generally, it works. The GTI, GLI and New Beetle are excellent examples. This R, however, leaves me puzzled. The steering is very weighty (a software determination only, mind you) but surprisingly vague when you least want imprecise feedback. Diving into some great on-camber corners on our test loop, I found the helm and the chassis to be almost out of synch. The wheel would tell me that I'd dialed in just enough steering to weight the suspension properly for a smooth transition to the exit, only to to have the rest of my senses alarm me with the realization that the R was running wide--not a desirable combination on these narrow mountain roads. This wasn't understeer, mind you. This was, for lack of a better term, "slop" in the steering, if an electronic system can indeed be sloppy. It makes the car drive "heavier" than it really is, if you will. It's the sort of sensation you expect to get from the helm of a 4,200lb, 6.4L Dodge Challenger, not from a compact hatchback. It was quite a surprise and to be honest, a significant disappointment. In a straight line, the Golf R handily meets expectations. It's about as powerful as a WRX and it feels it. The ride is a bit less distant than the Subaru's and everything feels more substantial from top to bottom, especially the brakes, which were a bit twitchy in our tester but unflinchingly reliable. You'd need an STI (or a few trips to the Subaru performance accessory catalog at least) to get as complete of a performance package as you get with the R, but with the Subaru you'd be spending roughly the same money and walking away with quite a bit more--more power, more drive train and more ultimate capability. I say roughly the same money, because we don't have final pricing yet, but if credible rumors are to be believed, the R should ring up at roughly the same price as the previous R32. That would put it somewhere in the mid-$30k range. I don't need to tell you what $35k or so will buy you in the performance market these days, so draw your own conclusions. Final judgment can be reserved until we're invited to drive the U.S.-spec Golf R, but for the time being I'd say the Golf R has to settle for an "as-expected." It's the first performance-oriented Volkswagen we've seen in several years where the whole appears to be precisely the sum of its parts. It's a fatter, faster Golf--no more and no less. Here's hoping the U.S.-market engineering team can give it that little something extra before it hits our showrooms.   The author drove this vehicle at a manufacturer-sponsored event to which many members of the automotive media were invited.

Lord Byron — Big Enough to Fail

Some of my regular readers have been inquiring as to my backlog of reviews. Fear not; they'll be along shortly. I'm currently dealing with some logistical issues which have repercussions for the release of two of these pieces. Once that shakes out, we should be back to our regularly-scheduled programming. For now, enjoy some Volkswagen. Friend and fellow SSL regular Jack once called the Volkswagen Phaeton "The best car in the world." He should know, I suppose, as he had two of them. And it was quite good. In fact, it's one of few cars I have ever known to be as satisfying from the back seat as it was from the driver's. It was a wonderful piece of engineering that deserved all of the praise it received. And now that Volkswagen appears to be back in the "on again" phase of what some of our esteemed colleagues depict as an ongoing deliberation as to the future of the Phaeton in America, I feel it's appropriate to issue a gentle warning to our friends across the pond: The Phaeton cannot and will not succeed in the United States. The Phaeton was remarkable because it was a Volkswagen. I don't mean it was remarkable because VW builds incredible machines; I mean it was remarkable in that it was a full-on luxury car with full-on luxury options marked up with full-on luxury pricing, and yet it was a Volkswagen. Here was a feature-rich, (comparatively) no-holds-barred, $70 thousand dollar car being sold alongside New Beetles and leftover (and then nearly a dozen years old under the sheet metal) Golf Cabriolets. Why is that last bit important? Well, quite simply, the Phaeton's identity here was based on it being a complete fish out of water. But it was something else, too. It was—in a sad, sickening sort of way—emblematic of Volkswagen's utter incompetence with regard to the U.S. market. Here they had a car which represented some of the finest luxury features new money could buy, and yet it sat humbly (and comfortably) beside cars that didn't cost a fifth as much, never for once appearing to be out of place. It was in that regard (even if none other), fundamentally Volkswagen. You just couldn't get it for a fundamentally Volkswagen price, and therein lay the rub. For the same long decade that VW of America sold that miserable MkIII Cabrio, they had been laying the groundwork for a fundamental shift for the brand—a true move upmarket—and here was its most obvious harbinger. I need not bore you with the details as I'm sure you're already familiar with them, but the long and short of it was this: Volkswagen fans were in awe of it. Journalists praised its substance but panned its lack of superficial splendor. And consumers? Well, they didn't really have an opinion one way or the other. Almost nobody bought it. Even fewer were repeat customers, and who could blame them? Volkswagen dealers were in the business of servicing middle-aged Apple geeks and the odd child of a BMW or Mercedes-Benz owner, not true luxury buyers.

Interior of the refreshed 2011 Phaeton. Not much changed, but then it didn't really need to.

Today, most of the buying public is entirely unaware of its existence. Why shouldn't they be? Eighty percent of us can't afford one, and the remaining 20 barely looked up from their BMW, Lexus or Mercedes lease agreements long enough to care. For better or worse though (and it was undoubtedly the latter; the Phaeton lasted a mere three years here), that is the Volkswagen Phaeton as we Americans know it—a fantastic car backed by a thoroughly unremarkable effort. And if Volkswagen brings the Phaeton back to the U.S., it will happen again. Why? Well, this is Speed:Sport:Life, so the answer is (of course) branding. "Phaeton" is more than just letters on a trunklid (and if you don't agree, the "Taurus II" anecdote is just for you). It's an international brand which, unfortunately, has a history of failure in the States. And because of that failure, Volkswagen can't win with "Phaeton." Why? Because we're unreasonable—all of us. I'll come back to that. For now, let's talk strategy. There are many ways to relaunch a car, but when it comes to Phaeton 2.0, there are essentially only three paths to take. The first is the most obvious: Just bring it back. Same car. Same options. Sure, maybe you throw in a diesel or V6 model to fill the gap between the loaded CC ($40k range) and the base V8 model, but for all intents and purposes, you do nothing different. Obviously, the greatest risk (and likeliest outcome) is that it drops with the same grace and poise as the previous model. That is to say, much like a loaded dump truck exiting a narrow mountain road by way of the guardrail. And on top of that, those of us with a podium from which to preach will slam Volkswagen for taking the Insanity-for-Dummies approach and making the same exact mistake twice. Result: Loss. The second option is to give the U.S. its own Phaeton, independent of the next generation model that will likely be introduced in ROW markets sometime in the next year or two (the current formula works overseas, so why change it?), and price it as an Avalon/Maxima/300C/Taurus competitor. Sure, it'll still be called a Phaeton, but it won't actually be a Phaeton (and believe me, the automotive media will never get tired of recycling that particular point). It will forever be the Phauxton, scorned by critics as the watered-down, built-for-fat-people variant that will never live up to its European namesake. Result: Again, a loss. And then there's option three. In this scenario, they don't bring back a Phaeton at all. Instead, they follow every step outlined in option two, but call it something else (there are plenty of trade winds and barbaric tribes left, right?). This allows them to bring a range-topping model to market that fits the new face of their U.S. lineup. Will it be compared to the Phaeton? Of course. Even Hyundai's Genesis Sedan was likened to VW's failed flagship, but as Hyundai has demonstrated, America will buy into a luxury car from a decidedly non-luxury brand as long as it doesn't take the formula too far outside of their comfort zone. The Genesis isn't a complete, runaway hit, but it sells well enough to be viable, and at a price that doesn't bring with it certain expectations that the Hyundai dealer network can't meet (whether that will hold true with the Equus remains to be seen). But at least this option has potential. Now, if some of the assertions above seem a bit over-the-top, it's intentional. As I said, we're unreasonable—journalists, consumers, Internet fanboys, however "we" are defined in your particular context. We are, as a whole, devoid of logic when it comes to the issue of branding. Our expectations are so arbitrary that it is virtually impossible for manufacturers to meet them. This really shouldn't be news to you at this point. If you're the type to write a 1,200-word essay demanding a $25,000, all-wheel drive GTI that pushes 350hp, weighs 2700lbs and rides like an S-Class, then consider this your wake-up call, or at the very least your cue to leave. But whether we are reasonable or not, Volkswagen faces a real danger in bringing back a nameplate that was considered by many to be a new benchmark for sub-$100k luxury. This potential relaunch is a fundamental exercise in managing expectations. By bringing back the Phaeton, even if in name only, they've already set themselves up on the losing side of the expectations game. And given their performance over the last two decades, the last thing VoA needs to do is come out of the gate having stacked their own deck against them. The Phaeton symbolized VW's struggles before. Why go down that road again?