The taxonomy of cars was once straightforward: Sedans had four doors and a trunk; coupes had two doors and little back seats; roadsters had two doors, two seats and fabric tops that -- if they were British and it was raining -- piddled down your back.
These days, using the power of computer-assisted design to save time and tooling costs, automakers can knock out interesting, low-volume variants that blur these neat-and-tidy categories. A prime example is the exquisite Mercedes-Benz CLS, a rather more intimate four-door "coupe" based on the dreadnought S-class sedan. BMW calls its four-door X6 a "sport-activity coupe," though to me it looks like a lightly crushed X5.
And now, out of the same high-German hymnal of amortized engineering comes Volkswagen's new Passat CC.
Based on the "classic" Passat, the CC is, according to VW, a four-door coupe on the grounds that it has a lovelier, racier roof line than the standard Passat. This obviously is a miserable threshold of achievement. The Passat, for its many virtues, isn't what you'd call a looker.
So as I ponder the CC's gently bowed roof line -- the sleek ascent of the windshield, the elegant descent of the rear glass, the frameless side windows, the Cartesian harmony of it all -- my first question is: Why doesn't the regular Passat look like this? Never mind the coupe-sedan semantics. The Passat competes with some very handsome fast-backed four-doors -- the Nissan Maxima and the Mazda6 come to mind -- and compared with them the Passat looks like corrective footwear.
Maybe the CC should be the volume product and the classic Passat can be marketed to people with, um, excessively large hairdos. I wonder if Gov. Blagojevich is in the market?
The CC surrenders some rear headroom (1.5 inches) to the aero gods, and one needs to be just slightly more limber to duck under the low roof to get in back. But I had no trouble getting in, or making my 6-foot-1 self comfortable. Note that the rear seat of the CC accommodates only two butts, not three as in the Passat (a covered storage bin occupies the center seat position). Owners rarely, if ever, put five people in a five-passenger mid-size sedan, so it's no hardship, really.
Overall, the CC is 2.2 inches lower and 1.2 inches longer than the Passat, while sharing the platform's 106.7-inch wheelbase.
I'm not saying the CC is gorgeous. Anyone who does say that needs to be medevac'd to the nearest LensCrafters. After a good first impression -- and the inevitable comparison with the finely drawn $70,000 Mercedes CLS -- the CC rapidly loses visual steam. The gentle arc of a swage line along the fuselage reminds me less and less of the CLS and more of -- gasp! -- the Chrysler Sebring. After a day or two in the driveway, the CC becomes a fairly ordinary-looking car.
But, as I say, compared with the Passat, it's the Sistine freaking Chapel.
Some brass tacks, then: The CC Sport starts at $26,790, which is $1,510 less than the baseline Passat. Like the Passat, the CC can be had with VW's champion hamster under the hood, the 2.0-liter 200-hp, turbocharged in-line four, with a six-speed manual or automatic transmission.
The CC is also available with the company's stout and torquey, 280-hp V6 (paired with the automatic only) starting at $38,000. Tick the all-wheel-drive box and now you're looking at $39,300, and that's before you add the technology package, including navigation, satellite radio and rearview camera. Our test car costs an astonishing, nose-bleeding, appalling $42,650 and that didn't even include Bluetooth phone connection. Now that is some brass.
At this juncture some readers will be, well, apoplectic, trying to spit out the word "Ph-Ph-PHAETON!" which was the name of VW's audacious luxury sedan costing as much as $100,000. The Phaeton came (2004) and went (2006) here in the States, though it's still on sale overseas. The CC has a bit of the same problem as the Phaeton in that Americans generally seem reluctant to lay out luxury-car dollars for anything with a VW badge on it.
I sympathize. The difference is that the Phaeton was more car for the primo-dollar -- indeed, it was kind of a steal, considering the content and engineering. In that case, Americans were cheated by their own badge snobbery.
The CC is, alas, less car per dollar. A lot less. For the kind of money you could spend on a V6-powered CC, you could haggle your way into a pretty decent BMW, for instance, or drive off in a platinum-plated, mink-upholstered Cadillac CTS with enough left over to buy a Vespa.
The CC is not a bad car. It's quick -- 0-60 mph in 6.2 seconds, with the V6 and all-wheel-drive. It stays well-planted in corners, tacks eagerly and puts on the coal when you ask it to. The narrow-angle V6 sings in a rich, rpm-suffused sfogato. It's refined -- with lovely seats, elegant upholstery stitching, quality switchgear and top-shelf materials. The CC includes some welcome interior upgrades over the Passat.
But the price? Madness. A scandal. J'accuse.
Don't piddle down my back and tell me it's raining.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
2009 Volkswagen Passat CC
Base price: $39,300
Price as tested: $42,650
Powertrain: 3.6-liter, 24-valve dual-overhead cam V-6 with variable valve timing; six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode; all-wheel drive
Horsepower: 280 at 6,200 rpm
Torque: 265 pound-feet at 2,750 rpm
Curb weight: 3,628 pounds
0-60 mph: 6.2 seconds
Wheelbase: 106.7 inches
Overall length: 188.9 inches
EPA fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon city, 25 mpg highway
Final thoughts: CC doesn't stand for "cost conscious."