Regional Design

Volkswagen Passat Had a Unique History in the U.S.

Currently built in Chattanooga, Tennessee, model is about to end nearly five decades filled with ups and downs of all kinds

Every automotive enthusiast has seen the news: Volkswagen is going to end the Passat model in North America after forty-seven years participating in the midsize category. The current iteration was initially released in 2011 with local production and had thousands of units exported to Canada, South Korea and some Middle Eastern markets.

The recent event was quite predictable: the German company is shifting focus to SUVs because they are what people want lately, especially in the U.S. Since it is a highly significant model, it will be sent off with a special edition created with impressively creative numeric references to the model’s local history and exclusive details here and there.

What makes this story stand out, however, is the aforementioned local history of this model. From the boxy notchback that debuted in North America for the 1974 model year named Dasher to the family sedan that is now getting ready to leave the market, many events have happened. How about taking a closer look at the most relevant ones?

Dashing to America in the 1970s

Volkswagen lived the 1960s struggling to be more than a two-hit wonder: Typ 3 and Typ 4 offered a variety of body styles but never replicated the success of Beetle and Transporter, especially in America. The Germans would only truly be successful again in the following decade thanks to a smart management of the oil crisis started in 1973.

1978 Volkswagen Dasher 5-door

The Passat first arrived in North America in three body styles and renamed Dasher — the company used to give them English names to bring them closer to the new public. The cars debuted in 1974 with some visual tweaks focused on the local safety laws and had a mid-cycle refreshment in 1978 which brought improved trim.

Conceptually, the model was a great match to the North American need of the time: smaller than average but not too small, equipped with two fuel-efficient engines (there was even a diesel option), and typical German build and feel to give it a positive quirk. While it was not a sales hit, it managed to clear the way for other new Volkswagens to come.

Going beyond classic physics

Sadly, VW’s rivals were stronger. Japanese companies had a strong start in the 1980s and the local ones were doing their best to stay competitive — they even joined forces at some point. Replacing the Beetle’s derivatives with the Dasher and other water-cooled cars turned out not to be enough to keep sales the way they were in the early 1970s.

1982 Volkswagen Quantum

The next generation crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1981 renamed Quantum and in hatchback, SW, and sedan variations. The model was more refined in general and featured exclusive external looks once again: larger bumpers to be more resistant, and shorter grille and headlights. The cars became true flagship models for VW.

According to Car and Driver, the commercial failure of those and all the other models released at the same time were the result of VW moving away from its “fundamental mission of producing high-value transportation for the masses”. The Quantum offered even AWD, while the Beetle had become successful for simply being cheap and reliable.

Global inspiration for the win

The affirmation of the previous paragraph proved true in the 1990s, since VW only got back on track in the region thanks to the latest Golf and Jetta. The big brother soldiered on by getting regular updates and, as those others, retaining the original German name. North Americans were feeling better about foreign cars by the time, which helped a lot.

1998 Volkswagen Passat Variant

With Golf and New Beetle taking all the attention, the Passat went through the 2000s without a lot of attention, but that is actually a good thing once we remember how troubled was its past. Both sedan and wagon were updated along with the European models up to the sixth iteration in 2006, which even arrived with the CC.

The Passat’s German flair turned out to be a strong selling point, but the main reason that flair existed was a cultural difference between how the Passat was seen in each region. Over the years, keeping that flair implied increasing costs to produce and export the car to North America and that was driving it away from its target audience once again.

New Midsize Sedan

VW entered the 2010s with an ambitious expansion plan for the region which included building the Chattanooga plan and develop some models specifically for the local public. That becomes particularly important when we recall that the company’s last similar venture spent ten years costing a lot of money and destroying its cars’ reputation.

2016 Volkswagen Passat

The “Americanized” Passat went through several changes such as larger size, focus on gas engines, comfortable ride, cheap trim bits to slash production costs, and an external design that became the blandest of the class on purpose: this car was created to fit in with the local crowd and did it better than any of its predecessors.

It was such a good strategy that the model even survived the Dieselgate issue in 2016. The model held the fort along with Golf, Jetta and Tiguan and made Volkswagen finally establish a strong and stable presence in that region. The Passat bids farewell now but will be “conceptually” survived by the Atlas and, especially, the electric ID.4 SUVs.

Although Volkswagen prospered in North America because of Beetle and Golf, the Passat fought along them all the time. Over five decades, the larger model offered several options of body style, trim, and powertrain, and went through changes of all types to accomplish its mission. Share your opinions about it using the comment button below!

Writer and future engineer striving to work with car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.