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?"
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