Driven: 2012 Volkswagen Passat

By Brandon Turkus

June 06, 2011

—Chattanooga, Tennessee

800,000. 800,000 of anything is a lot. Have you ever seen 800,000 marbles? 800,000 dollars? What about 800,000 cars? Volkswagen hasn’t (at least not in one year), but that isn’t stopping the German manufacturer from aiming to produce eight-tenths of one million units per year by 2018. Just to put that in perspective, that sales increase is roughly equivalent to the 2010 production of Hyundai, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Kia, and Mercedes-Benz combined.

So to do that, the fine folks from Wolfsburg need to crack the hugely popular mid-size sedan market in a way that it’s scarcely dreamed. That means a rethinking of its mid-size Passat—a sedan that hasn’t exactly captured the hearts and minds of American customers, due in some measure to its high price. Fortunately, VW has done a good deal more than just slash the Passat’s price for 2012.

The new Passat will be offered in three trims, with three engine choices, and two transmissions, limiting the new model to 16 different combinations (a considerable reduction from the 128 possible choices in the 2010 model). All three powertrains have been seen extensively in other Volkswagens, with the base 2.5-liter I-5 producing 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. Fuel-conscious buyers can opt for a torquey 2.0-liter TDI I-4 with 140 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque on tap. The top-level engine is a narrow-angle 3.6-liter V-6, netting 280 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual is standard on the 2.5, while the TDI sees a six-speed stick. A six-speed dual-clutch transmission is the sole gearbox on the 3.6, and is optional on the other engines.

The bottom-up redesign of the Passat ditches the old car’s awkward, Audi-inspired front end, in favor of VW’s new corporate face. Of all the iterations that we’ve seen this fascia on, this is where it looks most at home. Strong character lines lead up from the grille over the hood, while sharp shoulder creases extend from the headlights all the way towards the back of the car.

Looking at the Passat in profile, the first thing that struck us was the longer, almost limousine-like rear doors. There’s an extra three inches of legroom back there, on top of a four-inch longer wheelbase. While these increases may not seem like much, we can attest to the increase in size, fitting your author’s six-foot, one-inch frame in the front seat while a six-foot, nine-inch colleague sat comfortably in the back.

The tail of the car is slightly underwhelming compared to the sharp, chiseled look of the front end. While a bit more visual excitement would be welcomed, the back of the Passat is hardly an unattractive piece of design.

The cabin sees a refresh befitting of the new exterior, while still maintaining the typical high fit and finish levels that have come to be expected of Volkswagen. The plastics in the SE looked and felt good, and the wood found in the SEL gave the cabin a warm, welcoming feel. The leatherette seats we sampled in the 2.5 could have used more support, especially in the side bolsters. Thankfully, V-6 and TDI buyers can snag some excellent leather thrones that are quite similar to the seats found in the CC. These buckets feature large side bolsters that offer plenty of support without significantly hampering ingress and egress.

In terms of tech, the Passat is rather run-of-the-mill. Two different navigation options are available, with the lower level being SD-based, while the higher spec is based on a hard drive. There is the standard array of heated seats, Bluetooth, and dual-zone climate control, but the big feature that we were aching to try out was the new audio system, developed in conjunction with legendary guitar maker Fender. We were extremely impressed by the nine-speaker, 400-watt sound system, as it produced crisp, clear high notes, and deep, powerful lows.

Once out on the road, we were able to devote a good bit of time to the volume 2.5-liter model, and the new TDI-equipped Passat. Sadly, there was a limited amount of time and cars, and we weren’t able to get into the 3.6. Look for a review of the sportiest Passat in the coming months.

The first leg of our journey was in the oil-burning TDI. This is the same engine that we’ve raved about in the Golf/Jetta/Sportwagen TDI. Despite the added size of the Passat, it felt more than up to the task. It did take a bit more pedal effort to get off the line, but once in the rich torque band of the 2.0, there was plenty of power. Even at freeway speeds, a mashing of the throttle gently pressed us back in the seat as the revs climbed. Even at higher engine speeds, though, this was a very quiet engine.

Perhaps more impressive than the sound (or lack thereof) and performance, was the economy of the diesel powerplant. Volkswagen estimates a 43-mile-per-gallon highway rating, with drivers netting 31 miles per gallon in the city. Combining those estimates with the huge 18.5-gallon fuel tank means Passat TDI drivers should see upwards of 795 miles per tank of diesel.

While we sampled the auto-equipped TDI, the majority of our drive was spent in the 2.5-liter five-pot, which is the car that VW expects to make up 75 percent of new Passat sales. With 3221 pounds to haul around, the 2.5’s 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque felt overwhelmed, and just didn’t deliver the sort of motivation we’ve found in the more powerful Kia Optima, for instance.

Sadly, we weren’t able to sample the five-speed manual on the 2.5. That being said, the six-speed auto did a fine job of handling shifting duties. Upshifts were crisp and easy to anticipate, but we did notice there was some searching when it came to downshifts. If you are feeling sporting, there is the obligatory do-it-yourself shift mode, which worked just fine, but there was no mention of steering-wheel-mounted paddles being offered.

More frustrating than the lack of power was the amount of pedal effort required to unleash all of it. Like many German cars, there is a sort of second level to the gas pedal that the driver needs to force through to hit wide-open throttle. While it’s a simple thing to work with on many other cars, it required too much force in the 2.5. It should be noted that we were driving pre-production cars, though. We hope that VW sorts this tuning out, as we can imagine customers who aren’t familiar with the procedure won’t be able to exert the engine’s full force.

Regardless of engine, the Passat was quite simply one of the best mid-sizers in terms of ride and handling that we’d experienced in some time. The damping walked a perfect line between sportiness and comfort, with very little lateral movement, even under hard cornering. Aggressive brake and throttle inputs didn’t do much to disturb the car either. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the most communicative of vehicles. It was difficult to feel out things like grip levels and cornering loads due to the lack of movement through the suspension.

The steering was slightly less competent than the suspension, with a very light, vague feeling on center. It weighted up nicely as cornering loads built, but it still came across as too numb to be truly compelling.

While it didn’t exactly excel in terms of involvement, the Passat did a fine job of soaking up the miles. That same isolating suspension is exactly what you want when covering long distances. Even with the excellent body control, the Passat never felt harsh, crashy, or floaty. It simply absorbed bumps and imperfections unlike any car in this segment.

We’ll admit to being seriously impressed with the new Passat. It’s a competent, comfortable, nicely equipped, and economical car for a modern family. It’s also affordable, with the base Passat S 2.5 Manual starting at $19,995. Opting for the six-speed auto will move the simplest Passat up to $22,690. The price of entry for a TDI SE will be $25,995, while the top-spec SEL Premium will cost $32,195. Buyers of the 3.6 SE can expect to cut a check for $28,995, with a loaded car topping out at a reasonable $32,950. VW expects production Passats to hit dealer showrooms this Fall.


VS. 2011 Kia Optima EX
We’re big fans of the Optima, and have been especially impressed with the way it’s taken the fight to the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. However, when it comes to the Passat, it can’t quite stand up. It may have the power advantage over the 2.5, but in terms of refinement, the VW leaps ahead.
The Passat is a car that feels thoroughly more composed, both over turns and on rougher roads. It soaks up bumps far easier than the Kia, and feels less nervous when being pushed through turns.
The VW is also a more inviting place to spend a long drive. The cabin on the Kia is a fine piece, but the Passat feels tighter, and better screwed together than the Kia. We also dug the extra five inches of rear legroom that came with the VW.
VS. 2011 Honda Accord SE
The VW trounces the Honda pretty thoroughly in some key areas. For a start, the Accord’s starting price is about $1000 higher than the Passat. It also lacks several of the features found standard on the VW, including Bluetooth and dual-zone climate control.
The Honda can’t quite capture the performance of the VW either. While we aren’t huge fans of the 2.5-liter I-5, it does boast an extra 16 pound-feet of torque. Factor in the Passat’s 80-pound weight advantage, and you get a mid-sizer that feels more surefooted under hard throttle.
VS. 2011 Ford Fusion Hybrid
For a start, let’s consider price. Buyers of the base Passat TDI can expect to pay just under $26,000, while the Fusion Hybrid commands a starting price $2600 higher. That pricing discrepancy follows through to the loaded cars, with the top-dog TDI SEL Premium costing just over $32,000, while the Rapid Spec 502A Fusion Hybrid sits just under $34,000.
The real kicker is when it comes to mileage though. The Fusion Hybrid can only deliver 41 miles per gallon on the highway, and 36 in the city. Compare that with the 43 and 37 estimates that we see in the Passat. Throw in the VW’s huge range advantage, and there isn’t really a question that the German wins.
2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SE
Engine: Inline-5, 2.5 liters, 20v
Output: 170 hp/177 lb-ft
Top Speed: 118 mph
Weight: 3221 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 22/31 mpg (est)
Base Price: $23,725
On Sale: Fall 2011