Test Drive: VW CrossBlue faces tough competition

Test Drive: VW CrossBlue faces tough competition

July 15th, 2014 by Mark Kennedy in Business Diary

VW's new midsize SUV concept, called the Crossblue, was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January 2013.

VW's new midsize SUV concept, called the Crossblue,...

Photo by Mike Pare

Mark Kennedy

Mark Kennedy

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Take a deep breath, Chattanooga.

After Monday's exciting announcement that VW will build its new midsize SUV in Chattanooga comes the hard work of producing a vehicle that can compete in a fiercely contested segment.

To succeed, the new SUV, which is based on the CrossBlue concept vehicle first shown at the 2013 North American International Auto show and is scheduled to debut in late 2016, will have to offer a powerful one-two punch of value and excitement. Otherwise, it might join the ranks of VW's other well-reviewed but low-selling SUVs, the compact Tiguan (base price $23,305) and the five-passenger Touareg ($44,570).

Today we'll look at some of the CrossBlue's main competitors.

First, though, a few thoughts about the CrossBlue itself. Although the company didn't release much new information about the seven-passenger crossover on Monday there are a fair number of particulars already in the public domain.

For example, widely-circulated photos of the CrossBlue concept vehicle show a typically understated VW exterior design -- imagine an Audi Q7 that's been starched and pressed. Car and Driver reported last fall that VW is planning to equip the CrossBlue with three engine choices: a V-6 gasoline engine, a gas-electric hybrid and a turbo-diesel.

The success of the Passat TDI (turbo-diesel) sedan -- it accounts for about one-third of Passat sales -- may bode well for a CrossBlue TDI. Americans have been quick to embrace VW's clean diesel technology, which offers a potent blend of stingy fuel consumption and fun-inducing torque (think quick bursts of acceleration).

Importantly, the addition of a seven-passenger SUV will open VW dealerships to a new segment of customers, those who need to haul a pack of kids. Many soccer moms and dads who perhaps grew up driving VW Jettas, now have to part ways with the company when their families outgrow the product line. VW no doubt hopes that by the end of the decade America's suburbs are dotted with its CrossBlue SUVs.

Here's a look at the competition.

Toyota Highlander

Toyota Highlander

• Toyota Highlander: The 800-pound gorilla in the segment, Toyota's midsize crossover benefits from the carmaker's legendary reputation for reliability. Most midsize SUV buyers are less concerned about performance -- VW's forte -- than they are about durability -- VW's Achilles heel.

Although the Chattanooga-made Passat appears to be solidly constructed, the company still must battle the stigma that its products wane in the second 100,000 miles of their lifespans. (Hint: A Korean-style 100,000-mile powertrain warranty on new VWs would go a long way toward putting those durability issues to rest. Hyundai and Kia had similar marketing challenges until their 100,000-mile powertrain warranties put customers at ease and turbo-charged sales.)

The Highlander, which was redesigned for the 2014 model year, is sure-footed and comfortable. Toyota also offers a fuel-sipping four-cylinder option which lowers the price of base models to $29,215. Fancy Hybrid Limited models start at $49,470.

CrossBlue can compete with the Highlander if: VW can thread the needle on pricing and offer hybrid and diesel models in the $35,000 to $40,000 range.

Nissan Pathfinder

Nissan Pathfinder

• Nissan Pathfinder: Perhaps the purest comparison of apples to apples, the seven-passenger Pathfinder is another Tennessee-made "import" assembled up I-24 at Nissan's sprawling Smyrna plant which now has 7,000 workers.

The Pathfinder was transformed from a truck-based SUV to a car-based SUV in 2013 and has been jokingly renamed the "Mall-finder" by some in the automotive press. On a recent test drive we found the Pathfinder to be a delightful family hauler with a cabin filled with near-luxury furnishings. Base prices in the Pathfinder line range from $28,950 to $44,250.

In some trims levels the Pathfinder also features an amazing four-camera parking assist feature that gives you a bird's-eye view of the corners of your vehicle as you navigate parking spaces.

CrossBlue can compete with the Pathfinder if: VW spends as much time designing a refined interior space -- like the Pathfinder's -- as it spends perfecting high-tech powertrains. One of the knocks on VW is that too much money is spent under the hood and not enough on cup-holders and armrests. Americans want to feel pampered, and that means spending money between the doors.

• Honda Pilot: The Honda Pilot is a good example of an import SUV that was executed with the American market firmly in mind. Introduced in the days when most domestic buyers were still looking for an antidote to the common mini-van, the Pilot has a rugged, boxy design that's unmistakably American.

Pilot trim lines range in base price from $29,670 to $41,420 and benefit from Honda's typically low maintenance costs and high resale values.

Its current design was introduced in 2009 and is getting a bit long in the tooth. We'd expect a new Pilot to hit the ground before the CrossBlue debuts in 2016, and the new version could be a game-changer.

CrossBlue can compete with the Pilot if: It arrives with impeccable fit and finish and enough ground clearance and all-wheel-drive traction to tackle a bit of light off-roading.

Chevrolet Traverse

Chevrolet Traverse

• Chevrolet Traverse: This is Chevrolet's bread-and-butter crossover SUV. During May and June of this year, Chevy sold more than 10,000 Traverses each month. Of course, Chevy benefits from a enormous number of showrooms, but GM is also battling some recall headwinds at the moment.

The last time we tested a Traverse, in May 2013, we noted: "When Chevrolet set out to redesign its seven-passenger crossover SUV it clearly had a few specific improvements in mind: more interior refinement, a library-quiet cabin and first-class (not coach) third-row legroom."

The Traverse ranges in price from $30,795 to $43,255.

The CrossBlue can compete with the Traverse if: VW is serious about building a seven-passenger SUV that caters to American tastes while remaining true to its own engineering prowess.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.