I drove a Mercedes-Benz CLS last Monday. It always seemed a ludicrously indulgent car on which to spend a manufacturer's development and marketing budgets, as it is broadly an E-Class saloon with a side view shaped like a banana, less room inside and some more exotic mechanical parts. But buyers love it, because it looks like a concept car. They can drive a little bit of fantasyland without having to sign up to the Second Life website.
Model: Volkswagen Passat CC 1.8 TSI
Price: from £21,000 approx. On sale August
Engine: 1,798cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbocharger, 160bhp at 5,000rpm, 184lb ft at 1,500-4,200rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance: 138mph, 0-62 in 8.6sec, 37.2mpg official average. Carbon dioxide 180g/km
Volkswagen noticed this, and wondered if the Passat saloon (admirable to drive, dull to gaze upon despite its chrome goatee) might be similarly make-overable. So the Passat coupé idea was born: like the CLS, a car with four doors and four proper seats but a lower, racier roofline. Volkswagen hasn't gone the banana route, so the rearward-rising waistline is straight, but this is still a much more shapely machine than the saloon. Were it not for the rear lights, dramatic creations shaped like cartoon eyes and lit by LEDs, you'd think the tail was that of a new Jaguar.
But what to call this succulent creation with the bold, rounded nose? Rover invented this genre of four-door saloon with a reduced roof when it launched the Rover 3-litre Coupé in the early 1960s, but for the Passat the Coupé name was roundly rejected by the US, where VW hopes to sell many. In American minds a coupé can have only two doors. So the new car became Passat CC, and please ignore any thoughts of coupé-cabriolets (such as the Peugeot 207 CC). This Passat's roof does not open, but it can be part-constructed of glass if you so choose.
CC stands for Comfort Coupé, and opening a door – any door – shows why. The dashboard is regular Passat, and nothing wrong with that, but you sit a little lower in sumptuous seats for which you are expected to specify one of the leather options. These can include contrasting facings with perforations through which air can circulate, or suede-look Alcantara, or extra-soft nappa leather. Add to the ambience with strips of polished wood, or aluminium or fake carbon fibre.
The rear seats are strictly for two, separated by a large roller-shutter storage box. Legroom here is plentiful, headroom less so; six-footers and above may find head and roof in contact. There's a good-size boot, though.
You can go for maximum bling, outside, with polished wheels to set off the bright-metal accents elsewhere. But bear in mind that polished wheels, even if lacquered, can get tatty quickly unless assiduously maintained. Wheels aside, all CC versions look much the same except that the better-equipped GT version has front foglights. It has Adaptive Chassis Control (ACC), too, which alters damping forces to suit the needs of the micro-second within three ranges (Comfort, Normal and Sport). It's much like the system used in larger Audis.
Several engines are available, of which I tried the three most significant. First off, the grandest CC of all, the 3.6-litre, V6-engined 4Motion with 300bhp and four-wheel drive (about £31,120). It has a DSG double-clutch gearbox, too, which works either as a smooth, quick-thinking automatic or as a sequential manual. This is certainly the heaviest Passat CC, but it should also be the most rapid and most impressive.
Why, then, is the CC V6 a disappointment? It feels too heavy and clumsy, there's too much mechanical activity in the transmission, and you sense that too much fuel is being burned to too little effect. It's technology overkill.
How about the 2.0 TDI, then? Here it's in 170bhp form, its diesel fuel fed by quiet common-rail instead of noisy pump-injector. That's better. The engine is quieter in its new guise and pulls better from low speeds, while this front-wheel drive CC feels keen and wieldy. On real roads it has as much pace as you would need, and it's frugal on fuel. But it's not the best Passat CC.
That car is the cheapest CC, the 1.8 TSI with the new 160bhp, petrol-fuelled turbo engine praised in last week's Audi AS4 test. This engine is smooth, crisp to respond and extremely likeable, and its light weight makes for the best-handling CC of all. Here, you can enjoy to the optimum the supple ride (leave the ACC in normal for best results), and the smooth, subtle steering.
Ah yes, the steering. One option on the CC is Lane Assist, which tugs the steering in the required direction if you wander over a white line without indicating. It's triggered past 40mph, but won't let the CC steer itself for more than eight seconds with your hands off the wheel. Nor can it manage a roundabout unaided. It was exciting trying, though.
Good car? Undoubtedly. But, as is so often the case, the real gem doesn't lie among the obvious glitter.
BMW 318i SE: £22,175
This is the premium territory the CC is entering. The BMW still has the edge on driving appeal, even if the CC trumps it for interior ambience and engine power
Mercedes-Benz C200 Elegance: £25,312
A supercharger brings CC-matching power, and the latest entry to the C-Class range is a delight to drive. But the Passat CC has a higher-quality aura, surprisingly
Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline: £18,890
VW's own saloon is an obvious rival, trading sensuality for more space and a lower price. The Highline version comes with leather and other luxuriesReuse content