Is VW dumbing down for American tastes?

Is Volkswagen of America cheapening its cars for the United States to boost volume at the cost of its German engineering image?

There's worry the new Passat is too Americanized and there's mounting evidence the new generation Jetta was stripped down too much to bring it in under $16,000, including destination.

The Jetta has been criticized for shortcomings. The strongest rebuke came this week from Consumer Reports. The magazine ranked the Jetta sedan last out of 11 small sedans tested. Consumer Reports said its engineers "found fault with its agility, cornering grip, coarse engine, braking, interior fit and finish and so-so fuel economy."

"VW cheapened the previous Jetta's interior and suspension, making it less sophisticated and compromised handling," the magazine said.

Consumer Reports called the Jetta "a shadow of the agile, well-finished car it once was," said the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine is "coarse-sounding," and that the six-speed automatic "can be slow to respond."

In Europe, the Jetta is more upscale, albeit costlier, with a sophisticated four-link rear suspension system not offered in the United States.

VW says the Consumer Reports ranking was "disappointing" but says U.S. consumers are finding value in the car, with Jetta sales up 85 percent in March from the same month a year ago.

The 2012 Passat that goes on sale this fall has safe styling: It's as vanilla as the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord, the Passat's targeted competition.

An autonews.com reader commented the Passat "looks like a Jetta mated with a Malibu. Plain, plain, plain."

What's troublesome is the Passat's interior. The base model's trim on the show car was too plastic looking and lacked the refined feel of the older, smaller Passat that started at $27,945 and no longer is sold in the United States. The new Passat will cost $20,000.

No one has driven the new Passat to review handling and performance.

Meanwhile Europe's new generation Passat -- which isn't coming to the United States -- is being called a smaller Phaeton, referring to the luxury model that VW pulled from the U.S. market.

The U.S.-built Passat is what VW has decided U.S. buyers want. And what VW wants is to boost sales to 800,000 vehicles a year by 2018. The Jetta and Passat are keys to that strategy.

VW has set itself apart from Japanese, Korean and U.S. competitors because of German engineering, design and handling. It would be a mistake to abandon those differentiators to chase volume targets.

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