If you're interested in automobiles, it does not come as a surprise to read or to hear that some such model is touted as a company's flagship. Almost without exception, the flagship is a car-usually a sedan-and rarely, if ever, a truck, minivan or SUV.
Is this merely a quaintness, an empty marketing assertion, without any contemporary significance? Or is it just possible that flagship vehicles still do showcase the core principles, automotive character and engineering achievements of the manufacturers they represent?
I tend to believe the latter circumstance is still latently true. Flagship sedans allow manufacturers to celebrate their best work. If trucks are hauliers of things and minivans are omnibuses for people, flagships are standard bearers of image by the way they address performance, comfort, luxury, innovation, even wit.
Automakers tinker with their flagships with utmost caution. For 2006, Volkswagen introduces a new iteration of its Passat sedan and holds its corporate breath as customers respond to changes. Although Nissan's Maxima was similarly revamped for the 2004 model year, its lack of meaningful changes for '05 and '06 will test its ability to sustain appeal. In either case, however, Passat and Maxima represent worthy standard-bearers for their respective corporate parents.
Maxima is the gantlet Nissan has thrown before Volkswagen. It is the five-passenger sport-sedan that boasts one of the best V6 powertrains in the world, and its spacious interior effectively required that the new Passat be enlarged to remain competitive. Even so, Maxima is roomier in most front- and backseat dimensions. Tellingly, however, Maxima provides a bit less rear head and legroom thanks, on the one hand, to a fast-tapering roofline and, on the other, to a larger trunk.
Nissan's "VQ35" twin-cam V6 is an industry benchmark. It makes smooth, abundant power with magical effortlessness, posting 265 hp and 255 foot-pounds of torque. It's reasonably efficient for all that, delivering 20 mpg/city, 28 mpg/ highway, using premium.
The V6, however, is Maxima's only engine choice, and the result is a steeper price picture for the Nissan flagship. The 2005 model 3.5 SE tested here ranged from a base of $27,100 to an as-tested sticker of $34,210. Prices in 2006 are already announced to be some $700 higher yet.
Maxima's driving feel is biased a bit more to comfort than to sport-tuned handling, and its steering feel is less impressive than the new Passat's. Acceleration is outstanding, on the other hand; there's none of the jumpy nervousness that afflicts VW's pint-sized turbo-four.
Aesthetically, Maxima is also curvy and elegant, but it looks so much of a piece with the generally similar curviness and elegance of its Nissan-and Infiniti-siblings and cousins that Maxima's silhouette loses distinctiveness as a result.
Maxima is Nissan's heavy-hitter just the same. It's an automotive flagship well worth rallying round.
Volkswagen's Passat is the epitome of the popular, midsize European sedan. It is attractive but plain, comfortable rather than luxurious, sporting if not exactly sporty. Even with its big brother Phaeton looming in the background, Passat arguably remains the VW flagship because of its greater grip on fiscal reality. That Passsat has been successful for over a decade in the United States is both a near-miracle and a bellwether for evolving American tastes.
For 2006, Passat's abilities and U.S. autobuyers' preferences converge delightfully well. The car is bigger in most dimensions and equipped with a pair of engines offering improved performance and fuel-efficiency. A 3.6-liter twin-cam V6 produces 280 horsepower and 265 foot-pounds of torque, whereas a diminutive 2.0-liter twin-cam inline-four, reviewed here, muscles out 200 hp and 207 foot-pounds thanks to turbocharged assist.
The 2.0T, as the turbo is known, starts with a $23,900 base price; as tested, with pricy options like a six-speed auto transmission ($1,000); a sunroof, leather, high-end audio package ($2,825); and DVD navigation ($1,800), it quickly escalated to $31,565. Fuel economy, requiring premium, comes to 22 mpg/city, 31 mpg/highway. By comparison, base price for the 3.6 V6 model is $30,565, and it's rated 19 mpg/city, 28 mpg/highway, also requiring premium.
In short, the Passat can accelerate from affordable to pricey in very prompt order. A high-end price tag, of course, is what you expect from a flagship. What's distinctly less typical is the availability of Passat's refinements for less than $25,000.
And the refinements are abundant. Even in base trim, the cockpit is superbly appointed with supportive upholstery and attractive, logically deployed instrumentation. Certain innovations will perhaps take some getting used to: There is no traditional key, for example; only a fob that becomes a push-button starter when the driver inserts into the dash.
The parking brake, left of the steering wheel, is also an electronic push-button. And an inscrutable "auto-hold" transmission feature allows a driver to take both feet off of both accelerator and brake pedals when resting at a stop. Why? Who knows; this may become one of the great unanswerable mysteries of our time.
Externally, Passat is slinky chic. Its curves are beguiling and unusual. Only the pouty new grille disappoints. It suggests a pair of bee-stung lips suffering from a tad too much collagen.
Road feel is tight and grippy, with a sensation of sporty stiffness that doesn't erase comfort altogether. Steering is quick and precise, matching its rate-of-assist ideally to vehicle speed. With turbocharging, the 2.0T is high-strung when accelerating from a standing stop; but its powerband is broad and generous at all speeds, and the six-speed auto deftly selects the optimum gear as road conditions require.
The all-new Passat bears the VW colors proudly. As Americans belatedly seek to reconcile vehicle costs and capabilities with rising fuel prices, the five-passenger Passat deserves more than a passing glance.
4-door, 5-pass.; 3.5-liter DOHC "VQ35" V6 w/ vvt; FWD, 5-sp. auto; 265 hp/255 ft.-lbs.; 20 mpg/city, 28 mpg/hwy w/ premium; trunk: 15.5 cu. ft.; std. equipment: 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS brakes, dual-zone auto-HVAC, AM/FM/CD/cassette/satellite audio, 18-in. wheels, 6 airbags, 60/40 folding rear seatbacks; base: $27,100; as-tested: $34,210
4-door, 5-pass.; 2.0-liter DOHC turbocharged inline-4; FWD, 6-sp. auto; 200 hp/207 ft.-lbs.; 22 mpg/city, 31 mpg/hwy w/ premium; trunk: 14.2 cu. ft.; std. equipment: 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, auto-HVAC, AM/FM/CD audio, 16-in. wheels, 6 airbags, split rear seatbacks; base price: $23,900; as-tested: $31,565