Sedate, not seductive. Comfortable, but not cosseting. Appealing in many ways, but not particularly alluring. And, for a German brand, the 2012 Volkswagen Passat is decisively American.

That in part sums up the new Tennessee-built sedan, targeted directly at an audience of pragmatic, sensible adults weaned on a diet of Toyota Camrys, Honda Accords and Nissan Altimas. And let us not leave out the current darling of four-doors, the Hyundai Sonata.

VW says it's serious about eventually selling about as many cars worldwide as McDonald's has flipped burgers. One of the crucial agents in this scenario, at least on this side of the pond, is the new Passat, which starts in price at some $8,000 less than the previous generation exported here from Germany. The Passat is built in a brand new $1 billion plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Volkswagen has become a godsend for the workforce: the company says it received more than 85,000 applications to fill about 1,700 job slots.

Last year VW sold a few more than 12,000 Passats in the U.S.; capacity in Tennessee for cars to be built for the States, Canada and Mexico is estimated at 150,000 a year. For now, only the Passat is on the assembly-line menu. An over-ambitious pipe dream? We think not.

 

From the inside out, the Passat generally is a competent performer that plays nicely on interstates and in corners, while turning out competitive fuel efficiency numbers in all of its iterations. The TDI diesel model is exceptionally thrifty at the pump; more on that below. There is no "enthusiast" Passat, because VW can offer most of those buyers a brand alternative, if with a somewhat smaller footprint: a Jetta GLI later this year, an over-the-top Golf R next year, as well as the Golf GTI right now.

The bean counters had their way with the new Passat, and the prices reflect some delicate fiscal balancing acts. The base version of the four-door with manual transmission starts at $19,995 plus destination of $770; heck, that's a mid-size, well-made sedan with a spacious back seat and a real trunk for Civic money. Step up to the SE trim level, add about $3,700, and VW equips the car more like the Passat of old, adding 17-inch alloys, heated (and power driver's) seats and an upscale sound system. A six-speed automatic transmission prices out at $22,690, in a package that also includes 16-inch alloy wheels.

What's become clear through recent years is that VW has been paying attention to details and quality, whether the car rolls off a line in Wolfsburg, Pueblo or Chattanooga. On the entry-level Passat, powered by a 170-horsepower five-cylinder engine, cut lines are clean, body gaps are even and the metallic paints are well finished. Once you get past the rather industrial growl of the five cylinder at highway speeds, this Passat cruises without intrusive road roar, and it's rated to achieve the same 22-city/31-highway MPG on regular gas as the turbo 2.0-liter did in the previous Passat. On twisty roads in Tennessee, we were moved by the car, which handled impressively for a midsize sedan in its price range.

 

At the other end of the range is the VR6 model, which can ascend to a sticker close to $33,000 if you tick all the option boxes. The six-cylinder model is more than quick with its 280 horsepower; it's downright fast from start, and has no problem overtaking slow movers on the highway. To add to the magic, it's offered with VW's DSG dual-clutch automatic.

The ringer, under-the-hood-wise, is the turbo diesel, starting at $25,995.    It's similarly equipped to the SE 2.5-liter. While it's no BMW 3 Series on winding roads, the TDI barrels down freeways with confidence, and it feels more planted than the Japanese competition. Credit is due in part to the Passat's 110-inch wheelbase and chassis, tuned for comfort rather than down-and-dirty agility. Torque is sufficiently high, at 236 pound-feet, to propel the 3,400-pound Passat TDI uphill fairly briskly. The excitement diminishes at higher speeds: the TDI makes only 140 horsepower. Diesel rattle evaporates when the engine warms, and mileage at highway speed, by our count, was just under 50 miles per gallon. That's even better than the EPA rating at 31/43 MPG.

From a distance, the Passat is unmistakably generic, which is, of course, by design. Generic can be good: hold that rear view in your mind's eye and imagine an Audi A4. Yes, there are similar family proportions and the taillights diminish to a point on either side. But where the A4 flaunts its curves and flares, the Passat is...well, square.

 

At nearly 192 inches, it's longer by about four inches than the previous car, a scotch higher and wider, and we have a hard time not simply seeing the big brother to another mainstream car, our 2011 Jetta TDI, Olga. It is a form born of function - nothing out of place, nothing to offend. Or inspire. All by design: for those VW loyalists who crave a beautiful car with four doors, there's the fashionista cousin of the Passat, the CC.

The cost cutting is less obvious on the inside; especially in the higher trim levels, where VW's no-nonsense layout translates to user-friendliness. The switchgear is up to par with any of the more expensive VWs; the "comfort" seats live up to their adjective and will accommodate the backside of a broad Chattanoogan. There are no blind spots.

To compete in its segment, VW has made some adjustments in the quest to meet the buyer's bottom line: his or her checkbook. But, we think that we understand the agenda here: as we've noted above, with a range as varied as VW offers, the Passat, despite its vanilla-ness, is just what the mainstream ordered. Veteran VW loyalists may carp that it's light on character, but it will push all the right buttons for thousands of shoppers.

It won't sell billions and billions, but it will sell. Thousands and thousands.

author photo

Stephen Williams has written about automobiles and automotive technology--and the occasional motorized recliner chair--for a number of publications, including The New York Times, AOL Autos, and Newsday. Hobbies include attending crowded auto shows that serve up bad coffee for the press, and following Fernando Alonso in Formula 1 racing.

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