First Drive: 2009 Volkswagen CC

On the list of jobs that we wouldn’t wish on anyone, being responsible for marketing the new Volkswagen CC is near the top. Where does it slot into the market? The easy answer is that it’s a personal luxury coupe. It’s even right there in the name—CC. “Comfort Coupe.” Yet it definitely has four doors and a B pillar, just like a sedan. It’s larger than the current Passat, yet seats just four. It’s supposed to compete with the V6-powered Lexus ES and Acura TL, but the CC is available not only with a V6, but a four-cylinder engine and a manual transmission. It also undercuts its Japanese competition by $6,000, which puts low-end CCs in the same sandbox as the Accord and Camry. After spending two days and 1,000 miles trying to draw a bead on Volkswagen’s newest model, I’ve come to the conclusion that the CC is full of personality. And like people with a lot of personality, it’s hard to put your thumb on exactly what the CC is.

It’s true the CC shares a fair chunk of its lineage with the current Passat; but while the overall look is unmistakably Volkswagen, nothing about it says “midsize family sedan.” Instead, it looks every bit like a cousin to Mercedes’ CLS.

Like the Mercedes, the CC sits lower, wider, and longer than a traditional sedan. The result is a car that’s graceful and poised on its axles. The CC’s body is a case study in the joys of compound curves, with fenders and pillars and door skins changing between concave and convex in sinuous, uninterrupted expanses of sheetmetal. The broad grille and bowed headlamp clusters endow the CC with a corporate identity, and the slightly oversized taillamps, while looking perhaps a bit too Korean, are the starting point for a definition line that runs clear through to the front bumper, bringing some visual tension to the CC’s flanks. As we mentioned in our drive of the European model back in April, torsional and bending stiffness have been taken up a notch with the CC, allowing Volkswagen to use frameless side windows and a panoramic sunroof that covers the span of the roof from the center pillars forward.

Inside, the CC feels as upscale as the exterior promises; the interior is trademark VW, with high-quality surfaces everywhere. The dashboard is nearly identical to the current Passat, with white instrument lighting instead of blue and a new Climatronic system. Real brushed aluminum trim accents the instrument panel on every model except the entry-level 2.0T, which makes do with silver-painted plastic.

Despite the CC standing two inches lower than the Passat, the cabin feels large inside. Standard across all models are 12-way power driver and passenger seats with driver’s-side memory, and they’re nicely bolstered for a snug fit that’s not too constricting. The back seat eliminates the center seating position entirely; a roll-top storage bin that’s nestled between two bolstered seats replaces it. While this means the CC is only a four-seater, those four seats are sculpted out, creating individual buckets. Those interiors are available in two flavors: black or a buttercream color called “cornsilk beige.” Black cars are all ebony from the waist down, but the pillars and headliner are gray. On tan cars, Volkswagen’s moved away from all-cream interiors (like the Eos) with the CC. Only the seat and door panel inserts are beige. The parts which typically get oily and grungy, like the headrests, bolsters, seatbacks, and even carpets are all black. All models get real leather seating except the price leaders, which use V-Tex leatherette.

Thanks to the short roofline and gunslit greenhouse that define the CC, headroom can be an issue for taller passengers. Our resident six-footers can fit comfortably in the back seat with only a little brushing of the roof, but God’s mercy on your tall backseat passengers if you crash over some raiload tracks. The front seats’ height adjustments allowed us to motor them down far enough to have a full six inches above our noggins. Unlike the Passat, the CC perches its driver and passengers low, with high windowsills creating a sense that the car rises up around you . Despite that, the CC doesn’t create blind spots in the name of style; visibility is excellent from any position. But the best view of all may be the one through the massive panoramic moonroof. Nearly twice as large as a standard sunroof, the panorama panel lets in enough moonlight to create ambience, enough sunlight to simulate alfresco motoring, and it comes with a perforated sunshade to button things up so the interior doesn’t turn into a blast furnace during the day. If there are downsides to the panorama roof, it’s that getting it eliminates the interior grab handles, and it only motors up and down as a vent, instead of sliding back to the big skies above.

Get used to the steering wheel in the CC, because it’s the new VW corporate wheel. It’s the same piece used on the European Golf VI, and its overlapping rocker switches are a huge improvement over the old wheel’s identical round buttons. Other details, like center-console storage pockets big enough to swallow an iPhone, sliding storage bin lids, a massive storage cubby under the headlight switch, and an air-conditioned glovebox with an optional USB/iPod adapter tray that drops out of its top(so that the MP3 player can be safely tucked away from prying eyes yet remain connected) are what we expect from the thoughtful Germans, and the CC delivers them.

The navigation system is Volkswagen’s new touch-screen unit, known as the RNS510, that we all know and love. Between its real iPod integration (no more tapping into the CD changer input!), 3-D mapping, real-time traffic updates, DVD player, and 20GB hard drive, the system takes VW from having one of the worst factory nav systems to one of the best. The unit is also tied into the CC’s climate-control system: Turn the rotary knobs to adjust the temperature, and the display will show the new setting for a few seconds. It’s also available with a backup camera that pops out from under the rear VW logo when the CC is dropped into reverse. Given the rake and height of the CC’s rear window, the backup camera should be considered mandatory.

There are a few changes between the European car and the U.S. model we’ve been handed the keys to—the most prominent among them being the name. Our car won’t be a submodel of the Passat like it is in Germany; the car is simply called CC in the states. Also left across the Atlantic are the Euro-spec driver assistance features like Lane Assist, which will steer the car if you start wandering out of your lane; Park Assist, which will direct the car into a parallel-parking spot; and Adaptive Chassis Control, which changes steering control and damper response electronically. Other than that, and some pieces of amber on the front end to meet lighting requirements, the CC is the same car we drove in Germany. Even the ride height—a long-time niggle, as cars bound for the states needed to be raised up to perform well in our side-impact tests—is the same between the two markets.

Our CCs will have two engine choices, lifted directly from the lineup of the current Passat: The 200-horsepower 2.0 TSI that we see in the Tiguan, and the 280-horsepower 3.6-liter VR6. The 2.0T can be had with a six-speed manual or a six-speed Tiptronic, while the 3.6 is Tiptronic-only but can be had with optional Haldex-based 4Motion all-wheel-drive. In both cases, the six-speed units are traditional hydromechanical automatics instead of VW’s slick twin-clutch DSG, because Volkswagen felt the DSG transmission isn’t yet smooth enough for use in an upscale sedan.

Volkswagen will offer four distinct trim levels, which are spaced out across the price spectrum from the entry-level 2.0T Sport at $26,790 and the 2.0T Luxury at $31,990, to $38,300 for the VR6 Sport and the fully kitted-out VR6 4Motion at $39,300. The volume leaders, according to Volkswagen, will be the four-cylinder Sport and the four-cylinder Luxury model. Those two are expected to make up 70% of CC sales, with VR6s taking up the remainder.

We had a chance to sample all four versions recently, as Volkswagen invited us to drive a passel of CCs from Atlanta, Georgia, to the site of its new American factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Our route took us up and down the switchbacks, hairpins, and elevations that rise and plunge as they cross the southern extensions of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Appalachians, letting us get a good sense of what the CC is all about.

The solidity of the CC’s body structure is apparent within the first few miles. It’s solid and quiet and has a Teutonic heft that you feel through the seats and steering wheel and brake pedal. The suspension strikes a nice balance between ride and handling for a vehicle like this; compared to a rolling marshmallow like the Lexus ES, it leans far less in corners and yet feels confident, even sophisticated, on the rough stuff. As the landscape changed from small towns and school zones to the unending two-lanes paralleling I-75, the CC tackled winding forest roads with the poise of a sports sedan, understeering mildly when the radius unexpectedly reduced.

The manual 2.0T Sport proved especially lively as we headed into the foothills, with its flat torque curve and nicely-spaced gearing eagerly pulling the car up inclines and helping us to slip past pokey daydreamers. The VR6, on the other hand, was made for highway cruising: At 80 mph the engine is on the cusp of its powerband, spinning at just under 2500 rpm. Dropping the engine into its sweet spot, and riding a wave of torque to its redline, is just a downshift away. Despite being fun, the engines aren’t guzzlers. When we weren’t flogging them, both four-cylinders averaged over 30 mpg on the highway, and the VR6 4Motion returned 25.

Every CC uses an electromechanical steering system instead of an engine-driven hydraulic pump, and on each model the system is well-weighted and loads up nicely at road speeds. The only drawback is a slightly numb sensation on-center that requires feeding in little corrections to keep the CC on track. At parking lot speeds, the system dials in so much assist that you can steer it with an untrimmed fingernail.

All models get four-wheel-disc brakes, with ABS and ESP standard. 12.3-inch ventilated front discs and 11-inch solid rear rotors handle stopping duty on 2.0T models, while VR6s—which pack on a minimum of 300 pounds over the fours—get 13.5-inch front rotors and 12-inch rears, vented both. Regardless of the hardware, the pedal is free of any ambiguity, nicely communicating what’s happening at the corners. The Passat’s electric parking brake makes a return appearance on the CC, and it has a hill-hold feature that keeps the rear brakes locked until the car starts accelerating, which came in really handy when launching the manual on a steep grade.

The 4Motion system carried over from the Passat 3.6, with a Haldex center clutch integrated into the rear axle assembly to split torque between the front and rear as traction demands. Under normal conditions 90 percent of the torque goes to the front, but nearly all of it can be shifted to the back if the front loses grip, in as little as 45 degrees of wheel rotation.

The great part about hearing people brag is that it usually comes back to bite them. Ford executive Ernest Breech said in 1956, that “American automakers produce more cars in a single day than Volkswagen sells in an entire year.” Two weeks ago, VW announced that they’d outsold Ford in the first half of 2008, moving 3.31 million cars to Ford’s 3.22 million, and catapulting Volkswagen ahead of them as the world’s third largest automaker.

In the U.S., Volkswagen’s fortunes are looking up as well—sales are up 1.3 percent over the same time last year, even as other automakers’ bottom lines are engulfed in flames. The Tiguan crossover is a hot mover, selling double the volume of the Touareg during August, and 75 percent of Jetta TDIs are spoken for before they even land on dealer lots. It’s going after niches—and not chasing Toyota’s volume-sales crown—that’s kept VW on a roll in the States. And it’s products like the CC, which can’t be pigeonholed into one category, which will help them maintain it.

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