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Detroit 2011: Volkswagen’s New Midsize Sedan is the 2012 Passat

We’ve been hearing about Volkswagen’s New Midsize Sedan for some time now and how the company developed it specifically for the U.S. market. We learned last night that the much-touted NMS is actually a Passat and got our first look at the sedan in person today at the 2011 Detroit auto show.

Although the NMS is retaining the Passat moniker, it is indeed quite different from the European Passat. Rather than the scaled-down Phaeton Europeans get, the U.S.-spec model is more of a scaled-up Jetta. Like the Jetta, which VW developed with Americans’ tastes in mind as well, the U.S.-spec Passat grows substantially — it’s almost four inches longer than its current European sibling introduced at the Paris Motor Show. Design differentiators include new headlights and a completely different car behind the B-pillars. This includes new rear doors and a new rear fascia with crisp, clean lines reminiscent of Audi styling.

Contrary to the new Passat’s substantial growth, its starting price will actually shrink substantially in order to better compete with the midsize segment’s heavy hitters. Final pricing has yet to be announced, but the new Passat is expected to start somewhere around $20,000 instead of almost $30,000.

Judging by the substantial drop in price, one would expect interior material quality to drop accordingly. The materials — with soft-touch door panels and dashboard — are all up to par for its class. The controls are all laid in a logical, Germanic fashion, and have an elegant, upscale look. Tasteful chrome accents highlight the interior along with a variety of dashboard trims — from a titanium-look “Titan” material in the base car to a so-called Autumn Nut Burl wood in the top-of-the-line SEL.

Powertrains, like the rest of the car, have been oriented to “meet the needs of customers in that segment” according to Toscan Bennett, vice president of VW’s president for marketing and strategy. We’d be remiss not to say that the base engine is now VW’s 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter I-5 rather than the 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 of the outgoing car. The I-5 can be mated to either a five-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Next up is VW’s 3.6-liter, VR6 engine that puts out 280 horsepower. This is mated solely to a six-speed dual-clutch. The big surprise though, is the announcement that the diesel Passat will return. Passat TDI models will use VW’s 2.0-liter, turbo-diesel I-4. With this engine, the Passat will achieve 43 mpg on the highway, but its 140 horsepower may leave you wanting for power.

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