REVIEWS: 2012 Volkswagen Passat SE

September 1, 2011
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Much has been said about the 2012 Passat: It is the second of Volkswagen's new "Americanized" cars and the first to come from its all-new factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The new plant seems up to snuff in the initial-quality department, with panels all screwed together well and with reasonably tight panel gaps. I say "reasonably" because Fisher Price-grade plastics can fit together only so tightly. While the cabin may be attractively designed, there are few soft-touch plastics to be found and too many that are reminiscent of the little red-and-yellow buggy many of us had as children.
2012 Volkswagen Passat SE Front Left View
If the Passat were the price-leader in the segment, the low-rent interior might be more understandable. Volkswagen likes to tout the low-low price of $19,995 (before destination), but our automatic-equipped 2.5 SE came in at $25,595 with destination. That the price tag sits mid-pack. Both the Hyundai and the Kia as well as the Mazda6 sticker for less; the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord are within a few hundred dollars; and the Subaru Legacy and Ford Fusion are the most expensive.
The Passat does, however, have a clean, slick exterior design and is engaging to drive -- two major points in its favor. I was able to drive my neighbor's current-generation Accord back-to-back with this Passat; we both agreed that the Passat looked better (and bigger) and its well-weighted steering and peppy five-cylinder made it much more enjoyable behind the wheel; its downsides were touchy brakes and a sub-par interior. The neighbor's final verdict was that it was more appealing, but he wouldn't buy one given VW's spotty quality history.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
I have to admit that when I first saw this car at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show, I did not like it. I wondered how could VW create something so beautiful and fun to drive as the CC, and then launch this version of a Passat? I still think CC is what Passat should have evolved to, but VW has its market ambitions.
The keys arrived Friday. I was off for a Passat experience weekend. It appeared that this was the base model, as extras seemed to be few and far between. There was not even air vents for rear passengers. So far it was living up to my low expectations.
Fast forward to Sunday evening. I'd taken the trash out and when walking back looking at the car in the driveway, I thought... I actually like this car. It's a basic car, but with good bones. It needs a few things, as all cars do, but I grew to like it. The steering wheel felt great in the hands. It surprised me with the power that it had. Its lack of body roll set it apart from the Sonata and Camry. Fuel range was impressive, and there's loads of room for long-legged back seat drivers/passengers.
Would I buy one...no. The CC is more who I am. My opinion of the Passat has changed after my experience with it. Maybe it's not so bad after all.
Kelly Murphy, Creative Director
In chopping the Passat's price by some $7000 compared to the previous version, VW achieved its biggest cost savings not in the interior (which is still quite nice), or the chassis (which provides a decent ride), but in the powertrain. The base engine in the 2010 model was Volkswagen's highly regarded 2.0-liter turbo, which made a hearty 200 hp and 207 pound-feet of torque while still returning 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. Now we get the old 2.5-liter five out of the cheaper Jetta. Despite having one more cylinder, this is not an upgrade. The five musters only 170 hp and 177 pound-feet of torque, but despite the lower power output, fuel economy is about the same (21 mpg city, 33 mpg highway). In addition to being not particularly economical, the five-cylinder is coarse and not at all engaging, quite unlike the old 2.0T.
For buyers willing to spend more, better options exist: the fuel miserly TDI and the potent 3.6-liter V-6. As for the base car, things will get better. Word is that VW finally will be dumping the cheap-to-build but uninspiring five in favor of a direct-injected 1.8-liter turbo four. That will be a welcome change indeed for buyers of the standard Passat, and will eradicate the worst sacrifice exacted in the quest for greater affordability.
Joe Lorio, Senior Editor
Like my colleagues, I'm skeptical of Volkswagen's plan to make its cars cheaper in both price and quality. Imagine the uproar if Apple announced plans to slash prices on its laptops by equipping them with 20-gigabyte hard drives and monochrome screens. However, the de-contented 2011 Jetta is selling far better than the 2010 Jetta, leading me to grudgingly admit VW may have found a winning formula for sales success.
If the 2012 Passat were your first Volkswagen -- and especially if you had previously driven a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord -- you would probably be very happy with it. But if you've ever driven another VW product, even a ten-year-old base Jetta, you'll notice the areas in which VW cut corners on this car. The trunk is no longer fully lined and lacks the hidden hinges of other VWs. The hood uses a cheap prop rod instead of gas struts. The interior materials aren't as soft or plush as in other models, like the Golf.
I would have no problem driving a Passat 2.5SE, equipped just like our tester, as my daily driver. It drives well, looks reasonably nice, and has a positively enormous rear seat. But whereas other Volkswagen products feel special and intangibly nicer than their competitors, the Passat just feels like any other roomy mid-size sedan. The Passat is not a terrible car, but nor is it amazing in any way.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
2012 Volkswagen Passat SE Steering Wheel Controls
My colleagues in the auto journalist community bitched and brayed about the new Volkswagen Jetta for so long that by the time I had an opportunity to drive it, I was shocked that it wasn't the pile of you-know-what that many of them had made it out to be. Such was the case again with the Passat, which has been much maligned over the past six months for supposedly falling short of the highly regarded B5-series Passat that arrived here in 1998. So when I finally stepped into the 2012 Passat SE last night, imagine my surprise when I found a smooth, supple, refined, predictable, and relatively luxurious sedan. This new Passat is no B5, but it also costs significantly less in 2011 dollars. Yeah, the five-cylinder engine is a little noisy at full revs, but it's all the engine most Americans need or want, and it works well with the six-speed automatic. A V-6 is also available. More important than the power under the hood is the chassis, and this one is nicely tuned, providing a very creamy yet controlled ride and very good steering. I stormed along one of my favorite stretches of curvy road in the Passat and was quite pleased with its demeanor. It felt appreciably different from American and Asian competitors; it felt German.
2012 Volkswagen Passat SE Rear Left View
I cannot get over how huge the interior is. I'm five feet, eleven inches and I adjusted the front seat to a comfortable driving position and then moved to the rear seat directly behind, and there was a ton of legroom. There's plenty of space in this American-made sedan for big Americans.
I also did not mind the fake leather upholstery, and although the plastics are undeniably not as nice as they were in the B5 Passat, they are far from offensive and everything in the cabin is well put together. I like the shallow dash and the A-pillars, which aren't too thick, helping the sense of good forward visibility. Our tester had a bunch of blank buttons around the gearshift lever that I suppose are for options that our car didn't have, but we at least had Bluetooth and satellite radio.
There are signs of cost-cutting, to be sure, but they're pretty subtle. Lift the hood and pull up the support pole, because there are no self-positioning struts. When you go to the other end of the car to access the large trunk, you might be a little disappointed, as I was, that the big chrome VW badge does not rotate inward to unlatch the trunk lid. Instead, there's a conventional rubber touch pad tucked up under the lid. The trunk has a low lift-over height and handles on the underside of the lid to easily pull it shut. Cost-cutting rears its head with the exposed support hinges; more expensively finished cars would tuck those behind the trunk trim so they don't squash your belongings.
So the Passat no longer features a Mercedes-Benz interior at Volkswagen pricing. Surely no one expected that to last forever.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
I largely agree with Joe DeMatio -- the Passat has been so lambasted in early reviews that you'd be forgiven for thinking the car no longer came with a radio or air-conditioning. Whenever a savage review comes out for a mainstream vehicle, it's wise to step back and remember that the average journalist wants a 500+ hp turbo-diesel station wagon with all-wheel drive and a manual transmission.
As equipped, this Passat is reasonably priced and I'm not left wishing for more equipment. Perhaps navigation should be included for $25,595 since our Four Seasons Hyundai Sonata included navigation and a sunroof for $25,965. I don't have a problem with the leatherette seating because it's easier to clean than cloth if you have children or pets and isn't nearly as expensive as leather.
As an owner of a 1987 Volkswagen Quantum Syncro wagon, I feel nostalgic when I drive any new Volkswagen with an in-line five and doubly so in a Passat since the Passat replaced the Quantum. Somehow the I-5 actually manages to provide (almost) as much power as a six-cylinder engine and returns four-cylinder fuel economy in this application. It still feels slow to rev, but there's enough torque to satisfy me while the engine winds up. The car's trip computer showed an average of 30+ mpg in my mix of city and highway driving, achieved without the slightest effort on my part to maximize fuel economy. Nice.
That said, driving the new Passat leaves me feeling shortchanged. It no longer feels special or distinct in a sea of mid-size cars that struggle to balance content with aggressive pricing. There are obviously cost-cutting measures in place here, but no one example really upsets me. I think Volkswagen looked at our country and determined that nobody gives a damn about cars and the huge cost cuts wouldn't be noticed by consumers. As a car enthusiast and current Volkswagen owner, that infuriates me. But as a realist who has seen sales reports, it appears that the Germans were right. So the Passat may be better than ever to recommend to friends and family members and worse than ever to consider for myself. If this is what's needed to keep the real Volkswagens (anything in the Golf/GTI family) coming to the U.S., then I'll accept it.
My advice? If you want a great mid-size car right now, be sure to check out the Korean competition before you decide to buy anything. If you really want a Volkswagen, just get a Golf.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
2012 Volkswagen Passat SE Engine Parts
In his hilarious analysis of a bloated late 1970s Led Zeppelin concert, writer Chuck Klosterman asks, "How many bands aspire to this alleged mediocrity and totally fail?"
2012 Volkswagen Passat SE Rear Slight Left View
I think this same question can be asked of the new Volkswagen Passat. The enthusiast community has brought its wrath upon this vehicle because it's neither as good as the last one nor as rich as what European customers can buy. This is perfectly understandable - no one wants to be fed mutton and told it's lamb. And yet a mediocre Volkswagen still benefits from the institutional knowledge of a company that builds several of the world's best cars. The ride quality and steering for instance, are tuned with an expertise that still mostly eludes the engineers of the excellent Hyundai Sonata. The interior hits the sweet spot of style and spaciousness. No, it isn't as lavishly dressed as that of a cheaper Golf. But the Golf -- bless its heart -- is barely a blip on the U.S. car sales map. The five-cylinder engine provides the low-end torque that most mid-size buyers want, although it betrays its age by returning poorer fuel economy than competitors' four-cylinders. Overall, the American Passat has become larger and cheaper without completely sacrificing the intrinsic qualities we in the German car cheering section have always treasured.
There is, however, one corollary to this measured praise: If Volkswagen is serious about chasing the average American buyer, it must pursue flawless quality and reliability. Enthusiasts are willing to put up with "quirks" like interior squeaks or, say, subframe bolts that come loose because we fervently and irrationally love our cars. The value-focused American buyer will have no such patience. In fairness, both our Four Seasons 2009 Jetta TDI and 2010 GTI were quite good in this regard. The Passat and its new assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, however, have zero margin for error.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
Aside from a bit too much wind and road noise permeating the cabin, I was (happily) having a hard time coming up with weaknesses of the new Passat. Until, that is, I tried to raise the sunvisor back to its typical against-the-headliner position, and it fell right out of the ceiling at the pivot point near the A-pillar. Fortunately, the inner clip held it up and I was able to more or less snap it back into place. I never did get it fully reattached the way it's supposed to be, though.
In other news, I was shocked by the vast amount of rear-seat space in this car. If I swing my legs when I'm seated behind myself in the Passat (I'm five-foot-six), I can barely reach the back of the driver's seat to kick it. That's a lot of legroom.
The steering is too light and even a bit too quick for my liking, but this Volkswagen doesn't handle poorly. Power from the five-cylinder is perfectly adequate, and the engine emits a nice growl. I'd need the steering wheel to telescope farther backward in the car to attain a truly comfortable and natural driving position, though.
For all the drama we've heard about the cost-cutting in this car, I didn't find the interior terribly lacking in quality. Clearly it's not the nicest cabin in the current VW lineup, but it's not bad. Except for that sunvisor, of course.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
My thoughts on the new Volkswagen Passat are already well known from my first drive) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. While I was firm in my luke-warm convictions, it's always nice to have a second opportunity behind the wheel to confirm -- or refute -- my original opinion. After spending a night in Michigan with Volkswagen's new mid-size sedan, my thoughts:
The new Passat certainly doesn't feel $7000 cheaper inside. The interior is extremely well done and the Passat is significantly more refined than the Golf or the Jetta when it comes to wind and road noise. With a well-sorted chassis, a competent suspension, and a quiet cabin, the new Passat's best qualities pertain to ride quality more than to handling. Without a doubt, it rides more comfortably and with more composure than the much-ballyhooed Sonata. It also steers far better than the Sonata. The rorty engine revs willingly and is smoother than many large-displacement four-cylinders. By all objective measures, and any subjective measure that you'd care to hold a Camry to, the Passat is a fine car. It offers adequate power, respectable fuel economy, generous space, a great ride, and a fair value.
So have I changed my tune? Not exactly. Everything you read in the paragraph above was lifted from my first drive of the new Passat. I stand by every word, as I do with the other 1432 words. There are plenty of nice things to say about the Passat, particularly if you want to judge it by the same criteria as any other family sedan. But what made the last Passat so special was that it existed in a world without any direct peer. I still miss that.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
2012 Volkswagen Passat SE Front Interior
2012 Volkswagen Passat SE
2012 Volkswagen Passat SE Badge
Base price (with destination): $20,765
Price as tested: $25,595
Standard Equipment:
2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine
Six-speed automatic transmission
17" alloy wheels
V-Tex leatherette
Dual-zone automatic climate control
Bluetooth connectivity
8-way power driver seat
Heated front seats
Touch-screen Premium VIII radio
Multi-Function leather-wrapped steering wheel
Aluminum trim dash and middle console
Exterior chrome window trim
Sliding front center armrest
Options on this vehicle:
2.5 SE Package- $4830
Key options not on vehicle:
2.5 SE w/sunroof- $5630
2.5 SE w/ sunroof & navigation w/Mobile Device Interface- $6800
2.5 SEL- $8400
2.5 SEL 2- $9900
Fuel economy:
(city/hwy)
21/32 mpg
Engine:
2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine
Horsepower: 170 hp @ 5700 rpm
Torque: 177 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
Drive:
Front-wheel
Transmission:
Six-speed automatic transmission
Curb weight: 3166 lb
Wheels/tires: 17-in. alloy wheels
215/55R17 all-season tires
Competitors: Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Mazda6, Subaru Legacy
2012 Volkswagen Passat SE Front Left Side View

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