By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Where does bread and butter end — and entry luxury start?
It’s a tough question, because there’s no longer a clear line in the sand — in terms of equipment and features — and even power/performance — separating the mass market from the something a cut above.
Volkswagen’s CC occupies this marketing-branding gray area.
It is stylish to the point of being almost custom-looking. Low-cut roof, coupe-like silhouette, elegant frameless door glass. It’s a gorgeous — even stunning — car. Take off the VW badges and it would stack up very favorably against even a Mercedes CLS — another highstyle “coupe-roofed” sedan — only one that costs easily twice as much.
On the other hand, you could buy a slick-looking unit like the new Kia Optima SX — which like the CC is equipped with a turbocharged 2.0 liter engine but one that’s 74 hp stronger — for about $4,000 less than VW charges for the as-it-sits CC.
And therein lies the rub.
The CC has the looks — but many other cars have comparable goods.
Some — like the Kia Optima — look pretty good, too.
What the CC hasn’t got — because Volkswagen hasn’t got it — is the Snob Appeal Advantage of premium-car branding.
The CC would probably do better if it had the advantage of being an Audi. Then it would not have to worry about potential buyers (or car journalists) comparing it to a Kia.
That said — and snob appeal aside — it’s a really nice Volkswagen.
Of course, so was the Phaeton… .
WHAT IT IS
The CC — Comfort Coupe — is a mid-sized sedan with entry-luxury aspirations and dramatic coupe-like styling elements, including a “fast” windshield and low-cut roofline. The original model also differed from bread-and-butter sedans in having a more intimate two up front, two in back seating layout rather than the usual two up front and three-across in the back.
Buyers shopping a Passat (or similar mid-sized, mid-priced car) who want a bit more personal style and exclusivity — at the cost of some interior room — might be very interested in the CC. Ditto buyers considering something officially entry-luxury like the slightly smaller — and four cylinder-only — Audi A4.
The CC also presents buyers with the opportunity to own a car that’s as uncommon — and eye-catchingly dramatic — as the $72,000 to start Benz CLS sedan.
But at a “loaded Passat” price point.
The base Sport model is FWD only — and comes standard with a turbocharged, 2.0 liter four cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. MSRP is $30,250. For another $360 ($30,610) you can enhance the luxury car ambiance with an exterior LED lighting package.
A DSG automated manual six-speed transmission is also available optionally.
At the top of the range is the VR6 version of the CC — which comes with a more powerful 3.6 liter V-6 engine and the option to buy VW’s 4-Motion AWD system.
MSRP with FWD is $37,730. With 4-Motion, $41,420.
V-6 versions of the CC come only with an automatic transmission.
VW has updated the exterior styling of the 2013 CC — and more significantly, changed the interior layout from the former four-seater configuration to a more conventional five-passenger set-up.The second row middle seat’s not much of a seat — but it is technically a seat. And the CC now at least technically seats five.
There’s also a new (and Audi-esque) R-Line package, which includes LED running lights, foglights and special design 18-inch wheels.
Bi-Xenon HID headlights and LED tail-lights are standard on all trims now.
These updates account for the approximately $1,700 base price climb relative to last year’s CC.
High-line looks, features and amenities … VW price tag. If you’re prudent with the options.
Little 2.0 turbo engine produces big torque at low RPM.
Available massaging seats.
Camp guard-firm ride and excellent handling — without the camp guard’s brutality.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Turbo 2.0 engine doesn’t make enough horsepower — for a car with premium car aspirations.
No manual transmission available with upgrade V-6.
Leg and headroom can be tight for taller drivers.
Base car’s 17-inch tires aren’t up to the capabilities of the suspension. Early onset squealing.
If you’re not careful with the options, you’ll pay Lexus-BMW money for your VW.
UNDER THE HOOD
The 2013 CC is cosmetically refreshed but carries over the same engine lineup it had back in 2009 when it was first introduced. This could be a problem for the car — when buyers compared it with what’s standard (and available) in other cars. As anyone attentive to the car biz knows, there’s been a horsepower race in recent years — and thus, what was better than average back in ’09 for a car aspiring to be a cut above “bread and butter” is in danger of being regarded as merely ok as 2013 dawns.
For instance: The standard engine in the current CC is the same 200 hp 2.0 liter turbo four that was standard equipment in the ’09 CC. Back then, 200 turbocharged hp was not generally found in sub-$30k sedans. Today, you can buy a new Kia Optima SX with an exactly-the-same-size, also-turbo’d 2.0 liter engine that produces 274 hp — and does it for $26,800 (The Kia’s cousin, the Hyundai Sonata, costs even less with the same 2.0 turbo engine. The recently released 2013 Chevy Malibu also offers a turbo 2.0 engine — one that makes 259 hp — for $26,950.)
It also bears mentioning that the standard (non-turbo) 2.4 liter engine in the Kia — gives you the same hp (200) as the the CC’s turbo 2.0 engine — and better gas mileage: 24 city, 35 highway vs. 22 city, 32 highway for the CC with six-speed manual transmission.
For a base price under $22k.
The CC’s performance is still good — zero to 60 in about 7.2-7.3 seconds with either the standard six-speed manual or the optional six-speed DSG automated manual. But for a car that needs to stand at least a head if not a head and shoulders above more plebian-priced rides, the VW needs another 30 or 40 hp — at least.
On the other hand, the turbo CC’s power/performance is still competitive with the officially luxury-branded Audi A4 — which costs about two grand more to start — and which doesn’t offer a V-6 upgrade. The standard — and only — engine in the 2013 A4 is a (wait for it, now) also turbocharged, also 2.0 liter four — only rated slightly stronger at 211 hp. Arguably, both these cars need a hp infusion — if only for reasons of status. The Joneses have caught up — and even passed them both by.
To their credit — both the Audi and VW two-point-ohs — gin up a lot of torque for their size — and deliver it at diesel-like low RPM. In the CC, the torque peak (207 lbs.-ft.) is reached at 1,700 RPM. In the A4, the peak (258 lbs.-ft.) comes on at just 1,500. This endows the A4 and the CC with an easygoing — rather than peaky/revvy — nature that makes them very comfortable in stop and go driving. More on this in a minute.
The CC’s optional engine is a 3.6 liter V-6 that — as before — makes 280 hp. The extra juice cuts about 1 full second off the zero to 60 time — but the same issue exists with this engine as with the base 2.0 turbo engine. Considered in isolation, 280 hp (and a low sixxes to 60 0-60 clocking) is solid.
But a mid-low six-second to 60 time is no big deal these days. Neither is 280 hp. A $26k V-6 Camry has 268 hp and is right on the CC’s bumper, 0-60. A just-under-$30k Mazda6 touring comes with a 272 hp 3.7 liter V-6 and also reaches 60 in the mid-low sixxes. The VR6 CC starts at $37,730. Granted, it’s prettier — and less common-place. But when you’re paying Audi/BMW coin, you probably want to be able to outrun Toyotas and Mazdas — and Kias, too.
Those cars, though, are front-drivers only. The CC does have the nicety of available 4-Motion AWD. Which should allow it to effortlessly outrun them in the snow. And also in a fast corner.
ON THE ROAD
Though it probably ought to be stronger — if only to put some psychological space between the CC and lesser-priced machinery like the Optima and Malibu — the standard 2.0 liter turbo four does a good job of moving the CC with authority — and without drama. Small-sized turbo engines often have no guts in the lower spectrum of the RPM scale — but deliver a sudden rush of thrust as the tach swings past 4,000 or so. This can be fun in a high-performance car, when you’re situated — and inclined — to move quickly through the gears. But it’s not the ticket in a luxury car where smoothness is wanted above all. And it flat-out sucks when you’re forced to mope along in heavy traffic stuck in between SmoooVees and not-so-minivans.
With such a low torque peak, it’s not necessary to wind it up to get a reaction. You just… drive. Fast — or slow — the CC just… goes. The CC’s turbo four drives a lot like a big six — but with the appetite (when driven lightly) of a four. A nice perk for an everyday driver. You can get low 30s out of it on the highway, which is considerably better than the mid-low 20s typical of sixxes in this class — including the CC’s optional six, which rates 17 city and 25 highway with the 4-Motion AWD.
The CC may be striving to be entry-luxury, but it’s not a rich man’s ride. The likely buyer is comfortable, to be sure — but not so comfortable that he doesn’t have to think about $4 a gallon (and possibly more than that, in the near-term future) gas.
The optional 3.6 liter V-6 endows the CC with much more muscle — but requires the buyer to spend much more money. Pushing $38k to start is a lot of coin for a VW. Even a very pretty VW. (See also: Ford Thunderbird.)
You can get into a BMW 3 for less ($36,500). And that’s a BMW.
No offense intended. For the CC to really work for VW it should sell for less — while offering more than cars with name-brand names. (See: Original Lexus LS.)
A turbo-diesel engine would really be the ticket. The diesel-powered Passat, for instance, is capable of 43 MPG on the highway — and 31 in town. Up the hp (and torque) some from what the Passat’s engine delivers and a CC diesel could surely get to 60 in the mid-sevens and give 40 MPG on the highway.
Wouldn’t that be something?
In fact, VW already offers a diesel powered CC. Just not here. U.S. diesel emissions regulations are complex, onerous — and expensive. That’s why American buyers don’t have access to the diesel-powered versions of cars like the CC that are commonly available in Europe.
Too bad for us — and for VW.
Handling is another area of interest. Interesting — because the CC needs better tires. At least, the base Sport model I tested does. It came with the standard 17 inch wheels and a set of Continental ContiPro Contact tires — which is an all-season, touring-type tire. They are quiet — and when the CC is driven at 85th percentile speeds (normal driving, with the flow of traffic) they are fine. But when you kick it up a few percentiles, they reach their limits long before the CC reaches its limits. In fact, the basic goodness of the CC’s suspension is such that the early-onset tire squeal is startling. You sense the car is not working hard — but the tires are. If you intend to drive your CC like a luxury-sport car and not just a luxury car, you will want to upgrade to the optional 18 inch wheel/tire package — which is equal to the capabilities of the car.
Final thing to mention: This car — like so many new cars — has an issue with to-the-side visibility. You are at a “T” intersection, wanting to make a left-hand turn. You look right to see what’s coming at you — but all you can see is the front seat passenger’s seat headrest — or the girder-like B pillar. Government “safety” requirements have done a number on lines-of-sight. You might be less likely to get whiplash if someone rear-ends you. And the roof will be less apt to crush if you barrel roll the car. But you’re also more likely to get whacked from the side, because you can’t see a damn thing to the side. At minimum, it’s awkward and uncomfortable — as you strain to turn your body while cinched tight by the also have-to-wear-it-at-all-times seat belt. At worst, it makes driving the car more dangerous than it needs to be. Not VW’s fault — and by no means a problem unique to the CC.
Almost all new cars have this problem — courtesy of Uncle.
AT THE CURB
Looks matter. Ask Angelia Jolie — or George Clooney. Would either be famous and rich if they looked like Rhea Perlman — or Danny DeVito? Likewise, the CC stands out chiefly because of its appearance. There are only two other “coupe-like” sedans on the market — and the least expensive of these — the Benz CLS — starts at $72k. There is nothing in the CC’s price orbit that looks as distinctive — or as high-end. Probably VW would love to sell vast fleets of CCs — but the fact that it’s a fairly uncommon sight adds to the aura of exclusivity. During my week with the CC, I observed several people doing walk-arounds of the car — something that rarely happens with a $30k-ish car. Especially a $30k-ish sedan.
VW says it now seats five. Realistically, it is still a four seater. The back has two distinct buckets — and a swath of seating material over the hump in the middle. I would not like to be the person assigned that “seat.” On the other hand, it is technically a seat. A person could sit there, if somewhat less than comfortably. And by retaining the appearance of twin back seat buckets with the functionality of a plausible middle seat, VW manages to preserve the intimate ambiance of the car while giving buyers at least the prospect of five-seater capacity.
Speaking of size: The CC is slightly larger outside than an Audi A4 (188.9 inches overall length vs. 185.1 inches for the A4) but slightly less less roomy inside. Especially headroom-wise. Up front, there is just 37.4 inches of noggin clearance vs. 40 in the more formal-roofed A4. For taller drivers, headroom can be a problem in the CC — as it often is in coupes. Front seat legroom, though, is actually somewhat better in the CC — 41.6 inches vs. 41.3 in the Audi.
Another potential clearance issue — again, for taller/longer-legged drivers — is the somewhat limited adjustment range of the CC’s manual tilt steering wheel. For me (I’m 6ft 3) it was hard to find an ideal setting — one that gave my knees enough clearance without also partially obscuring the gauges. The CC is not a bigger person’s car — even though it is a beautiful car.
The ’13 model has a nicely integrated retro-analog clock as the dash’s centerpiece, with very handsome brushed nickle, chrome and piano black trim bits. My test car had the also handsome two-tone pleated leather seats. The LCD screen for the optional GPS/infotainment equipment is good-sized and most controls are set up to make life easier. For instance, to change radio (satellite) stations, just turn the knob right or left. No having to then push the knob to “enter” your selection.
Befitting its entry-luxury aspirations, the CC can be ordered with most of the stuff you’d be able to get in a name-brand luxury car — including heated windshield washers, ambient lighting and a power rear sunshade. You can also get massaging seats, an unusual — for VW and this segment — option. The last car I tested that had this feature was a six-figure Jaguar.
You do have to step up to the top-of-the-line VR6 4Motion Executive version of the CC to get them — but even so, it’s still only a $40k-ish car vs. a six figure car.
In Japan, there is no separate Lexus line. That’s for the American market. American buyers shop brand as much as they shop the car.
The CC is a very, very nice car. But when all is said and done, it is still a VW car. It will be interesting to see whether the CC can pull off what the Phaeton couldn’t: Get people to pay Audi-Lexus-BMW money for a VW.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you’re not blinded by status consciousness, you will see the many virtues of the CC. Here’s to hoping enough people do see them. Because this is a car that deserves to make it.