Mid-size sedans are big business here in the States. By Volkswagen's count, we bought 2.9 million of them in 2010 -- and of that number, only about 40,000 were Volkswagens. VW is tired of being a small fish in a giant pond, so for 2012 they've designed a Passat especially for the North American market. The all-new 2012 Volkswagen Passat is bigger, more affordable, and infused with that subtle "Germanness" that sets Volkswagens apart -- at least, that's what the PR hacks told me at the press preview. So is this new Passat really right for America? Read on.
First Glance: Passat gets a new mission
The Passat has around a lot longer than most people realize. Volkswagen has been selling a mildly-Americanized version of their European-market family sedan since the 70s, first as the Dasher, then the Quantum, then finally as the Passat. The Passat has always been sportier and more luxurious than its mid-size rivals from Japan and the States, but it was also smaller and more expensive, which limited sales.
For 2012, the US (along with Canada, Mexico, and, believe it or not, China) will get a unique version of the Passat. Not only is it significantly bigger than the European-market Passat, but it's also less expensive -- $20,765 (including destination fee), which puts it in the same ballpark as the big sellers in the segment (Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion) -- and that price includes all routine maintenance for the first 3 years or 36,000 miles. As a demonstration of their commitment to the US market, VW is building the Passat in a brand-new $1 billion plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
It's hard to get excited about the design of the new Passat. There are some rather nice details in the sheetmetal; Volkswagen is particularly fond of the body-side crease that runs from headlight to taillight, which is a tricky thing to build correctly (and should give collision-repair shops fits). Still, it does look like the designers sketched out the basic shape with the intent to fill in the details later, then went to lunch, had a couple of martinis, and forgot all about it. Simple, elegant design can be a beautiful thing -- the Kia Optima is a great example -- but the Passat needs more detail work.
In the Driver's Seat: Promises kept
When Volkswagen said they were making the new Passat bigger, they weren't kidding. Most of the extra space went to the back seat (link goes to photo), which has a full-length cushion that provides excellent thigh support and enough legroom to fit Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, even with Wilt Chamberlain ahead of him in the driver's seat. On paper, the Passat offers a massive 1.75" more rear legroom than the formerly-class-leading Honda Accord. The trunk is not the biggest, but it's more than adequate at 15.9 cubic feet.
Up front, the new Passat maintains the luxurious feel of the outgoing Passat with high-quality materials and a soft-touch dash. The cabin of the base-level "S" model feels solid, if a bit stoic; the mid-level SE is dressed up with aluminum trim and faux-leather seats. The SEL features wood trim and the top-of-the-line SEL Premium adds leather upholstery. The control layout is admirable for its simplicity, but like the exterior, the shape and style of the dash is a bit dull -- it lacks the wow-factor of the Hyundai Sonata or the contemporary hipness of the Kia Optima, and even the unassuming Toyota Camry has more pizzazz than the Passat.
Volkswagen has limited the number of stand-alone options for the new Passat; like the Honda Accord, equipment is largely determined by trim level. Though the S model is a good value compared to the competition (it includes dual-zone climate control and Bluetooth phone connectivity as standard), SE and SEL models cost a couple grand more than comparably-equipped rivals. The range-topping Passat 3.6 SEL Premium lists for $33,720, about a thousand dollars more than a top-of-the-line Honda Accord EX-L V6.
On the Road: Choices, choices, choices
The new Passat is available with 3 engines, starting with the 170 hp 2.5 liter 5-cylinder from the Jetta. I sampled this engine with a 6-speed automatic transmission, and aside from an annoying hesitation when pulling away from a stop, it does the job well enough. That said, it doesn't do the job any better than the 4-cylinder engines in its rivals, and its EPA fuel economy aren't as good (22 city/31 highway for the automatic, 21/32 for the 5-speed stick). The fantastic 2.0T from the old Passat is gone, sadly, but the 280 hp 3.6 liter V6 remains; VW has paired it with their 6-speed DSG twin-clutch automatic, which improves fuel economy to 20 MPG city/28 MPG highway.
In my opinion, the engine to have is the 2-liter TDI turbodiesel. Don't be fooled by the 140 hp rating -- the TDI packs 236 lb-ft of torque, which gives it plenty of passing power. EPA estimates are 31 MPG city/43 MPG highway, not as good as its hybrid rivals in town but quite a bit better on the open road. I made a highway run with the cruise set at 68 and averaged an astonishing 47.9 MPG. VW offers the diesel in both SE and SEL trim levels for a $2,300 price premium, and unlike competing hybrids, the diesel can be had with a manual transmission.
Handling is a traditional VW strong suit; I didn't get a chance to press the Passat very hard, but I found reasonably good grip, excellent body-motion control, and tires that howled a warning as the limits of traction approached, all combined with a comfortable and reasonably quiet ride. 5-cylinder Passats get traditional hydraulic power steering, and the feel is quite good; feedback from the electric power steering (EPS) in TDI and V6 cars feels a tad artificial, but notably better than the EPS in the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima. Underpinning everything in the Passat is a feel of solidity -- that "Germanness" that other automakers try so hard to imitate.