Pros: Upscale looks; spacious interior; luxurious ride; fuel-efficient turbo-diesel engine; strong V6; perfect crash-test scores
Cons: Inefficient standard five-cylinder engine
The all-new 2012 Volkswagen Passat is Volkswagen's first real shot at giving Americans what they want. The Passat has been sold in this country for a couple decades now, but previous models were always Europe-market designs that VW shipped over to us as an afterthought. Connoisseurs loved them, but the European Passats cost considerably more than mainstream family sedans, with sluggish sales the inevitable outcome. Now the Passat is being built at VW's shiny new manufacturing plant in Tennessee, targeting the bestselling mid-size sedans in the country.
From what we've seen thus far, VW's aim is dead on. The 2012 Passat ditches the old Euro firm dampers in favor of a luxuriously spongy suspension that reminds us of a Buick LeSabre, although even so, the Passat retains a modicum of European athleticism in corners. The base five-cylinder engine is admittedly mediocre, but the optional engines are superb, whether it's the hyper-efficient TDI turbo-diesel or the seriously strong six-cylinder VR6. Volkswagen has evidently discovered that Americans like big back seats, because the Passat's is enormous, boasting class-leading legroom. The car looks good, too, with a just-right mix of American gravitas and European restraint.
But most important, VW has delivered all of the above at prices that budget-minded Americans can stomach. It's hardly the cheapest family sedan on the market, but the Passat is definitely attainable for folks who are considering the usual suspects. We're sure the Germans still have their own idea of what a mid-size sedan should be, but they've done a great job of meeting American expectations with the new 2012 Passat.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Volkswagen Passat is offered in different trim levels depending on what's under the hood: the 2.5-liter inline-5, the 2.0-liter TDI and the 3.6-liter VR6.
The base 2.5L model is the one the Passat ads are referring to when they mention the car's $19,995 base price. It comes with a five-speed manual transmission (including a hill holder feature), 16-inch steel wheels with plastic covers, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, cloth upholstery, a height-adjustable driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, a trip computer, Bluetooth, dual-zone automatic climate control and a six-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input.
If you want an automatic transmission, you'll at least need the optional Appearance package, which adds a six-speed automatic, 16-inch alloy wheels, a back-seat center armrest and a healthy $2,695 to the bottom line.
The 2.5L SE boasts 17-inch alloy wheels, leatherette upholstery, a power driver's seat, heated front seats, an upgraded trip computer with a larger display, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, heated exterior mirrors and an eight-speaker audio system with a six-CD changer, an SD card reader and a five-inch touchscreen interface. An iPod interface, an SD-based navigation system and a sunroof can be added as an optional package.
The 2.5L SEL steps up to the sunroof, a hard-drive-based navigation system with digital music storage and a 6.5-inch touchscreen, better-bolstered front seats, a nine-speaker Fender audio system with iPod integration and a rear-seat ski pass-through. The 2.5L SEL Premium tacks on foglamps, keyless entry with push-button start, leather upholstery, driver memory functions and a power passenger's seat.
The diesel-powered Passat TDI starts at the SE trim level with a six-speed manual transmission, featuring the 2.5L SE's standard and optional equipment plus electric-assist power steering and optional 18-inch alloys. The top-of-the-line TDI is the SEL Premium, which includes a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission but is otherwise equipped similarly to the 2.5L SEL Premium.
The V6-powered 3.6 SE includes the automated manual transmission, 18-inch alloy wheels and most of the 2.5L SEL's equipment save for the navigation system, which is the SD-based version with the smaller screen. The range-topping 3.6 SEL Premium gets the hard-drive-based navigation system and the rest of the other SEL Premium models' equipment, plus wood-grain interior trim.
The first emotion we felt on entering the new Passat was relief. We were worried that interior quality would take a hit, but it generally hasn't. The premium German vibe that set previous Passats apart has mostly been retained, from the upscale look of the gauges to the precision feel of the knobs and levers. The front seats offer minimal lateral support, even with the SEL-and-up "comfort sport" bolstering, but we're okay with that. The new Passat is definitely all about highway cruising, and there's ample long-distance support no matter which seats you choose.
In back, the Passat offers class-leading legroom that again had us thinking fondly of big old Buicks. It's so spacious back there that the Passat could actually be a viable alternative to large cars like the Toyota Avalon and the Hyundai Azera. We're a little miffed that a rear center armrest doesn't come standard on the 2.5L, though, and our tallest editors commented that headroom was a bit tight.
Trunk capacity is above average at 15.9 cubic feet.
The entry-level Passat is pretty basic on the audio front, sporting only a CD stereo with an auxiliary input, although at least Bluetooth is standard. We're troubled that iPod integration is only included starting at the SE trim level, and a USB port simply isn't offered at all, so flash drive fans will have to transfer their MP3s onto an SD card if their Passats are so equipped. But the optional Fender audio system is well worth the price of admission, delivering excellent sound by family sedan standards.
Higher trims offer a touchscreen audio interface and not one but two navigation systems; we'd skip straight to the hard-drive-based unit if possible, as it boasts not only the larger 6.5-inch screen but also about 20 GB of music storage for MP3 aficionados. The smaller, SD-based navigation system works well enough, but we'd always wonder if we should have stepped up to the fancier system.
Performance & Fuel Economy
All Passats employ a front-wheel-drive layout. The Passat 2.5 is powered by a 2.5-liter inline-5 that generates 170 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on the base 2.5L, while a six-speed automatic controls the other trims. Unlike many critics, we feel some affection for this engine, which has more character in its five-cylinder growl than most rival inline-4s put together. We can't defend the fuel economy, however, which is below average for an all-new family sedan at 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway with the manual and 21/32 mpg with the automatic.
The Passat TDI features a turbo-diesel 2.0-liter inline-4 paired with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission. Output checks in at 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. Although the TDI is ultimately a bit slower than the 2.5, it feels quicker around town thanks to all that torque, which is available virtually from the moment you depress the throttle. Audible diesel clatter is kept to a minimum, and fuel economy is stellar at 31/43 mpg with the manual and 30/40 mpg with the dual-clutch automatic transmission.
The Passat 3.6 packs a 3.6-liter narrow-angle VR6 V6 that cranks out 280 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque, transforming the Passat into an unassuming muscle car. Acceleration is downright swift with this engine, and it makes fun noises, too. The transmission is the dual-clutch automated manual, a surprisingly sporty choice; after all, the ostensibly sportier CC VR6 is stuck with a conventional six-speed automatic. We're big fans of this transmission in powerful models, and it doesn't disappoint here, especially in manual mode with the steering-wheel-mounted shift buttons. Fuel economy is another pleasant surprise: 20/28 mpg is fairly frugal for such a muscular engine.
The 2012 Volkswagen Passat comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS and six airbags (front, front side, and and full-length side curtain).
The new Passat aced the government's crash tests, scoring a perfect five stars in front, side and overall crashworthiness. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety similarly awarded the Passat its highest rating of Good in every testing category.
The 2012 Passat is like an athlete after a full-body Novocain massage. You can tell there's some real handling capability in there that a sport-tuned suspension would tease out, but the default setup is definitely geared toward comfort. Not that we're complaining; the whole point of a mid-size sedan in America is to schlep a family around with minimal intrusion from the elements, and that's exactly what the Passat does. Bumps barely register for the most part, and road noise is lower than average. If you really care about sporty handling, that's why the CC exists.
Other Cars to Consider
Honda Accord - The Accord is no longer a class leader in most respects, but it's multitalented, and the allure of Honda reliability remains strong.
Kia Optima - You can choose from a capable 2.4-liter base engine or an awesome 274-horsepower turbo in the Optima, and there's even a hybrid version. Fuel economy is excellent, and the styling speaks for itself.
Toyota Camry - The new-for-2012 Camry offers significantly improved handling along with a 2.5-liter inline-4 that trounces the Passat's inline-5 in both power and fuel economy.
We're partial to the Passat TDI, which offers unbeatable fuel economy and range (hybrid models aside) along with a healthy turbocharged shove at low speeds. Plus, even the entry-level TDI SE comes pretty well equipped.