The all-new 2012 Volkswagen Passat is a four-door, five-passenger sedan specifically designed for mainstream American car buyers. Redesigned and launched with aggressive pricing, the new Passat is built at an assembly plant Volkswagen opened in 2011 at Chattanooga, Tennessee. More than just building the car here, though, VW wants shoppers to consider the new Passat along side the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, and Hyundai Sonata. Volkswagen's goal was to make the Passat the most American of any car VW builds. In large part, VW has succeeded, in some ways maybe too well.
The first eye-catching feature of the 2012 Passat is its price, with the base Passat 2.5L S starting at $19,995, which is lower than any of its prime competitors, even the aggressively priced and marketed Hyundai Sonata, which opens at $20,145. The new Passat, though, delivers some unexpected features in that base model, among the more interesting being automatic dual-zone climate control and Bluetooth connectivity. Passat 2.5L SE is available with a GPS-based, touch-screen navigation system, although adding in all the other features needed to get to that one brings the price to $26,795. The Passat 2.5L models come with a 170-horspower, 2.5-liter, inline five cylinder with either a 5-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic transmission.
Also available in the new Passat is a turbocharged diesel, which VW monikers as the TDI and is unique in the market segment. The Passat TDI SE boasts an EPA miles-per-gallon rating of 31/43 mpg city/highway, which is tops for the segment (except for the hybrid-powered Hyundai Sonata and Ford Fusion). The Passat TDI can be fitted with VW's slick direct-shift gearbox, or DSG, which is a twin-clutch, 6-speed manual transmission that shifts electronically, sans clutch pedal.
The top of the line Passat 3.6L comes standard with the DSG and a VW-exclusive, 400-watt Fender sound system. Leather, navigation system, sunroof and keyless push button start/stop, along with some other semi-luxury features are available.
When we drove the new Passats, we found the ride quality comfortable without being soft, well tuned for American interstates. Handling is what most drivers expect from a mainstream, midsize sedan, as in, predictable and forgiving, properly suited for the ins and outs of the daily commute.
The new Passat's styling is understated, nothing really remarkable, but with enough trademark VW design cues to distinguish it from something imported from Japan or from Detroit. Its visual proportions obscure somewhat its interior roominess, where it claims best in class rear seat leg room, an accommodation that receives too little consideration in most mainstream sedans.
Fit and finish has that Teutonic feel, with tight tolerances and quality materials. Nothing flashy, just solid, functional controls and easy to read gauges communicating the essential data about the car's mechanicals and electronics. The optional wood grain looks better than the real wood in some higher priced cars. Visibility is good, although there's a bit of blockage out the rear due to the standard three rear seat head restraints.
All of these are strong points for this new Passat, which Volkswagen designed and developed just for the American market. It will not be sold in Germany, which continues to get the Euro-spec Passat. This should appeal to Americans' ego, which no doubt is part of VW's grand scheme. In addition to which, as noted, the new Passat has a smoother, quieter and more genteel ride. Its styling is less severe. Its interior has softer tones and lower contrasts. This should appeal to the majority of Americans, who look at cars as much as means of transportation as expressions of individuality.
But this also means that America will no longer get the German version, and some VW fans no doubt will be the lesser for it. Because in making the new Passat more appealing to more Americans, Volkswagen has scrubbed off some of the edginess, some of the crispness that allowed its predecessor to connect with a core of VW faithful.
Simply put, anybody who liked the looks of the 2010 Passat will like the 2012. VW's designers say they were trying for a timeless look; if that means very little change, they succeeded. Not that's it's unattractive, only that it's not going to turn many heads, let alone snap a neck or two, neither of which it managed over a day's driving from Chattanooga, Tennessee, where it's built, to Nashville though some delightfully green and scenic countryside, including a brief dip into Georgia.
The motif for the front end was horizontal-ness, according to the designers. The inverted trapezoidal chrome grille surround of the previous Passat is gone, replaced by the Passat's version of VW's new trademark façade: the traditional VW logo centered on a simple array of three chrome-like bars bracketed by trapezium-shaped headlamp units. A bold bumper splits the fascia atop a full-width lower intake with floating wing-like braces at each end that, depending on model and trim level, give the look of cooling ducts for the front brakes or house squat fog lights. Sculptured reliefs in the hood splay rearward from the outer ends of the grille to the A-pillars (front supports for the roof), giving an illusion of width.
For lack of a better descriptor, side view is basic European sedan, that is, it could be one of any number of mid-size four doors originating from any one of four or five continental car makers. No logo or other identifiers break up otherwise mostly generic expanses of sheet metal. Wrap around headlamp housings de-emphasize the front overhang. An understated character line crease runs from the trailing edge of the headlamp housings rearward across the doors slightly above the full-round door handles and ending in the leading edge of the wrap around taillight housing. Defined blisters outline circular tire wells. On some models, thin chrome striping frames the side windows; about the only feature that stands out is a kinky rear quarter window that serves both to lessen the mass of the C-pillar (the rearmost roof support) and, along with the deep rear side doors, to hint at the 2012's stretched wheelbase (distance between the tires front to rear) of more than three and one half inches longer than the previous Passat.
Rearview, which only the 3.6L is going to display to other drivers with any regularity, is, again, relatively generic, although in this instance more Pacific Rim than Continent, save for the de rigueur VW logo. Taillight housings are 2-piece, split between the fenders and trunk lid. License plate tucks up beneath an overhang that crosses the trunk lid between the taillights. The trunk lid reaches the top of the rear bumper, itself a seamless piece that sweeps around the lower rear fascia from the trailing edge of one rear wheelwell to the other. The 3.6L gets twin exhaust tips.
When the feature that gets talked about the most at a new car's launch is rear seat legroom, it's clear not much was done to push the envelope in terms of refreshing a car's interior. Such is the case with the 2012 Passat.
The gauge cluster in the instrument panel is delightfully basic, with large round analog tachometer and speedometer, each with a small circular gauge embedded in its base, one monitoring coolant temperature, the other fuel status. A commendable addition, especially for drivers running solo, is a digital repeater for the navigation system, when equipped, in the mini-display screen, which also shows the trip computer data, centered between the two larger gauges.
Front seats, both base and Sport, are comfortable, with the Sport adding a smidgen of appreciated lateral support. The center stack, which houses the audio/navigation and climate control interfaces, stays true to the layout of the previous Passat, with the audio/navigation panels above and the trio of large knobs that manage the climate control settings below. Controls for the stereo and the very competent navigation system are unchanged from the previous Passat, consisting of two smallish knobs at the lower corners below vertical sets of four buttons on each side of the display that shows the various menus of touch-sensitive buttons, all of which work as efficiently and effectively as any our fingers have manipulated. (We haven't gotten a chance to check out the system in the base model.)
The rear seat is more bench than bucket but still accommodating, with foot wells deep enough that occupants can imagine they're seated in a chair instead of on the floor. What's most remarkable about the rear seat, however, as hinted above, is the leg room. While one inch of the lengthened wheelbase goes to the front seat, the rear seat gets almost an inch and a half, earning the 2012 Passat what VW claims is a best in class rating, bettering the primary competitors (the Chevrolet Malibu, the Ford Fusion, the Honda Accord, the Hyundai Sonata and the Toyota Camry) by between just under an inch (Camry) to more than four inches (Sonata). This is especially noteworthy because that added inch to the front seat also brings the Passat all but even with all except the Sonata, which treated the front seat more fairly, with an inch more leg room than the Passat.
Interior materials on the SE and SEL, the trim levels available at the launch event, were above average in feel and quality, with snug tolerances between panels and hard surfaces. The wood grain didn't quite pass as real but some real wood we've seen looked more like wood grain. Visibility is good, better out the front than the back, where the proud head restraint triplets crowd the view through the rearview mirror.
There are enough cubby holes and bins to satisfy the average hoarder. There's a map pocket in each door (although not the best design, as the rear-most area under the armrest pinches down to the point it's accessible only by a child's small hand, in itself not reassuring). The glove box, while basic plastic, is refreshingly spacious. The front center console bin is a bi-level set up, with an upper tray fit for cell phones (where they should stay unless the car is parked, even if you have a hands-free system; sorry, but distraction is distraction, no matter the source) and a deeper part that also holds the audio inputs. Each front seat back has a magazine pouch.
Trunk space splits the difference with the competition, with around a cubic foot more than the Malibu, Accord and Camry and about a cubic foot a half less than the Fusion and the Sonata.
VW's many-times stated objective with the new, 2012 Passat was to make it more attractive to mainstream Americans, thereby increasing the car maker's share of the U.S. new car market and helping justify that new Chattanooga assembly plant. At the same time, VW understood that it also had to retain enough of the Passat's original VW-ness to maintain its appeal to the traditional VW buyers. Our test drives in the new Passat suggest VW may have had more success with the former than with the latter.
The Passat TDI's diesel engine produced linear power delivery with little of the surge sensation common with a turbocharger, but not as torquey as expected following our experience with VW's Golf TDI. Shifts from the 6-speed automatic, which felt programmed for conservation over quickness, were noticeable but generally smooth.
EPA-estimated fuel economy of 31 mpg City and 43 mpg Highway from the TDI diesel tops the gasoline-powered competition, by 8 mpg Highway (Hyundai Sonata) to 14 mpg Highway (Ford Fusion). Volkswagen Passat TDI bests the Toyota Camry Hybrid, which manages only a 31/35 mpg City/Highway on EPA's charts. The Fusion and Sonata hybrids better the Passat TDI with 41/36 mpg and 35/40 mpg respectively.
The Passat 3.6L was more fun to drive, primarily due to its responsiveness to a heavy foot on the gas pedal. The Direct Shift Gearbox delivered solid shifts but less promptly than expected in comparison with the Golf version, and even in manual-select mode. Expect stops at the gas station to happen at about the same frequency as with other V6-powered cars in this class; the Passat 3.6L's V6 is EPA-rated 20/28 mpg City/Highway, about average for the class.
We didn't get any seat time in the Passat 2.5L with the 2.5-liter five-cylinder gas engine at the launch event. Those who did reported it trailed behind the TDI in quickness off the line and exposure to oncoming traffic in passing zones, with credit for the difference going to the TDI's substantially higher torque (236 lb.-ft. vs. 177 lb.-ft. for the 2.5L). It generally trails, too, in fuel economy, with a 21/32 city/highway that falls most significantly short of the Sonata's 24/35 and its highway rating bettering only the Fusion's 29 mpg.
Ride quality in the new Passat is, well, very American. There's a bit of body roll in corners, although no float on mildly heaving interstates. But graded on what people might be sensitive to in a car wearing a German car maker's logo, it's definitely on the gentle side of firm. There was a bit of a whistle at speed from somewhere near the outside mirrors (from their 2-piece housings, perhaps?) on the Passats we drove at the launch, but nothing serious. Tire and road noise was minimal and varied little on different qualities and types of pavement. Put up against the competitors, it fits right in, not really standing out in any measure, but not falling short in any, either.
Which is pretty much the case in the handling department, too. Understeer (where the car wants to go straight when the driver wants it to turn) is the predominant characteristic when the Passat is pushed in a curve. Between the TDI and the 3.6L, the 3.6L feels less put upon when driven aggressively. We were told the 3.6L's steering is a bit tauter, closer to what's in the German-market Passat. None of the Passat models beg to experience an energetic blast through an extended set of twisties, however. Clearly, the Passat much prefers casual motoring, like a casual weekend getaway to the beach or a vacationing meander along the Blue Ridge.
Based on our experience, the Honda Accord feels more planted in winding roads, although the Accord filters out less of the mechanical and road and tire noise than the Passat does. The Ford Fusion All-Wheel-Drive is the most balanced in responding to steering inputs and quick changes of direction. The Fusion AWD exacts a price, however, with the worst city/highway numbers of the crew, at 18/26 mpg.
What was most disappointing with the new Passat was the brake feel, which clearly has been tuned for the American market. Gone is the prompt, sure-footed, throw-out-the-anchor response to the brake pedal that we're used to in VWs, and German-brand cars in general. We never worried about stopping power when driving the new Passat, but there was still this softness, not sponginess, just not the high quality firmness we've come to know and love, and appreciate, in Volkswagens. Thus, in comparing brake feel and the confidence it can inspire and the distinctiveness it can impart, we could have been in any of the five all-American competitors.
When the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu rolled into dealers' showrooms, some automotive pundits commended Chevy for finally making a good American Accord. Styling, packaging and ride and handling compared favorably to that year's best-selling Honda. With the 2012 Volkswagen Passat, it just may be that VW has built the best German Camry. That's not a slam; the Camry is a fine car, with impressive technology, strong appeal to American mainstream buyers and the consequential enviable sales numbers. The question that comparison is intended to pose, rather, is whether enough mainstream Americans are going to want a German Camry to keep that new Chattanooga factory humming.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Nashville, Tennessee.