Embattled VW needs a homerun SUV. Might this be it?
The company that originated all those cute “Think Small” ads is about to encourage you to THINK BIG. Its as yet unnamed Explorer/Highlander/Pilot/Traverse-fighting jumbo three-row SUV should rank among the biggest and roomiest entrants in that class, but we can’t say for sure because for now all the weights, dimensions, and powertrain specs are under tight wraps, as is the new vehicle’s name. If you remember the CrossBlue Concept from the 2013 Detroit show, we can tell you, based on a brief glimpse of one from a distance, that it looks a lot like that but with three grille bars (giving it perhaps a bit too similar a look to some Fords), and the prominent shoulder line along the bodyside is lower and kicks up over the wheelwells.
Expect to learn the name in late September and see the undisguised bodywork a month later. Volume production starts at the end of December in preparation for a second-quarter on-sale date. The Chattanooga-based engineering team is finalizing the vehicle’s development now and calling it the “B-SUV” (think B for “Big,” not B class). Keen to get some early feedback on their big new baby, VW invited a few journo types down to the hills outside Chattanooga to tiptoe down some gravel roads and rock-strewn paths in a heavily camoed prototype.
Here’s what we know so far: The architecture is MQB evo (VW Golf, new Euro Passat, et al), and it will be built in Chattanooga on the same line as the non-MQB Passat sedan. (A 26.3 percent expansion of the plant makes this possible.) It will be offered with front- or 4Motion all-wheel drive. Engine choices will include a 2.0-liter, direct-injected, turbocharged four-cylinder (hopefully at least matching the 220 hp/258 lb-ft of the GTI engine with the performance package) and a 3.6-liter VR6 that engineers claim is little changed from the one powering the Passat (280 hp/258 lb-ft). Both engines bolt to an eight-speed automatic. We hope the engineers are underselling that six, because those specs don’t portend class-leading performance, but it will be rated to tow “several thousand pounds,” we are assured.
Suspension is by struts in front and multilinks in back with coils on all models. There will be no user-adjustable settings to alter the functionality of the permanently engaged 4Motion all-wheel drive, though there is a knob that fine-tunes the ABS, traction and stability control, and throttle and gear-selection strategies to suit conditions for snow, highway, off-road, and “custom off-road” settings. The off-road modes also activate hill-descent and hill-start assist systems.
Four trim grades will be offered, the top of which gets middle-row captain’s chairs. An example with these thrones was not available to sample, but the 60/40 split bench employs a nifty mechanism that allows the front of the seat cushion to kneel down as the backrest arcs forward, preserving the cushion-to-backrest angle as the entire seat slides forward to ease entry to the third row. This allows a child seat to remain installed while elder siblings clamber into the back. (Baby bro probably needs to come out of said child seat, though, or risk face-planting the front seat back.) Thanks to a long wheelbase and compact rear suspension, that third row offers a low floor with good legroom and footroom for adults—even with the fore-aft adjustable middle seat in its rearmost setting—and my 5-foot-10-inch frame enjoyed a fist’s worth of surplus headroom. An optional panoramic roof stretches well back over the heads of passengers in the second row, so all occupants get a great view upward. And there will be an all-new infotainment system, but a fully camoed dash prevented anyone from sampling it this time.
So what’s it like to drive? Big and substantial. A broad, flat hood stretches way out ahead, announcing to all (especially the owner) that this ain’t no minivan derivative. You can’t see the ground right in front of the vehicle, but a 360-degree around-view camera system helps when maneuvering in tight quarters. In highway mode, the VR6 accelerated the B up to gravel-road speeds with reasonable authority—at least with two people aboard. The ride was quiet and compliant on gravel, and once with off-road mode engaged, the hill-descent system made easy work of creeping down a rocky trail at speeds between about 3 mph (5 km/h) and 10 mph (16 km/h). (The system holds whatever speed you set by accelerating or braking to a pace within that range.) And with eight ratios to work with, the lower gears provide ample torque multiplication for gently creeping up and over modest impediments of the sort that a family in a three-row crossover might encounter en route to an idyllic picnic setting or a secluded fishing hole. And the 245/60R18 Continental CrossContact LX Sport tires provided ample traction when navigating through some mud holes; 20s will be offered for those who prioritize style above ride quality.
VW is arriving at the big family SUV party way too late to be considered fashionable, and the brand is in crisis thanks to Dieselgate. It needs the distraction of a homerun sales hit SUV, so this big bruiser had better rank as a class leader in many key segment criteria. When asked in which of said criteria his B-SUV could be expected to trounce the competition, executive VP of engineering and planning Matthias Erb cited packaging and connectivity without explicitly promising best-in-class second- or third-row space or cargo volumes. He also promised we’d be impressed by its autobahn-bred driving dynamics. We look forward to measuring the B’s various bunts, base hits, and homeruns in this crowded segment, and we’re especially hopeful it knocks driving dynamics outta the park.