As a hard-core Vee-Dub fan, and owner, 2011 was a rough year. The all-new, made for America Jetta left me bitter, but the Jetta GLI made me feel much better about my beloved VW. With the all-new Passat, I was again nervous about what to expect. VW’s ambitious plan to seriously increase sales in North America has found the venerable brand literally repositioning itself in the market. In addition to being an all-new car built with the American buyer in mind, the Passat is also made in America, at VW’s brand spanking new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. With VW’s sights aimed squarely at the heavy hitters in the mid-size sedan market, the question is, has VW managed to maintain a German accent with this new, American-made Passat, or have they gone vanilla on us? Read on to find out.
I have always been an admirer of the Passat, chiefly because the car was unique, and stood so far apart from the competition. With the new Passat, VW wants to be a major player, not the default sedan for the slightly off-beat. The 2012 Passat is more homogenized than previous generations, which may disappoint some of the VW faithful. During my week with the Passat, I kept reminding myself of VW’s mission-compete head on with the Camry, Fusion, and Accord. In that light, the Passat seen here makes sense. it comes off classier and more serious in appearance than its competition. In other words, it’s German heritage shows. The Passat is a big car, and has a suitably bold grill, oversize (but not gaudy) VW emblem, and enough chrome to not shout bargain basement. It’s not exciting, but the Passat is a fairly handsome car from any angle.
With the cabin, I held my breath, bracing myself for lousy materials and a cheap appearance. Thankfully, that was not the case. The Passat sports a handsome cabin, and where your hands touch, the materials feel of good quality. Roam around though, and the hard plastics are there. The fake bark on the dash, doors and console do a lot to warm up the atmosphere of our otherwise all-black interior. The seats are comfortable, if not rather flat for a German sedan, but again, VW is asking us to shift our perception of the Passat. Gauges are easy to read, and the controls for audio, climate control and navigation are pretty intuitive. Our Passat was equipped with a Fender premium audio system that delivered fantastic sound. Another stand-out feature of the Passat was its class-leading rear seat legroom. I’m 6′ 1″, and sitting in the rear felt like I was in a full-size car.
In the engine room, buyers have plenty of choices. You can opt for the standard 2.5L inline-five, rated at 170hp, with a choice of a six-speed manual or automatic. Unique for this class, a 2.0L TDI diesel engine is also available, with the option of a six-speed manual or DSG automated manual. At the top of the food-chain in a 3.6L V-6, rated at 280hp. The 6-speed DSG is the only tranny available here. Some Passat loyalists will be disappointed that 4Motion all-wheel drive is no longer available. Speaking of availability, the Passat wagon has also been dropped. It’s front-wheel drive, four door sedan only, folks. Our test car was equipped with the 2.5L I-5 with the automatic. As the owner of a 2010 Jetta with the same drivetrain, I was skeptical how a car of this size and weight would get around, but I was pleasantly surprised. The Passat is no sports sedan, but I found the ride and handling to be competent, if not sportier and better sorted than its rivals.
The most basic Passat rings in at $19,995USD. Although the Passat line has been simplified greatly from last year, there are still multiple configurations. Our Passat was an automatic 2.5 SEL Premium, the top of the line trim level. Standard features included dual-zone auto climate control, Bluetooth, 17″ alloys, sunroof, power heated front seats, Fender audio, and Navigation. Including destination, the total MSRP comes to $30,665. That’s a good chunk of change for a car with only 170hp, but similarly equipped four cylinder Accord and Camrys are priced about the same. If it were me, I’d spend an extra $100 for the base SE V-6, although I’d lose the leather , interior accents and navigation, but hey, that’s what smartphones are for, and that extra 110hp more than makes up for what you are giving up.
There is a minor controversy stirring around the Passat. Consumer Reports sampled a Passat from VW’s press fleet. I should add that Consumer Reports is based in Connecticut, as am I, so the cars I review here are the same cars Consumer Reports samples. The story is, after sampling a press car Passat, CR went out and purchased three Passats, and noticed something different. The press car’s trunk had two plastic covers on its hinges, while the Passats bought from the dealer had only once plastic cover to protect wiring, the other hinge was bare metal. Minor? Yes, but Consumer Reports raises the question if this minor difference was spotted between a media car and a car sold to the public, is VW making any other changes the naked eye cannot see? We may never know.
I feared the worst with the new Passat. As a car enthusiast, nothing strikes fear in my soul more than when a respected German automaker says ‘we’ve tailored it specifically for the American market’, which is a direct translation to “We are giving you a watered-down, dumbed-down product.” Overall I am pleased with the new Passat, and before you accuse me of going soft, hear me out. To understand the new Passat, you need to understand what VW is doing here. For generations, the Passat has appealed to a tiny sliver of the market, with a reputation of providing a fun driving experience and an interior that rivaled luxury car makers. Yet a car packing that much charisma found a very tiny audience here in North America, where compared to its nearest rivals, the Passat was simply smaller in size and higher in price, two huge turn-offs in the mass market.
The 2012 Volkswagen Passat changes all of that. Priced and sized closer to the competition, this is VW’s most serious effort at breaking into the ultra-competitive North American mid-size sedan market. I’ll take the Passat’s more serious demeanor, classier appearance and more sporting nature over the Accord, Camry or Altima. These qualities, along with being the sole automaker offering a diesel engine, superlative rear seat room, and a peerless audio system make the Passat a true alternative to the normal go-to cars, while retaining its German persona (mostly). And the market in the US of A has responded. Compared to 2010, total annual sales for calendar year 2011 for the Passat are up a shattering 124%. Yes, us car guys loved the smaller and pricier Passats of yore, but the masses who outnumber us prefer a larger and inexpensive Passat were heard by VW, and they have answered with their checkbooks. Good for the buyer, good for VW, I would insist anyone in the market for a mid-size car drive a Passat before buying any other car in its class.