ATLANTA – The ’09 Volkswagen CC arrives in the U.S. market to do what the underappreciated but overpriced Phaeton sedan could not: to serve as a flagship car for the brand that strives to be edgy, rather than luxurious.

When it debuted in 2003, the Phaeton was all about capitalizing on the well-heeled buyer’s fascination with German engineering and European styling.

But better-established players such as the BMW 7-Series, Mercedes S-Class and Audi A8 (yes, a cousin within the Volkswagen Group) refused to yield market share to the upstart and marginally less-expensive Phaeton.

VW’s uber-sedan remains available in Europe but departed these shores two years ago, illustrating the dangers when a brand strays too far from its core audience. (Expect the Phaeton back in the U.S. about 2011.)

This year, VW’s CC will try to atone for the Phaeton’s missteps. It is stylish, comfortable, fuel efficient and powered with a stimulating and enthralling turbocharged 2.0L gasoline 4-cyl. that yields little ground to burlier V-6s.

Most important, the CC, at less than half the price of the Phaeton, won’t break the bank for VW intenders, who surely resented the notion of paying Audi money for a “people’s car” like the Phaeton. The starting price is a modest $26,790.

Now on sale, the CC arrives with a bit of an identity crisis: Its four doors suggest “sedan,” but its swoopy roofline screams “coupe.” Volkswagen executives refer to the vehicle as a coupe, largely because the Passat is the sedan in VW’s midsize lineup and the CC name is an abbreviation for “comfort coupe.”

The name of the vehicle has been problematic, as well. At this year’s unveiling at the Detroit auto show, VW executives referred to it as the Passat CC, which makes perfect sense because the CC shares the same architecture and running gear as the Passat. Many interior components also are common.

But the CC has many unique features, including every dramatically shaped piece of sheet metal, the steering wheel, door trim, gauges and moonroof. In addition, the back seat accommodates two, rather than three in the Passat, further identifying the vehicle as a 2+2 coupe, rather than a sedan.

VW executives smartly assert the buyer of this vehicle, likely a second car for an empty nester, isn’t looking for 5-passenger seating.

Without a third passenger wedged in, the back seat is reasonably comfortable, with adequate space for head and shoulders, thanks to a seating position lowered by 0.6 ins. (1.5 cm) to allow for the swoopy roofline. Aggressive bolstering makes the back seats feel more like buckets than a standard bench.

There are two interior shades – cornsilk beige and black – yet the woven headliner for both is lightly colored, contributing to an open, airy feeling of spaciousness in the cabin.

Sport model seating surfaces are covered with V-Tex leatherette, while all others carry leather as standard.

The interior generally upholds VW’s excellent craftsmanship and material selection, although there is a predictable familiarity – particularly the CC’s dull center stack – in recent models that suggests Wolfsburg needs to inspire some creative styling to keep its sterling reputation intact.

One quibble is the cheap, spongy door-mounted arm rest that appears horribly out of place in an otherwise well-appointed interior.

Underhood is the standard 200-hp 2.0L TFSI direct-injection DOHC I-4 that has won a spot on the Ward’s 10 Best Engines list three years in a row in Audi-brand applications.

Also standard on the base model is a smooth-shifting 6-speed manual transmission that perfectly matches the engine’s capability and makes for thoroughly enjoyable, sporty driving.

But a little fun behind the wheel does not come at the expense of fuel consumption.

With little mid-day traffic on the local interstate at high rpm, the CC manages better than 28 mpg (8.4 L/100 km), while generally exceeding 75 mph (121 km/h).

Along the way, the CC is quiet as a mouse. Wind noise is minimal, thanks to “the aerodynamics of a bullet,” VW likes to brag. For the record, the drag coefficient is 0.289.

Some 70% of buyers are expected to choose the I-4 instead of the optional 280-hp VR6 3.6L V-6, paired only with a competent 6-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission.

Given the volatility of fuel prices within the past year – and the refined power of the I-4 – the high take rate for the smaller engine is not surprising.

The I-4 might be preferable and less expensive, but the V-6 isn’t bad and manages 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km) during a moderate highway drive in stifling heat with the AC blasting.

The 6-speed manual is not available with the V-6, but 4Motion all-wheel drive is. And 4-cyl. models with the automatic actually get better mileage than with the manual.

The suspension is tuned for a more sporty ride than in the standard Passat. The front setup consists of a MacPherson-type triangular wishbone configuration with coil springs and self-leveling shocks, while a fully independent 4-link arrangement anchors the rear. Stabilizer bars are standard in front and back.

Also standard is electronic stability control with 4-wheel antilock braking, as well as 17-in. alloy wheels, while 18-in. rims are an upgrade.

Optional is a new navigation system (also available throughout the VW lineup for ’09) with an intuitive color touch screen that incorporates a rear-vision camera system to aid in backing up.

The CC may have arrived in the U.S. with an identity crisis, but that won’t last long if it can hit VW’s sales target of 28,000 units in the first full year.

Through October, VW sold 26,565 Passats in the U.S., down 14% from like-2007, according to Ward’s data. The auto maker’s Emden, Germany, plant produces both the CC and Passat wagon.

If CC sales are robust enough to buck the trend of a down market, VW executives won’t care what people call it.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com