Friday, July 22, 2016

The Midsize SUV, Volkswagen of America Grows Up

By: Sebastien Bell

If you’re a Volkswagen enthusiast of a certain age, you know that the brand has a less than exceptional history when it comes to making cars in America. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, VW took its first crack at building cars stateside at a plant in Pennsylvania. The whole venture ended only a few years after it began amid complaints that the brand had diluted its essence with the move. In 2011 Volkswagen tried again with its Chattanooga, Tennessee plant and now, with the plant’s first attempt at an American VW, they’re trying to get it right with the midsize SUV.
The SUV market is massive and sturdy. Even after fears of economic downturns and rising gas prices the market only grows. Until now, though, Volkswagen’s two SUVs (the Tiguan and the Touareg) have missed out on the crucial seven-seater category. The midsize SUV (think Honda Pilot-sized) seeks to remedy that. With three rows of seats it’s Volkswagen’s attempt at an American market vehicle and VWoA’s chance to show its engineers know a thing or two.
VW_Midsize_SUV_ Chatt-3
I was recently given a tour of the new vehicle and the plant where it will be built. Perhaps the most crucial difference between this attempt and the brand’s last is that this time it’s being led by Germans. Whereas in the ‘70s VW hired a former Chevrolet executive to run their American operation, this time the job of changing cars for the American market falls to, among others, Matthias Erb, who’s from Germany. The town is full Germans, and even the “Do not disturb” sign in the hotels have the German translation on them. Although this SUV was designed in Germany, it was with heavy involvement from VWoA
It’s tempting to ask why cars need to be redesigned for the American market at all. Volkswagen has committed no greater crime in recent years (well, except for that one) than denying America the Scirocco, the Amarok and the GTI Clubsport S. A fundamental part of Volkswagen’s appeal is its German nature, to be sure, but the world, for all its globalization, still changes from place to place. Not everything that works in Germany works here.
For example, the new midsize SUV is expected to tow stuff, but to actually do that you need a hitch. Surprisingly, German hitches—which fold out from under the car—differ from American hitches, something that Volkswagen’s German (in Germany) engineers hadn’t considered. When the new midsize SUV came to America, says Erb, they realized that the hitch was wrong. Sounds like a small fix, and it was, because VWoA was involved early on. If they’d caught it later in the process, not even once production had begun, but just closer to the launch date, the consequences could have been dire.
VW_Midsize_SUV_ Chatt-5
The first solution they tried involved extending the mating tube on the receiver. Seems simple enough, but changing the length of that tube changes where the forces from the weight of a trailer are applied and since the hitch is attached to the frame, that has deep implications for the whole car. If they’d caught the problem any later, they might not have had time to figure that out, leading to an expensive recall. If they hadn’t caught it at all, if, say, they went to market with the wrong kind of hitch, they would have been the dummies who’d built an SUV that couldn’t tow anything. All because of a quirk of geography.
It’s important to the engineers that VW customers not think they’ve decided to build a big, soft, boring American car with VW badges on it, though. While in Chattanooga, I was given a ride in the new midsize SUV around the twistier parts of town, and had the opportunity to get something like a feel for the car. Although this was a pre-production example, only the sixteenth ever built, the car felt reasonably complete. If you’ve spent any time in a modern VW (which I’m sure one or two of you have) you know what the midsize SUV feels like. It may be big, but it maintains the overall sense of VW quality and the ride was pure MQB. Around the bends there was no sense of body roll, though the suspension was smooth enough to iron out any potholes. The materials, the seats, the feel, even the smell were all  pure Volkswagen and if you didn’t look, you could easily forget how far away the back window was.
Despite that, Erb admits that costs need to be cut to compete in America, which he calls the most cost competitive market in the world. But costs, says Erb, will only be cut where you won’t notice them. The glovebox, for example, will be built a little less sturdily. One of VW’s engineering demands was to have a glove compartment that you could use as an ottoman. Why? Apparently it has something to do with German taxi drivers, but literally no one should be putting their feet on an open glovebox lid, so VW will save some money there.
The midsize SUV will come with the usual assortment of four and six cylinder engines (the same we’ve come to know and love) and two or four wheel drive, depending on your tastes. The one that I was ferried around in had a lovely, bassy sound to it that the engineers spent time on ensuring you could hear. And a fine job they did. It’s quiet and sensible at most speeds, but when you put your foot down, to get onto the highway, say, there’s a reassuring thrum below you. The VW staff who drove me around would not confirm which package I was in, but it’s safe to say that it was a premium model.
It’s a handsome looking thing, too. The version I was driven around in had camouflage on it, but during my factory tour I happened to catch a glimpse of one in the distance. It’s well proportioned and isn’t as butt-heavy as the Tiguan. It follows in the tradition of modern VW design language. I’m still not totally convinced by the belt-line that follows the arch of the wheel, but I will say that it look better on the whole car than it does under the cammo and overall it’s handsome.
VW_Midsize_SUV_ Chatt-18
Ultimately, though, despite the stable handling and the quick acceleration, VW haven’t been silly trying to make this a performance SUV. We’ve all seen the X5M and wondered “…why?” as the M brand is further diluted. The midsize SUV isn’t trying to be a GTI, rather it’s a family car designed specifically for the VW driver who has grown up. With a bunch of cargo space (actual capacity hasn’t been revealed, but unlike the Tiguan it’s designed to be big for its segment) and three rows of comfortable seating (bench or captain’s seats in the middle), the midsize SUV is perfect for the family that has outgrown their Golf (or even the Tiguan) and with all the safety features that are expected from Volkswagen (as well as a few new ones that they wouldn’t reveal yet) it should be perfect for parents who care about their kids and even better for those who don’t.
Full production will begin in Chattanooga at the end of this year, it will launch at the LA Auto Show, and VW is working to make sure that the price is competitive.

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