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VW: Innovation Wanted

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 ( 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.

Now, many of you may hate HIDs for their ultra-white light that nearly blinds you as a car with them approaches you at night. While this may be true, they enhance night driving safety tremendously. According to NHTSA, traditional halogen headlights will only illuminate enough of the road ahead of you to safely accommodate speeds up to 35 mph (scary, isn't it?). HIDs, however, nearly double this range to allow for safe cruising at night up to 50 mph. While you may disagree with these figures (NHTSA has tested this), the fact remains that HIDs increase night visibility.

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.

VW - Innovation WantedNavigation Systems
Just like with HIDs, VW offers navigation systems in their cars in Europe. For some reason, they felt this wasn't necessary in the US versions of their cars, again, except for the Toureg and Phaeton.

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 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.

OK, so none of this has been about technological innovation as yet. Now is where true innovation will be called into question. With companies like Honda and Toyota constantly pushing engine technology to new levels with V-TEC, VVTLi, HSD and IMA, you'd think any major manufacturer that competes with these two players would try to do the same. To VWs credit, at least on first blush, you can say they're very innovative with turbo diesel technology. Their TDI engines, while under powered as compared to Mercedes CDI (common-rail diesel injection) engines, are impressive in their miserly fuel consumption. Now, I said 'on first blush' because VW can't really take credit for their TDI engines. The true credit lies with the Robert Bosch company, maker of the technology (both the engineering technology behind the engines as well as the Bosch Motronic computer running the whole system).

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).

Now for the biggest issue, no pun intended. VW has done some amazing engineering on their cars. With no car is this more apparent than the aluminum space framed Audi A8. I am totally in love with this's gorgeous, plain and simple. But, its super-light skin and frame aren't enough to make up for the super-heavy components and other materials VW uses, resulting in one seriously heavy car. The A8 weighs in at 4399 lbs, versus 3990 for the Lexus LS430 and 3977 for the Infiniti Q45 (all similar engine sizes). Sure, the Lexus lacks AWD, so maybe that's what's doing it, right? So, what about a Mercedes S 430 4Matic? You've got a slightly bigger engine in the Merc (4.2 for the Audi vs. 4.3 for the Mercedes), and no aluminum, so the Mercedes should be heavier, right? Well, the Mercedes tips the scale at 4356 lbs...that's right 43 pounds LESS than the Audi. One could argue that the S500 is a better match for the Audi on a power basis, but Mercedes claims the same weight for the S 500 4Matic as the S 430, so the Audi is still heavier.

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
So, this may not be a smoking gun, per se, but if VW wants to truly consider itself a leader in the auto industry, they must be more aggressive with technology, especially in the largest car market (the US). Being the last to bring in technologies like navigation systems and HIDs, being slow with engine advancement and creating vehicles that outweigh their competitors is not how you play the game. I wish VW would wake up the way Nissan did. You'd think under the leadership of Bernd Pietschtrider, they would. BMW is certainly a company known for technological and engineering advancement, and he was the former head of BMW. Only time will tell, but, from what I've seen of the MK-V Golf, we're not in for major innovation from Volkswagen, and especially not in the US.


Details, Details, Details!

Managing Editor

I have to agree on most points. VW is pretty much behind the curve with implementing newer technologies like HID headlamps and navigation systems. However, VW still has standard and optional features that don't even exist in some of the competition's cars - even as options!. Things like a 8-way power passenger seat (most only have 4-way), power folding side mirrors, memory seating, auto-dimming rearview mirror, auto tilt down passenger mirror when you go into reverse, cantilever trunk hinges, hydraulically supported trunk and hood, full trip computer (in all but the Jetta, Golf, GTI 1.8T and Beetle), the list goes on. The point? VW's beauty lies in the details, in my opinion. It's more impressive when you keep in mind that most of the above features were also standard or available on the previous generation Passat (B5) back in '98. Overall, I think there is a greater "gee-whiz" involved with VW's for the most part. Regardless, I would like to see VW implement a lot of these new technologies as well, but not at the cost of these aforementioned details. Sure, things like an in-dash CD changer should be standard nowadays, but it's a minor technicality when you consider that the brand new, redesigned Accord (and Acura TSX for that matter) lacks heated side mirrors (even as an option) for 2004. That's a big deal if you live in the northeast. In closing, VW does have some catching up to do with newer technologies, but their classical styling, excellent build quality and inclusion of many optional features (on other cars) as standard have kept a loyal following that remains patient.