Volkswagen, once known for making cars that stood out, is plunging deeper into the mainstream. Besides the storied Beetle, it cranked out generations of jewel-like Jettas and premium-class Passats that were great to drive, but too often had to be driven to the repair shop. Now, following the launch of rather undistinguished redesigns of the Jetta and Passat, the company is building a new, very mainstream American-style three-row SUV.
Harkening that is the CrossBlue concept SUV, which debuted in Detroit with a high-tech plug-in diesel-electric powertrain. It packs a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder diesel and two electric motors, one driving the front wheels in conjunction with the engine, and a 114-hp motor driving the rear wheels. A diesel hybrid would be a first, combining the highway mileage of a diesel with the stop-and-go expertise of a hybrid, but that combo has previously been rejected as too costly. So we can't see the CrossBlue's powertrain going on sale anytime soon.
But the CrossBlue's relevance here is that it reveals the basic look and structure of a conventional, perhaps too conventional, midsized SUV. Best guess is that it will appear in the summer of 2015 as a 2016 model, powered by conventional powertrains.
This yet-unnamed SUV, sharing a platform with the Passat and numerous other VW products, will have six and seven passenger versions and will compete with the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Chevy Traverse, Nissan Pathfinder and every other modern minivan substitutes. Unlike most others, though, this vehicle's third row can accommodate full-grown humans. For a concept, the CrossBlue's interior looked remarkably well finished, even production-ready, so maybe the vehicle will come out sooner than has been hinted.
Though bigger than the Touareg, it's destined to slot in price between it and the small Tiguan. That would put it in the high $30s to mid $40s. We found the latest Passat to be a competent family sedan but no longer a class leader in performance or quality. It is, however, less pricey and a good deal roomier than previous Passats, and buyers have been snapping them up. Whether VW can gain similar traction by wedging yet another mid-sized SUV into a crowded market remains to be seen.
See our complete 2013 Detroit auto show coverage.