Volkswagen’s upmarket Passat derivative – was it misunderstood or simply misconceived?
If one was to plot the course of Volkswagen’s design heritage in purely aesthetic terms (if indeed such a thing were possible), it would be represented on a somewhat undulating graph, and it could be argued with some conviction that overall, the troughs have tended to outweigh the peaks. But automotive design is a cyclical discipline and all styling studios must move with, or at least reflect the times.
By the turn of the millennium, Volkswagen was well into a creative purple patch. Having masterfully overseen a generation of VW car designs in the wake of longstanding Volkswagen design director Herbert Schafer’s retirement in 1993, former Audi Design chief, Hartmut Warkuss’ ethos of studied ulm-influenced restraint, while paying dividends in sales and perception terms, was falling out of favour along the banks of the Mittellandkanal.
Believed to have been spurred by the accession of former BMW CEO, Bernd Pischetrieder to head Volkswagen AG, following Ferdinand Piëch’s elevation to full dictatorial control, a palpable shift in design ethos took place, ushering in an ornate, more expressive aesthetic, first witnessed in the 2004 Golf V and its ensuing siblings.
Central to this was the development of the Wappengrill. So-called due to its shield-like form, the new, more assertive VW family nose would debut two years later with the Eos cabriolet and the Passat B6, both cars developed under the direct supervision of team leader for VW exteriors, Robert Lešnik. The Slovenian, who joined VW in 1998 as a graduate from Pforzheim, would subsequently find his true calling as Gorden Wagener’s deputy at Sindelfingen and co-architect of Sensual Purity®.
Warkuss, a somewhat unlikely cheerleader for this more ornate design vocabulary, given his back-catalogue, retired in late 2002 and fresh from his third stint at Mercedes’ design studios, Murat Günak arrived at Wolfsburg on April 1st 2003 with a remit to up the design emotion. Having enjoyed a somewhat peripatetic career which encompassed stints at Ford’s Merkenich and Peugeot’s Sochaux studios, Günak was a favoured disciple of Peter Pfeiffer, with responsibility for Mercedes-Benz cars and light commercials, before his arrival in Lower Saxony.
Prior to his departure from Sindelfingen, Günak supervised the design of a novel four-door coupé-saloon. Styled by American, Michael Fink, the car, which would go on to become the W219 CLS would create something of a stir upon its announcement in 2004. With the B6-generation Passat now in hand (a design incidentally attributed to Lešnik), it appears likely Günak brought some Sindelfingen fairy-dust to proceedings, inspired by Michael Fink’s three-pointed pathfinder.
Conceived in a thematically similar manner to that of the more penitential B6 Passat saloon, the new model was however schemed as a more exclusive, personal luxury coupé, intended primarily for the US market, and while the so-called Comfort Coupé wouldn’t occupy the same price point as the Mercedes CLS, it was nevertheless aimed at a similar clientele.
To an extent the CC bears comparison with the 1958 Rover P5, which was offered as a rather patrician saloon and later in coupé form, sporting a more rakish canopy and image. The principal difference here being that while the Rovers shared panelwork below canopy level, neither of the Volkswagens shared a single pressing.
Stylistic responsibilities were attributed to Oliver Stefani, who had previously been involved with the Beetle Cabriolet, Dune concept and Polo designs, created a rakish, sinuous shape, with an arched, falling roofline, narrow glasshouse, and a dramatic Mercedes-esque feature line bisecting the bodyside. Stefani told journalists at the car’s launch that his ambition had been to create an emotional, elegant-looking, dynamic car, longer, wider and lower than its saloon derivative.
The Passat CC was introduced at the 2008 NAIAS in Detroit, two years after its saloon forebear. Sharing floorpans, engines, suspensions, drivetrains and other hardware with its mainstream sibling, both Passat models were built upon an extended Golf-based platform, rather than one shared with Audi, as was more common practice.
This entailed transversely mounted engines of 1.8 and 2.0 litre (petrol) fours, (a 1.4 turbo came later) while a 3.6 litre version of VW’s compact VR6 unit topped the range. 2.0 litre versions of VW’s infamous TDI diesel were also offered in Europe. Suspension employed struts and lower wishbones up front, while a multi-link unit was mounted aft.
The interior, while based on the architecture of the Passat saloon, was enhanced with all touchpoints enjoying bespoke finishes, with a plusher, more upmarket feel. Unlike the standard Passat, the CC was launched as a strict four-seater, befitting its more indulgent mien.
While VW tried to talk up the CC’s dynamic capabilities, it was in effect a very slightly sharper version of the saloon, far better suited to the role of suave cruiser than B-road hustler. Well received by the UK press, with Autocar describing it as “arguably the most desirable car in the VW range“, the Passat in a party frock was met with ambivalence elsewhere, particularly in the US, where it was deemed too expensive for what it purported to be.
While Volkswagen hoped to build in the region of 300,000 over the model’s lifespan, sales failed to match expectations, with US deliveries peaking in 2011 at 29,502. European sales also proved a disappointment, customers seemingly unwilling to pay a premium for what was perhaps unfairly deemed a somewhat impractical offering with ideas above its station. It did however carve itself a minor niche in China, arguably the sole rationale for its current overwrought successor.
Meanwhile at Wolfsburg, the endless boardroom machinations saw Pischetrieder ousted in 2006, following a falling out with the Dark Lord himself, replaced by Martin Winterkorn. The new broom also entailed a change of ethos in the design studios with Günak out, replaced by Audi design chief, Walter de Silva and a return of a more tailored approach to line and surface. This saw the CC (which had lost the Passat moniker some time before) receive a creditable facelift, which would see it out before production at Emden ceased in 2016.
Was the CC merely a Passat for poseurs, or the thinking person’s CLS? Debatable, but it does remain perhaps the sole exponent of the short-lived and largely discredited Günak/Schreyer era which could be described as an unabashed aesthetic success. However, taken in pure-product terms, it didn’t make a lot of sense at the time and still doesn’t. Nevertheless, the handsome CC enlivened a rather dull automotive landscape and remains a pleasing sight upon our roads. Is that enough of an epitaph?