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.
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