Job number one for me at this year’s Detroit motor show was to head downtown to the city fire station and witness the unveiling of VW’s new mid-sized saloon, designed exclusively for the US.
Rather confusingly it’s called the Passat, and it does share plenty of mechanicals with one that patrols our company car parks.
But it's been tailored to compete with the likes of the Ford 500, Hyundai Sonata and Toyota Camry in the world’s toughest car market. Like its main rivals it will be built in the US at an all-new factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee where up to 150,000 of the them will be rolling off the line every year, with the possibility of quite a few more if sales are good enough, according to plant boss Frank Fischer.
So what's it like? Well I'd like to be able to tell you but VW's big cheeses didn't feel like it was appropriate for the actual car to be at its launch party. But I've seen enough to know that it looks smart.
It is arguably smarter than the European Passat inside and out and it doesn't feel like it's been built down to a price even though it so obviously has. And company insiders are being bullish that it will convincingly outstrip the saloon competition over here.
As I learnt earlier in the day visiting VW’s Washington DC HQ, the Passat is a seriously important car for its US ambitions. The German giant has been having a tough time of it across the Atlantic, mainly through selling cars ill-designed for the market and garnering an unenviable reputation for iffy after-sales service and quality.
The Passat and recently launched Jetta are VW’s attempts not just to stop the rot but to turn things around completely. Last year it sold just over 250,000 cars here but by 2018 it want to make that a million, through selling cars that America wants.
So big, cheap saloons and SUVs mainly. And not, perhaps, the uber-polished products that Europe demands. There’s a good chance that a decent chunk of them will be hailing from Tennessee too.
The USA is arguably the only place on the planet where VW has not had a smooth ride to dominance and not had an untainted reputation either. It’s going to be interesting to see whether its American gamble pays off. Considering how well the company is doing in Europe, China and South America, you wouldn’t bet against them at the moment.