The new VW Passat is a disappointment. In a good way.

I recently had the chance to get behind the wheel of the new Volkswagen Passat, and I’m disappointed. Disappointed in my peers, that is. I’ve read plenty of commentaries about how VW’s newest sedan is watered-down, cheapened, and boring – and I just plain disagree.

First, please let me confess that I’m a Volkswagen dork. I own two old VWs at the moment – one that I’ve adored for fourteen years, longer than anything else but my elderly cat. It’s won a number of trophies at Waterfest (the car did, not the cat), and I owe most of my (somewhat embarrassing) social life to my cars. Further, in an interview at this year’s Geneva auto show, I demonstrated my Vee Dub purism by slightly infuriating VW of America boss Jonathan Browning. The veins in his temples were sticking out by the time I was done giving him a hard time about the Jetta, a car that is a couple of ill-placed cost-savings measures and cheap tricks from being a great machine.

The Passat, on the other hand, is just fine. No, it’s more than just fine. It’s elegant, understated, mature, and handsome. And it takes only one look at the Toyota Camry’s sales figures to see how popular of a recipe that is. Sure, the Hyundai Sonata is impressive to look at, but to my eyes, it’s dramatically overstyled and I bet it’ll age poorly.

Clean designs like the Passat’s age well. They also appeal to a lot of people. Remember the frenzy at VW dealerships in 1999 when the B5 Passat and A4 Jetta were all the rage? Look at those two cars—they perfectly embodied German car design: simple and functional. And they each looked $10,000 more expensive than they were.

The new Passat does exactly the same thing. In fact, I drove it to Cars & Coffee in Orange County – and the organizers let me in. To the exhibitor’s area. And when I parked it between an incredibly opulent brown Mercedes CL63 AMG and (an admittedly pretty homely) BMW M6, it looked great. It looked elegant, substantial, rich. It looked like it belonged there. Try that in a Sonata!

ParagraphImage

[caption id="attachment_11003" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="The Passat holds its own (in the looks department) against an BMW M6 and a Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG at Cars & Coffee in Irvine, CA."][/caption]

It’s more of the same from inside the cabin. VW’s five-cylinder is a segment exclusive, and it gives the Passat more character than anyone’s four-cylinder. The steering isn’t perfect, but none of the cars in this class have perfect steering, and it’s better than the Camry’s, far better than the Sonata's, and probably about as good as an Accord's. What matters most: the Passat is comfy, it’s smooth, its back seat and trunk are absolutely enormous, it’s easy to use, it’s quiet, it’s refined, and it feels very, very expensive.

When no one was looking, I took the Passat for two laps on Buttonwillow raceway while there for another event. And to my surprise, it handled very, very well. Obviously no, it’s not a rear-wheel drive sport sedan, but it did just fine. Chassis balance is great (though you can’t disable stability control) and the brakes held up commendably. My only kvetch is that the steering wheel kicks back under bumps at the limit—something I also noticed on an on-ramp.

(And by the way, I took a Jetta TDI out for four laps. I will no longer accept any criticism on the way that car handles. I said it before and now I’ll say it in Italics: torsion beam rear suspension or not, the Jetta is a fine handler. To quote a colleague who’d like to remain anonymous: anyone who says the new Jetta doesn’t handle well needs to go to driver’s school. Amen.)

Volkswagen has pulled the e-brake and done a U-turn: the company can’t continue selling cars in the U.S. without making a profit, so it needs to pump up the volume. And where other car companies have gone and turned their backs on their existing customers, VW’s charging forward with a two-tiered product strategy: their premium cars that attract a (relatively) small number of fervent fans will continue on: GTI, Golf, the diesels, New Beetle, and CC, Jetta Wagon. And the mass market gets Jettas and Passats tailored specifically to their wants and needs.

What’s the problem with that? I see none. The only problem I see is that so many of my esteemed peers are comparing the new mass-market cars with the old, expensive small-market cars. Obviously the old $28,000 Passat did a few things the new $20,000 Passat doesn't. But guess what: nobody bought that $28,000 Passat. And I’d rather have a Passat that people buy so that we enthusiasts can get things like the GTI, the Golf R, the (surprisingly hot) new Beetle, and—keep your fingers crossed—the next Scirocco.

Volkswagen is the people’s car, and now it’s bending over backward to appeal to more people.  And the problem is….?

 

ParagraphImage

[caption id="attachment_11007" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="The '12 Passat and '11 Jetta look alike, but is that a problem? We'd say no. Look at the B5 Passat and A4 Jetta."][/caption]

 

 

david
I commend your fandom of vw, personally I wont buy one until we get a real choice in engines since the EU VW's get mpg's better than the Prius. I like the new vw's but killing the passat wagon & not updating the golf/jetta wagon will hurt. VW isn't looking to make Traditoonal vw owners happy, they are going the way of hundai to get new owners And buyers so they can make more money. I preffered the old sonata and I'm keeping it. The v6 gets 29-31 mpg hwy! Drives better than most new cars and is killer on dependabilty. I was going to get the new passat wagon tdi but since it's not coming I'll probably end up going to germany and buy the diesel v60 wagon, or bmw 1 sport ute.
David
I owned a 1999 Passat GLX, then a 2003, then a 2006. I liked the evolution of design and thoroughly enjoyed driving them. As my '06 neared 55K miles, the service advisor told me about all the problems other customers were having with their Passats in that mileage range, and that they were pricey fixes. It was a multi-brand dealer, and he tried to convince me to buy a Mazda 6. I didn't want a Mazda, but he had convinced me that it was time to unload my Passat. Instead, I bought a Lexus ES 330 that I've been very happy with, but I miss how my VW's handled and rode. The style of the new Passat is disappointingly flat. At first glance, I'm not sure if I'm looking at a Chevy or a Honda or a Kia. VW's not going to win me back with this vanilla car.
Dayne
"Obviously the old $28,000 Passat did a few things the new $20,000 Passat doesn't’t. But guess what: nobody bought that $28,000 Passat. And I’d rather have a Passat that people buy so that we enthusiasts can get things like the GTI, the Golf R, the (surprisingly hot) new Beetle, and—keep your fingers crossed—the next Scirocco" Yes!!! Great job Jason, it really is that simple. It sure is easy to critisize VW 5 years ago so many said "to bad VW cant build the Jetta/ Passat cheaper to compete in there segments" And now you here the "sell-out claim. Understand More Camry's are sold every year in the US then ALL the VW's together. The Camry is not bought because it is exciting or exotic or even fun to drive. VW just like every other manufacturer will always be criticized but Jason is correct if we want to keep the chance to buy the cars we love from VW then it is simple...VW needs to compete in the American market! Who here would take a Corolla over a Jetta but yet Millions of people a year do. Why? well thats simple to....
Dayne
Yes VW does rank low but the JD Powers IQS study includes DTU's or difficult to understand. So if a New Car owner has problems operating the car including controls for radios navigation ac/heat and even how to adjust the seat it gets ranked the same. VW is to low on this list but they suffer far to much due to the fact European design confuses Americans. Reportedly so you can relate a large number of IQS deductions on DTU's and not quality, know one believes a domestic Japanese or even Koren car is higher quality then any German engineered car. VW Dealerships need to do a better job when the deliver the car and make sure the new owner understands ALL of the little differences then the "American" car so they don't suffer on the IQS study!
Chris Kelly
Great article!! I'd life to mention that I was the first to show up at Irvine Cars and Coffee a few months ago in the TDI Passat SEL that VW gave our dealership for test drives. I had more than one person come up and ask if Ithe Passat was a new Phaeton. The Passat is a GREAT car!
Banney
Trollolololol I wonder how much he was paid to say this stuff.
Jeremy
"Volkswagen is the people’s car, and now it’s bending over backward to appeal to more people. And the problem is….?" - The problem, Jason, is that they're no longer Volkswagens. Like you, I'm a Volkswagen fanatic. I've wanted one since I was twelve years old and suffered through my first two American cars simply to save enough to get the perfect VW I wanted. Not only do I now own THREE Volkswagens, but I've converted nearly all immediate family members and a few close friends into owners. But when you rant and rave about what excellent machines Volkswagens are, your words are no longer supported by the product VW is now pushing. The MKIV Jetta was a car like no other in its class. It didn't feel cheap like a Toyota Corolla and it wasn't a death trap like a Dodge Neon. It was something other auto makers simply weren't offering. Instead, the new Jetta and Passat are just that...a car that gets lost in the shuffle because they're just like everything else. Bland, boring, and uninspired. Now, instead of being able to get a new Jetta (the size is perfect), I won't because the interior feels more low-rent than that of my 1999 MKIV Jetta. Sure, VW may be selling their Jettas and Passats like hotcakes, but not to customers like you and me who have remained loyal to the brand. They're selling them to people who buy solely on price. And that, sir, doesn't create brand loyalty in the long run. - Jeremy.
Marry
BMW will release a car on the occasion of the Olympic Games 2012 Especially for the Olympic Games in 2012, the Bavarian company will launch two new models in a series of Performance Edition. Machines will be based on a hatchback and sedan-Series 3-Series. The first cars will be presented 3 – and 5-door versions of the 116i, 116d and 118d.
Mark
I love to drive with a manual transmission and the Passat is one of the few mid-sized range cars that still offers one. I find the Passat along with the Jetta to be incredible values with great handling and comfort, both of which you can't find with their competitors in their price ranges. Hertz has added the Jetta to its rental fleet; I drove one last year to Southern California via Highway 1 - curves and all - and the Jetta handled just right. I can't wait to take the 2012 Passat for a road run. Thanks for the great post!
Kelly VAn Rijn
The biggest question is the one not asked: What about reliability? VW has been building some of the most unreliable, poor quality cars for decades, and continues to do so. Just check out the latest JD Powers and Consumer Reports surveys.
Mike
It's sad to see VW go this direction, but I have to admit it seems to be working for them. There's obviously something to be said for getting more for less. But it's success in a WalMart kind of way. As an aside, Jason Cammisa is perhaps the best writer currently on Automobile's staff. The articles are highly entertaining, he's not afraid to be controversial (this Jetta article), criticize (i.e. Nissan Murano convertible), and his focus is usually dead on the what matters most. Jason, you also get bonus points, for not participating in that total sell out in the August issue 9:11 to 9:11. It should have been labeled "Special Advertising Section" and followed the paid Porsche ad with the exact same theme on page 15. It's pretty sad that Porsche can keep even Jean Jennings on a short leash and the result is blatant advertising being passed of as editorial journalism. Please try to talk some sense into your boss?
Brian
I hope you're right for both VW and us enthusiasts who appreciate them. Regarding the new Jetta, I recently compared one to the previous 2010 model. The interior is a disapointment. Going back to the previous materials for maybe the couple hundred buck extra should be a high priority for future model years.
Turbio
"And when I parked it between an incredibly opulent brown Mercedes CL63 AMG and (an admittedly pretty homely) BMW M6, it looked great. It looked elegant, substantial, rich. It looked like it belonged there. Try that in a Sonata!" Look, I think the Passat is a pretty decent if bland entry in the class, but this....this is delusional. I'm sorry. It looks pretty good compared to the rest of its class, especially if you like clean, understated, bland designs. It will indeed age well. But taking that statement any further else is laughable; it looks like exactly what it is, a nicely designed but pretty inexpensive mass-market sedan. It does not look at home between two cars costing three times as much. "(And by the way, I took a Jetta TDI out for four laps. I will no longer accept any criticism on the way that car handles. I said it before and now I’ll say it in Italics: torsion beam rear suspension or not, the Jetta is a fine handler. To quote a colleague who’d like to remain anonymous: anyone who says the new Jetta doesn’t handle well needs to go to driver’s school. Amen.)" Handles acceptably, sure. Rides well? Not particularly. Feeling the ass end of the car do a little line dance over a rough expansion joint is far more relevant than how well it maintains contact patches on a tract. Skittery butt is something I expect from an Elantra or Corolla. It's not what I expect from VW.
nick
lawl

New Car Research

Find vehicle reviews, photos & pricing

our instagram

get Automobile Magazine

Subscribe to the magazine and save up to 84% off the newsstand price

subscribe

new cars

Read Related Articles

TO TOP