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.
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