Pros: Sleek; low-slung styling; authentic European driving feel; thrifty fuel economy

Cons: Low roof can make it difficult to get in; snug back seat

What's New: Although it's based on the previous model, the 2013 CC has been redesigned with sharper exterior styling and new standard features.

Volkswagen introduced coupe-like sedans that regular people could afford when it launched the original CC in 2008. Mercedes-Benz got things rolling with its CLS, but that car was priced out of most people's reach. In keeping with its people's-car origin, Volkswagen brought sleek four-seaters into the mainstream.

For 2013, the refreshed CC has updated details inside and out, but its exclusive, expensive-looking styling remains. The key change is the new availability of five-passenger seating. That change opens up the choice of the CC to car shoppers who, at least occasionally, must be able to pack three people into the back seat.

With the previous model, VW supposed that CC buyers would be like their Mercedes-Benz CLS counterparts in preferring a back seat console and amenities. Recognizing that most of us are more likely to need to pile in one more kid for carpool duty than to ride in the right rear seat while a chauffeur drives us around, the automaker finally gave us the middle seat as part of the car's update. The option had been available for the old model in other countries, but not the U.S.

In addition to purchase price, fuel economy is another key point that differentiates the CC from the CLS and its upmarket competitors. Those cars have big, powerful engines to deliver the driving experience their prices demand.

But the CC makes no excuses. Its 200-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder moves the car with admirable refinement and excellent fuel economy for a car that fits right in among those usually seen at a country club.

Comfort & Utility

The arrival of the back seat puts the CC into a new category of utility. The previous model seemed barely more practical than a Mazda MS-5 Miata, with its back seat substantially wasted by a center console that limited it to two passengers. "Sorry, honey, one of the kids has to stay home?"

The new car's back seat is still oriented toward coddling those two people, with quasi-bucket seats carved into the perforated fake leather upholstery. It's surprisingly nice fake leather, but fake nonetheless. The center section is also upholstered now, and there is a middle seatbelt, so a child can perch in the center section during soccer shuttle service. Anyone larger would probably not be very comfortable.

The trunk is spacious and pops all the way open by itself when released by the remote, the dash button or the magic flip-up VW badge on the lid, and it mounts on the premium-style hinges that were a VW trademark before the cheapening of its lower-end models. The CC's hinges slide along a continuous arc when the lid closes, so they don't smash down on luggage packed inside.

It is a superior design, even if VW has decided it is too expensive for its other cars. The 13.2-cubic-foot trunk itself is unexpectedly spacious for a car with such impractical-looking sleekness. Release handles in the trunk fold the rear seatbacks automatically, making it easy for me to fit in that new shovel I got at Sears.

Technology

The most interesting technology category in the CC is lighting. Both high- and low-beam headlights are high-intensity discharge xenon units as standard equipment, which is normally only the case for cars that cost twice as much as the CC. It also has LED daytime running lights and adaptive headlights that steer into curves.

The navigation and information and entertainment system is one of the better kinds with a touchscreen, not a confounding command knob style slavishly imitating BMW's iDrive. The CC's display is clear and responds promptly to input, and the menus are intuitive to use. Compared with the systems that come in Jaguar or BMW models, it is practically a miracle. Blessedly, there is a rotary knob for radio volume on the left side and another on the right for tuning, in observance of a standard everyone knows but too many carmakers ignore.

The Volkswagen Premium VIII sound system includes HD radio, satellite radio, CD, Bluetooth wireless connectivity, iPod input and plain old AM/FM broadcast radio. It provides excellent sound that should satisfy all but the pickiest audiophiles. For them, the top-of-the-line VR6 4Motion Executive model includes a sound system from ultra-luxury stereo company Dynaudio, but both that trim package and the stereo it includes seem excessive.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Performance and fuel economy depend entirely on the engine you choose. The CC's base engine is the entirely satisfactory 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, which makes 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque. Its direct fuel injection contributes thrifty fuel economy as well as a diesel-like growl at low revs. The 3.6-liter V6 makes 280 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque and is available on both front-wheel-drive and 4Motion all-wheel-drive versions of the CC.

Gas mileage for the base 4-cylinder model is 21 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway, according to the EPA. The all-wheel-drive 4Motion V6 model gets a low 17/25 mpg.

Safety

Volkswagen packs in the safety equipment, equipping the CC with enough protection to score a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That means front and side airbags for the front seats and side air curtains for both rows of seats. Force limiters on the seatbelts help keep the belts themselves from hurting occupants in a collision. If a crash does happen, the CC automatically shuts off the electric fuel pump, unlocks the doors and turns on the emergency flashers.

Driving Impressions

Driving is where the CC shines, with a crispness that backs up its sculpted styling. The steering is taut and responsive, the brakes are smooth and progressive and the six-speed manual shifter and clutch are exemplary. The manual shifter shames the shifter in the FIAT 500 Abarth, a recently introduced car with genuine sporting aspirations.

The CC delivers the authentic European driving experience longtime VW fans demand, providing an involvement sure to captivate newcomers to this more connected brand of driving.

The CC exhibits the least torque steer of any front-wheel-drive car in memory-that's when a front-drive car yanks its steering wheel to the side when you accelerate quickly. It is really impressive and a pleasant reprieve from that annoyance.

One minor knock with the CC is the placement of the brake pedal, which crowds the accelerator tightly enough that those who wear size 12 EEEE shoes can have a hard time switching cleanly between the two. People with normal feet can ignore this observation.

Other Cars to Consider

When the original CC came out, it made competitors' cars look stodgy and dull, virtually creating a new class all by itself: the affordable four-door coupe. It made sense to have a regular Passat and a streamlined one in the same product line. That division of labor between the two versions of the same car makes even more sense now that the regular Passat was redesigned to be cheaper, because now its slab-sided styling makes it look like the box the CC came in.

The trouble is, everyone else is making their regular sedan models sexier now. Look at the new Hyundai Sonata and Azera, the Ford Fusion, the Chevrolet Malibu and the Nissan Altima. The Hyundais and the Ford in particular look slippery enough to contend with the CC, and they don't sacrifice as much headroom or use costlier components like frameless windows for their doors.

AutoTrader Recommends

The CC can be outfitted with a thirsty V6 engine and all-wheel drive, giving the CC specifications similar to the Mercedes and Lexus models VW would like you to compare it with. But it seems unnecessary to spend nearly $42,000 on a car that looks as good and drives as nicely as the 4-cylinder base model does at $30,610 (plus destination). That's especially true when you consider the better fuel economy of the 4-cylinder and the inherent slippery-road stability of the standard front-wheel-drive system.

We suggest you buy the base Sport model and enjoy premium styling and comfort for not much more than a regular family sedan.

author photo

Dan Carney is a veteran auto industry observer who has written for MSNBC.com, Motor Trend, AutoWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens and other publications. He has authored two books, "Dodge Viper" and "Honda S2000" and is a juror for the North American Car of the Year award. Carney covers the industry from the increasingly strategic location of Washington, D.C.

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