Ten years ago, Volkswagen attempted to challenge the dominance of the Toyota Camry in the United States with a Passat developed specifically for that market. This is the story of the New Midsize Sedan.
For 22 of the past 23 years(1) and over five generations, the Toyota Camry has been the best-selling car in the United States. Over that time, a staggering total of over 9.6 million(2) Camrys were sold, an average of around 417,000 a year. It was a highly consistent seller too: the lowest annual sales total was 308,510 in 2011(3). The Camry successfully weathered the 2008-9 Global Financial Crisis and a simultaneous unintended acceleration controversy that turned out to be caused by ill-fitting floor mats.
If the enduring success of the Camry proves anything, it is that the vast majority of car buyers favour consistency, reliability and value for money far more than subjective or ephemeral qualities such as design aesthetics or dynamic ability. Toyota has honed the Camry into the archetypal US mid-sized sedan that perfectly accommodates the needs of suburban America.
Volkswagen’s competitor in this market, the Passat, had always been something of an also-ran. It was typically a little smaller but a bit more expensive than the Camry, and Volkswagen did not enjoy the premium marque cachet of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, or even its in-house rival, Audi. In the decade to 2010, Volkswagen sold a total of around 530,000 Passats in the US, which was roughly one eighth of the Camry’s sales over that decade.
Volkswagen decided that, rather than persist with a single Passat model to be sold globally, it would develop a unique US market version that would be a little larger than the European Passat, but subtly re-engineered to make it cheaper to manufacture and more competitive against its Japanese nemesis and US domestic mid-sized sedans.
The new model programme was christened NMS, which stood for New Midsize Sedan. It was co-developed with Volkswagen’s Chinese joint-venture business, SIAC-Volkswagen Automotive. The Chinese operation also had an appetite for a large saloon to replace(4) the 1999 LWB version of the B5 Passat, better known in Europe as the Škoda Superb Mk1.
The NMS Passat was designed in the contemporary Volkswagen style under group design chief Walter de Silva and head of Volkswagen design, Klaus Bischoff. It sat on a wheelbase 94mm (3¾”) longer than the European Passat and was 105mm (4¼”) longer and just 14mm (½”) wider overall. It was most immediately distinguishable from the 2010 B7 Passat (which was a heavy facelift of the 2005 B6 model) by its adoption of a six-light DLO configuration in place of the latter’s ‘Hofmeister kink’ rear door frame.
The NMS Passat was launched at the Detroit Motor Show in January 2011. It was presented by Jonathan Browning, Volkswagen of America’s president, as a car designed for and built by Americans at Volkswagen’s newly opened plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was the central plank in the company’s plan to move firmly into the mainstream US market and achieve annual North American sales of 800,000 by 2018. US prices were $20,590 for the 2.5 litre inline five and $32,950 for the 3.6 litre VR6 in top of the range SEL trim. This represented a useful reduction over the superseded model. Trim levels were more generously equipped than previously and the options list much reduced and simplified.
A key element in the new Passat’s competitive pricing was US parts sourcing and assembly. Although engines would be imported from Mexico or Germany, over 90% of parts would be sourced domestically. Volkswagen claimed that this would be a higher percentage than for even some domestic US models and would insulate the Passat from adverse exchange rate fluctuations inflating its pricing.
Motor Trend, the US automotive magazine, road-tested the new Passat in May 2011. The test car was equipped with a 2.0 litre 140bhp 236lb/ft TDI diesel engine and a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. The reviewer was impressed with the power and torque of the engine, and how refined it was in this installation. The cabin was commendably free of mechanical and wind noise, with only an intrusive tyre roar spoiling the sense of refinement. Although no sports car, the Passat steered and handled accurately and safely. The reviewer later drove the base 2.5 litre petrol-engined model with a five-speed torque-converter automatic transmission and found it to be lazier and a merely adequate performer.
The reviewer described both the interior and exterior as attractive, if rather conservative, but perhaps likely to become dated less quickly than some of the Passat’s more obviously fashionable rivals. If so, that might have been just as well because, apart from a questionable facelift in 2015 for the 2016 model year, the Passat NMS received little attention over almost a decade on sale.
At launch, Volkswagen announced that the company was forecasting US Passat sales of 100,000 for 2012, its first full year on the market. This forecast was comfortably exceeded, and the actual figure was 117,023. Unfortunately, that would prove to be the high-water mark: sales declined from that point onward and just 14,123 were sold in 2019. Total sales over the nine years to end-2019 were 613,614 which averages just 68,179 annually.
Such has been the decline in Passat NMS, and mid-sized sedan sales generally in the US that, instead of an all-new model underpinned by Volkswagen’s MBQ platform, the Passat NMS was facelifted again in 2019 for the 2020 model year. As for that target of 800,000 North American sales in 2018, Volkswagen missed it by a large margin: the actual total was 354,064, a market share of just over 2%.
China proved to be a much more successful territory for the Passat NMS, however. Total sales over the nine years to end-2019 were 1,792,206 which is an annual average of 199,134. Consequently, an all-new Chinese-market Passat based on the MBQ platform was launched in October 2018. This is sold alongside an LWB version of the European Passat B8 and no longer bears any relation to the Passat NMS.
Despite being a competent and competitive car, did the Passat NMS arrive on the US market a decade too late and was it hobbled by the general move away from mid-sized sedans to SUVs? Possibly, but it is worth noting that the Camry still achieved US sales of 336,978 in 2019, demonstrating that, for a certain conservative buyer demographic, the conventional sedan still has its place.
(1) In 2001 the Honda Accord borrowed the Camry’s crown during a model changeover that temporarily restricted supplies of the new Toyota model.
(2) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.
(3) Another model changeover year.
(4) Despite being similar in size, the Passat NMS did not, after all, replace the Skoda Superb based version, which was sold alongside it until 2015 in China, having been restyled and renamed Passat Lingyu in 2005.