Auto Market Review
Let me start this article with some background. I am the current owner of VW Passat (2002), and the president of one of the VW Passat owner clubs (www.b5one.com). Obviously, I have a thing for VWs, so please don't take this review the wrong way. It's the kind of review a parent gives a child when they want their child to do better. So, VW, if you're listening, I write this out of love.
Volkswagen has some great vehicles, but there is something missing. That thing is innovation. From engine power and technology, to interior and exterior technologies, Volkswagen is behind other marques. Specific examples are HID (high intensity discharge) headlights, navigation systems, engine output and curb weight.
With that background in mind, you would think that, as HID component prices have dropped, more manufacturers would move to put them into their vehicles. Toyota offers them in many of their cars, including the Matrix, which is aimed at anything but safety-conscious families. Volkswagen, on the other hand, only offered them in the W8 Passat, a $40,000 version of their mid-size family hauler, before they introduced their luxury SUV, the Toureg, and the Mercedes S-Class fighting Phaeton (an amazing car, I must say, though WAY too heavy).
What makes it even odder that VW doesn't offer HIDs in any of their big sellers (Golf, Jetta, New Beetle, Passat 1.8T) is the fact that you can get HIDs on all of these cars in Europe. So, the parts exist, but VW won't bring them to the US. Odd.
OK, you can say this isn't a case of a lack of innovation, but it certainly isn't a case of pushing safety and technology. You could get HIDs on Ford and GM vehicles (Lincoln and Cadillac, respectively) before you could get them on any VW. If I was VW, I would be ashamed to have GM or Ford beat me to the punch with any technology.
When you realize that the Honda Accord, an amazing car in its own right, offers a great navigation system, and is a head on competitor for the Passat, you wonder why VW is dropping the ball here.
Perhaps this isn't a big deal for a mainstream car like the Jetta or Golf, but it certainly is for luxury cars. VW's Audi brand is only now bringing navigation systems to the US. This is especially troublesome because Audi's competitors, each and every one of them, have been offering navigation systems for years now. Lexus, Mercedes, BMW, Infiniti, Jaguar, and, again, even Caddy and Lincoln have offered them for some time. The Americans were slow to the game, but they didn't have the luxury of already having navigation systems designed and built for their current cars. VW has had navs in all Audis in other markets for some time. What boggles my mind is that they can make an easy $2,000 or more on a factory navigation system, so there's a clear profit incentive to bring the units here.
Lastly, VWs navigation implementation is terrible. They only use CD-based navigation systems, which means that you have to keep a set of CDs around to cover different regions of the country. Other manufacturers employ DVD-based navigation systems so only one disc is necessary to cover the entire country...no disc swapping needed. On top of that, a DVD-based system allows for an in-dash CD-changer to still be included. VW's implementation requires the use of a trunk-mounted CD changer. If you remember back to the second Lexus LS400 (yes, way back in the mid-90s), you will remember that Lexus mounted a changer in the passenger-side dash, above the glove box. It wasn't in-dash, but it was darn close to it, and far better than stopping the car, getting out, opening the trunk, and messing with a changer back there (possibly in the dark or rain). I'm speaking from experience on this.
Well, you could bring up FSI as a counter point. FSI is a direct-injection system for gasoline engines that VW is bringing out in their next round of engines (the new Audi A6 3.1 litre FSI (which they label as 3.2L) V6 is an example). Here, VW is actually innovating in a sense. FSI was developed by Audi's racing effort, and has been very successful for the company. The technology itself is not new as it actually was used before fuel injection way back in the 'olden days', and has been used by Mitsubishi in pretty much all of their domestic gasoline engines. Still, if I am knocking VW for not offering technologies that others developed, then I should give them credit for FSI, and I will.
Excluding their work with FSI, their engines are still lacking. In fact, FSI acts more to level the playing field with the likes of Honda and Toyota than to leap ahead of anyone. VW just can't get the same power out of their engines that their competitors can. Or, better yet, that tuners can. True, tuners can get more power out of just about any engine (be VW's or someone else's), and warranties often get cast aside in the pursuit of more power via tuner solutions. So, leaving tuning out of it, how can VW expect to compete with their closest competitors? How can their V6 Passat compete with a Nissan VQ-6 equipped Altima running with 245 hp (this being the least potent form of the VQ)? VW's 2.8 litre V6 Passat runs with only 190 hp. Well, they also have a 3.2 litre VR6 (narrow angle V6) that they throw in the Golf R32 and the Toureg V6, but that only packs 240 hp...still less than the weakest VQ implementation. True, the VW 1.8T engine is remarkable, but VW only packs 170 hp in there out of the gate, yet the engine is safely capable of much more. My own 1.8T is running with a German-engineered chip from Wetterauer that has been proven safe over the years, and boosts output to 205 hp and 238 lb-ft of torque (from 170 hp and 168 lb-ft, respectively). Honda gets 200 hp out of 2.0 litre 4-cylinders with normal aspiration (Acura TSX and RSX Type-S). VW's 2.0 doesn't even make 120 hp (as the base engine in the MK-IV series cars like the New Beetle, Jetta IV and Golf IV).
The Passat's weight is another good item to investigate. The year I bought my Passat, 2002, my options were a car weighing as little as 3225 lbs (1.8T Manual) to as much as 3602 lbs (2.8 4Motion Automatic). Looking at two competitors, the Toyota Camry in 2002 ran from 3086 lbs to 3362 lbs. The Accord ran from a paltry 2989 lbs to 3360 lbs.
OK, I can hear people now, saying that VW makes a more solid and thoroughly engineered car. Maybe this is the case as compared to Hyundai, but to tell me that the Mercedes S-Class isn't a solid and thoroughly engineered car is absurd. I would also say that a Toyota and a Honda are incredibly well engineered vehicles. As for solidity, as a VW owner, I could never classify my car as solid. It's one little problem after the other. There's constantly something rattling, being recalled or breaking loose. As a former Toyota owner, and Nissan before that, and with a Honda in the family, I can safely say we never are plagued by that terrible thought of "Great, what's broken now."
The Final Review