First Drive: 2012 Volkswagen Passat

May 22, 2011
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This isn't a sales projection, nor is it the validation of a business case. An Automobile Magazine review isn't the place for that. As automotive savants, we -- and presumably you, too -- are more interested in a car's merits as a car, independent of where it's built, how it's advertised, and what the dealer network looks like. We simply want to know how well machine pairs with man and mission.
2012 Volkswagen Passat Left Full Side View
But you can't separate the 2012 Volkswagen Passat from its sales target. The car has become exactly what the lofty sales goal demands. Executives won't say exactly how many Passats they hope to move, only that the number has six figures. Last year, only 12,497 Passats rolled off dealer lots in America. And thus the 2012 Passat was born.
Standing twenty feet from it, I am struck by emotions that eat at me in an uncomfortable way -- confusion, concern, skepticism -- as a brand with a definitive image arrives at the lowest common denominators of the American mid-size sedan. There's the sense that with every crease of the sheetmetal, every tenth of an inch of legroom, and every penny of the price, Volkswagen vigilantly calculated how many buyers would be won and how many buyers would be lost.
To fit our tastes (and our waists!), the Ideal American Mid-Size Sedan must be approximately 190 inches long, 72 inches wide, and 58 inches tall. To get there, the Passat has grown by about four inches in length and wheelbase over the outgoing car while adding a half inch in width and height. Dimensionally, it falls between the Honda Accord and the Hyundai Sonata, a car that the VW marketing team seemed to gingerly avoid mentioning in its presentation to journalists.
Of course, it's hard to imagine many buyers cross-shopping the Passat with the new segment standard, since they sit at opposite ends of the style spectrum. Volkswagen has always played it conservatively when it comes to design, but the new Passat (and the 2011 Jetta before it) has taken clean and understated styling to a new level, overshooting the target and instead arriving at anonymous and uninspired. It's enough to make the Toyota Camry look interesting, dynamic, even exciting.
The real price of entry into the mainstream market, however, is...well, the price of entry. And on that front, Volkswagen has taken drastic measures to get into the game, cutting $7000 from the base price. Of a $27,000 car.
Surely a 25 percent price drop shows up in the cabin; the interior of a car is a bean counter's playground, and the stakes are particularly high for the Passat. This is Volkswagen's domain. A sizable portion of VW's reputation has been built on the exceptional materials and superb fit that helped justify the brand's premium pricing. Can VW retain the high-dollar feel at a low-dollar cost? The competition has been closing the gap lately.
2012 Volkswagen Passat Rear Left View
A clinical poke of the dash reveals it's not the squishy-soft rubbery goodness that we've been spoiled with, and the climate-control knobs spin with a grainy, sandy resistance rather than polished-stone fluidity. Run your fingertips through the glove box, and you'll discover that it's no longer lined in upscale flocking. Yes, the neurotic, detail-obsessed Wolfsburg faithful will find plenty of evidence of cost cutting, but beyond those micro-level details, the Passat's interior is extremely well done, and it feels -- at least in range-topping SEL trim -- as solidly constructed and smartly designed as the prior car. The usual no-frills design and no-nonsense control layout is refreshingly easy to use among the increasingly complicated center stacks we're faced with. The new Passat certainly doesn't feel $7000 cheaper inside -- but then, the interior isn't the only place VW banked some green.
More savings were reaped under the hood, where a prop rod stands in for the old car's gas struts. More significant, the excellent turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder has been scrapped -- direct injection and turbochargers are expensive. In its place is the good but decidedly less excellent 2.5-liter five-cylinder. As a result, output falls from 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque to 170 hp and 177 lb-ft.
Those new numbers fall right in line with the base engines of the competition, but the character of VW's five-cylinder is unique. The rorty engine revs willingly and is smoother than many large-displacement four-cylinders. The optional six-speed automatic transmission (a five-speed stick is standard) is generally well mannered but occasionally schleps through downshifts. Disappointingly, there's no fuel economy to be gained from giving up power. Paired with the automatic, the 2.5-liter makes the same 22/31 mpg city/highway as the turbo 2.0-liter did in the previous Passat. There will still be savings at the pump, though, due to the switch from premium to regular gasoline.
While the rest of the mid-size world moves toward a fuel-stingy future with four-cylinder-only engine lineups, Volkswagen is adding a six-cylinder back into the Passat family after a three-year absence. The 3.6-liter, narrow-angle V-6 makes 280 hp and 258 lb-ft and is mated to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic. The marketers say it's what the segment wants, but anybody who's driven Hyundai's 274-hp, 35-highway-mpg Sonata Turbo can make a compelling argument otherwise. Although the 200-hp version of the VW 2.0T is weak by today's standards, the Volkswagen Group has other applications where the 2.0T produces more than 260 hp and 250 lb-ft. The VR6 wasn't on hand for our test drive, but the decision not to use the turbo four-cylinder leaves us sore on a philosophical point. The company that committed to the turbo four long before Ford or Hyundai or BMW got religion is now forsaking its best engine for a market that is rapidly disappearing.
2012 Volkswagen Passat Left View
The peace offering is Volkswagen's superb 2.0-liter turbo-diesel. At 31/43 mpg, the 2.0 TDI is not as efficient as either the Ford Fusion Hybrid or the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, but it's an engine that, compared with the other fuel-economy specials, carries the virtues of big torque and big spirit. The choice of either a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch automatic is a reminder that this diesel is the driving man's alternative to a hybrid. It delivers a broad band of turbocharged thrust scaled to a diesel's truncated tachometer and complemented by the crisp, full-throttle upshifts of the DSG transmission.
The Passat's weight (a reasonable 3400 pounds in TDI spec) necessitates the 2.0-liter diesel's first use of a urea tank to clean up exhaust emissions. It will need to be refilled at 10,000-mile intervals. Curiously, the largest and most expensive of the TDI cars is less refined than what you get with the Golf TDI. In the Passat, the engine is both louder and transmits more vibration into the cabin, and at every stop there's the audible slap of liquid -- either fuel or urea -- sloshing against the front of the tank.
Thankfully, 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. American-centric tuning has softened the suspension, particularly on rebound over gentle undulations, but the Passat drives down the road with a solidity and confidence that speak to its Germanic influence. This car would rather cradle you over a strip of beat-up freeway than weave through mountain roads. Without a doubt, it rides more comfortably and with more composure than the much-ballyhooed Sonata. It also steers far better than the Sonata, and we deeply appreciate that the steering wheel is smaller than the comically large piece in the Jetta.
2012 Volkswagen Passat Steering Wheel
That's not to say the steering is perfect. In the 2.5-liter Passat, steering effort is strangely heavy at parking-lot speeds, and although the wheels react quickly to on-center adjustments, there isn't much weight or feel in those first few degrees. Bend the Passat into a turn, though, and the effort builds nicely.
The power assist from the TDI model's steering is significantly higher at all speeds, making for a lighter, less connected feel. It's not just tuning or weight distribution or perception. The TDI uses electrically assisted power steering, while the 2.5-liter engine drives a hydraulic pump. In terms of character, the steering systems should be swapped between the two cars, and yet the fact that the base car uses hydraulic assistance is a sore reminder that the dollars, not the drivers, dictated the decisions here. Every serious mid-size competitor will have adopted electric power steering by its next major update. Old Volkswagen -- the brand that valued technology over price -- would have used the fuel-saving feature across the lineup.
Old Volkswagen didn't need to offer cars with the highest fuel economy or the lowest price when the brand was more closely associated with BMW and Audi than it was with Hyundai and Ford. Buyers happily paid a premium for impeccable interiors, progressive technology, and a smart balance of performance and efficiency. But when the company is shooting for the middle of the market, where the sheeple graze from brand to brand based on price, fuel economy, or the latest quality scores, it's going to hurt that Volkswagen can't lay claim to any of that frivolity. Still, the company will likely sell tens of thousands more Passats than it has in the past few years.
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. But in setting the price of the Passat to be competitive, Volkswagen paid a price to compete in the mainstream mid-size segment. The character, the specialness, and the allure aren't what they used to be. With the Passat, Volkswagen has traded soul for sales.
2012 Volkswagen Passat Left Side View
The Specs
On sale:
September
Price: $20,000/$25,000/$27,000 (I-5/TDI/V-6, est.)
Engines: 2.5L I-5, 170 hp, 177 lb-ft; 2.0L turbo-diesel I-4, 140 hp, 236 lb-ft; 3.6L V-6, 280 hp, 258 lb-ft
Drive: Front-wheel
Then & Now Volkswagen in America
THEN
In 1976, Volkswagen purchased an unfinished factory from Chrysler in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, to become the first foreign automaker since World War II with a plant in the United States. Ambitious plans for American expansion fell flat, however, in part because of quality problems, high pricing, and an undesirable softening of the Westmoreland-made Rabbit (and its Golf successor). The facility was operating at just 30 percent of its planned capacity when the last car rolled off the line ten years after the factory opened.
The location: New Stanton, PA
The car: Rabbit/Golf
The sticker price: $4220 (1978)
The investment: $250 million
The incentives: $100 million
Annual capacity: 200,000 vehicles
Ambitious goal: 5 percent market share
Sobering reality: 3 percent peak in 1980
Employment effect: 2500 laid off at closing
NOW
A return to U.S. manufacturing hedges against the volatility of currency fluctuations as Volkswagen aims to drastically ramp up its American sales. From a choice of 398 sites, Volkswagen settled in Chattanooga, Tennessee, because of the location's access to two interstates and two rail lines, along with a fat incentive package. The plant sits on redeveloped land that was formerly home to the old Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant. Just down the road, Amazon.com is developing a $139 million distribution center.
The location: Chattanooga, TN
The car: Passat
The sticker price: $20,000 (2012)
The investment: $1 billion
The incentives: $557.4 million
Annual capacity: 150,000 vehicles
Ambitious goal: 800,000 brand sales
Sobering reality: 256,830 sales in 2010
Employment effect: 85,000+ job applications

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2012 Volkswagen Passat

S FWD 4-Dr Sedan I5
starting at (MSRP)
$19,995
Engine
2.5L I5
Fuel Economy
22 City 32 Hwy
2012 Volkswagen Passat