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Thursday, August 14, 2008

2009 Volkswagen Passat CC

By Marc Noordeloos
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Volkswagen is desperate to have a player in the near-luxury market to battle cars such as the Acura TL. The eight-cylinder W8 version of the last-generation Passat was a failure. The current Passat sedan doesn't cut it, either, because it no longer feels like a bargain Audi (as did its predecessor), and it doesn't drive as keenly as other German sedans. VW nonetheless wants to move upmarket and keep customers from leaving the brand, but so far, it has had little luck in doing so. Its upcoming Routan, a rehash of Chrysler's minivan, is one attempt to retain VW buyers, and the four-door, four-seat version of the Passat you see here is another.

The "comfort coupe" (hence the CC name) is slightly longer and wider than the Passat sedan and is two inches lower. Open the doors, and you're greeted by four bucket seats. Rear-seat comfort is very good if you're not much taller than six feet. Surprisingly, trunk space doesn't take a hit, and folding rear seats are retained. A relatively large sunroof is optional, but it only tilts; we'd like to see a full-length glass roof, which could enhance the car's upmarket aspirations while adding light to the rear of the cabin. An excellent new touch-screen navigation system and an impressive 600-watt Dynaudio stereo with a 30-gigabyte hard drive are also optional.

Some other new technologies will not come to America. The most notable of these is Lane Assist, which uses a small camera in the windshield to read road markings; at speeds above 40 mph, the CC will actively turn the steering wheel, keeping the car in its lane. It works well and is smooth and unobtrusive. To answer your next question - no, you can't just sit there and read the morning paper while you're heading down the highway, because the system turns off when you remove your hands from the wheel. Not surprisingly, VW of America says that Lane Assist hasn't earned the approval of its legal department.

We spent most of our test drive in a German-market, top-spec CC equipped with VW's 300-hp VR6, a dual-clutch automatic (DSG), and the new, more advanced 4Motion all-wheel-drive system. As with the U.S.-spec Passat sedan and wagon, we'll get a slightly detuned (by 20 hp) version of this engine hitched to a conventional automatic and either front- or all-wheel drive. U.S. buyers also can choose a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with either a manual or an automatic sending power to the front wheels. VW maintains that, in larger vehicles, Americans prefer the more sedate nature of a regular automatic to the sporting focus of a dual-clutch gearbox.

Get behind the wheel of the CC, and within a few miles, it's clear that this is no ordinary Passat. While hardly a sport sedan, the CC has a smooth, elegant demeanor when it's driven below six- or seven-tenths. It is also buttoned-down, with good body control, even at speeds above 120 mph. Where the regular Passat always feels like a family car, the CC has a special air about it, and its extroverted design inspires onlookers to stare and to whip out camera phones, even in a typically reserved country like Germany. Final driving impressions will have to wait until U.S.-market cars are available, since our Euro test vehicle featured three-way adjustable dampers that aren't coming to America.

In the end, the CC is VW's best effort yet to retain near-luxury customers, especially when you consider the car's pricing. The base, 2.0-liter turbo CC will start at about $27,000 when sales begin this fall. The four-seat Passat might not reward the keen driver (we don't see GTI owners graduating to the CC), but we can't name another four-door car that offers this much curb appeal for the price.