After a mere six decades of testing the waters, Volkswagen decided to get serious about the American car market. For the second time. To avoid a repeat of the Westmoreland debacle, this time they’ve designed a pair of sedans specifically for American tastes. They’re also building the larger of the two, intended to lure Americans away from their Camcords, in an entirely new, non-unionized American plant. And so, with the new 2012 Volkwagen Passat, tested here in V6 SE form (earlier, briefer drives sampled the other two engines), we learn what Americans really want—as seen through a German company’s eyes.
#1 – We have the aesthetic sense of retired engineers
The new Passat is very cleanly styled, and none of its aesthetic elements can be faulted. But the whole could not be more conservative. Put another way, many American car enthusiasts find the exterior boring. But perhaps their Camcord-driving parents will love it?
The tested silver car was shod with the base SE’s 17-inch wheels. The Passat looks both more expensive and sportier with the available five-spoke 18s (more on these later). Darker colors bump up the elegance.
#2 – Good materials and warm colors are wasted on us
When I learned that Chrysler would be supplying Volkswagen with a version of its iconic minivan, I wondered how they could possibly upgrade its notoriously cheap interior to VW standards. Fast forward three years, and Chrysler has substantially upgraded its interior materials. They also banished light gray—which makes all but the best materials look cheap—from their interior color palette. All of the budget-grade light gray plastic discarded by Chrysler has found a new home in the 2012 Passat, judging from the tested car. VW emphasizes the soft materials used on the tops of the instrument and door panels, but you’re more likely to touch the hard stuff lower down. The Passat’s interior is as plainly styled as its exterior, with right angles and flat surfaces. The problem with flat surfaces: they directly present more area to the eye, so hard plastic looks like what it is. Luckily, beige and black are also available. Hard plastic tends to look best in the latter. Prefer warmer, even bright colors, or at least colorful accents? The Passat isn’t your sort of car.
How cheap is the interior? Not as cheap as that in the new Jetta, but the analog clock would gather dust in a dollar store. Memo to Volkswagen: the entire point of an analog clock is to make an interior seem more upscale. Automotive news recently reported that “VW markets leatherette as a premium feature and the material’s texture might fool some Passat riders.” The author must have taken VW’s word for it, as the texture and feel of the gray vinyl in the tested car won’t fool anyone. It’s the sort of vinyl that turned Americans off of vinyl. Unless they’re the sort of Americans who preserve their furniture beneath clear plastic, for whom the Passat’s fleet-ready easy-clean interior might well be a dream come true. One positive note: the door pulls feel solid.
#3 – We like big cars with scads of room, especially legroom and trunk room
The American Passat is bigger than the European Passat, which is an updated version of the previous global Passat. Compared to the 2010 Passat, the 2012 is 3.4 inches longer (191.6), half an inch wider (72.2), and half an inch taller (58.5). Still not quite as large as the super-sized Honda Accord (194.1×72.7×58.1) and Mazda6 (193.7×72.4×57.9), but at least as large as anything else in the segment. Of course, what really counts are the interior dimensions, and here the new Passat truly shines. Through masterful packaging the interior encompasses limo-like legroom, 42.4 inches up front and 39.1 in back, for a total of 81.5, meaningfully more than in the Honda Accord (79.7) and Hyundai Sonata (80.1). Better, the Passat’s cabin feels even roomier than its dimensions suggest. Credit the straight-edged interior styling that, as in the 2012 Camry, maximizes perceived space. The Hyundai Sonata, with a swoopier interior, feels much tighter (if also sportier) from the driver’s seat.
The trunk extends forward virtually forever even before the rear seats are folded. Unlike many these days, it’s also very regularly shaped. Don’t swap in a full-sized spare and there’s more space beneath the floor. Inside the car, there are plenty of usefully large storage areas. Unlike in many current luxury cars, my superzoom camera fit in both the glove compartment and the center console.
#4 – We’re so delighted by some unexpected electrical bits that we’ll overlook the curious absence of others
VW might have nickle-and-dimed the interior materials, but they spent freely on light bulbs and minor electrical bits. Even the cheapest Passat has turn signal repeaters in the mirrors, puddle lights, a curb light in each of the wide-opening doors, comprehensive red switch backlighting, and dual-zone automatic climate control. All four windows have auto-down and auto-up. A power lock button that operates all four doors is present in each of them—even the two in back. (Great fun for the grandkids.)
Curiously MIA even in the top-of-the-range SEL Premium: separate front and rear height adjustments for the driver seat (raising the seat also tilts it forward) and rear air vents. The former are common among competitors, and it’s a mystery how VW figured the Passat would be fine without them. And the latter—why provide a huge rear seat if the people back there are going to bake?
#5 – We don’t like to gaze across acres of instrument panel, but otherwise have little need to see the outside world
The Passat’s staid exterior makes for good sightlines from the driver’s seat. The A-pillars are relatively thin and upright, and the instrument panel (abetted by a bi-level upper surface) appears compact by contemporary standards.
With this, VW decided they’d done enough to aid visibility. Even with the high beams on, the halogen headlights cast a narrow beam at night, and xenons are not available. With the body tall and high-waisted in the current idiom, rearward objects (still breathing and otherwise) can be obstructed by the high trunk, but neither obstacle detection nor a rearview camera is offered.
#6 – We like flat, hard seat bottoms and well-bolstered seatbacks
Okay, maybe not. No explanation for this one except that you can’t entirely remove German tastes from a German car. Where’s the pillow-top velour option?
#7 – There’s no replacement for displacement
No turbo Benzinmotor here, but the available V6 packs 219 cubes (3.6 liters for Americans who’ve learned some metric) and is good for 280 horsepower when wound to 6,200 rpm, the most you’ll find among direct competitors. Not the smoothest or the quietest six, with substantial engine noise at both idle and once over 3,000 rpm. But traditional American V8s also expressed their pleasure when subjected to a heavy right foot. And VW’s six uses its extra ration of gasoline (EPA ratings of 20/28 vs. the Sonata 2.0T’s 22/34) to produce much more sporting noises. Do a pair of front-mounted 215/55HR17 ContiProContact tires struggle to transfer this much power to the pavement at low speeds? You bet. But…
#8 – We like spinning our tires
The new Passat V6 continues a fine American tradition of cars with far more torque than traction. But wait…you can’t actually buy a Passat like the (pilot production) tested car, with both the V6 and the 17-inch tires. At a dealer you’ll only find V6 Passats with 235/45HR18 Bridgestone Turanza EL400s (and a sunroof also absent from the tested car). Still not a performance tire, and still no match for the V6’s 258 foot-pounds of torque channeled slush-free through the DSG, but nearly an inch wider and so a little grippier.
All-wheel-drive would help, but is no longer available.
#9 – We like lightning-fast shifts
Okay, probably not a priority among the Camcord set. But if you’ve got the next big thing in transmissions, flaunt it. The five-cylinder base engine is paired with an automatic, but the others get VW’s famed “DSG” dual-clutch automated manual. With the V6 shifts are virtually instantaneous and, except for some barely perceptible bumping about at low speeds, generally smooth. Those seeking to extract the full potential from the powerful six can use paddles on the steering wheel or the lever to manually shift the transmission. Or just stick the lever in S, in which case the transmission will keep the engine continually on boil (consequently this isn’t a viable option for typical driving). What the Camcord set won’t like about the DSG: $350+ fluid changes every 40,000 miles (just beyond the 36,000 miles of free maintenance).
#10A – We like to feel (and hear) the road
In the late 1980s, Toyota intensively studied the U.S. market and concluded that we get our kicks from super-smooth, super-quiet cars. Either times have changed, or VW used a different methodology, or they chucked the survey results in this case and did what they wanted to do (see #6). Whatever the reason, on concrete you’ll experience Honda levels of road noise and on the highway you’ll experience a similar abundance of wind noise.
Personally, I love a detailed read of the road through the seat of my pants, and consequently enjoyed my week in the Passat more than I would have a week in a Camcord. Instead of a smoother, more insulated ride, I wished for a nose that didn’t retain a bit of float and bobble (a partial concession to American tastes?) and the conventional steering offered only with the five-cylinder engine. Compared to the electric-assist system in the TDI and V6, which starts talking only under duress, the 2.5’s conventional system provides much more nuanced feedback and makes the car feel smaller, lighter, and more agile. But the Americans the new Passat is styled and sized for? Their taste in cars tends to differ greatly from mine.
Or perhaps VW’s research found…
#10B – We’re going to play the audio system loud anyway, and when we do we enjoy our bass at 11, even when it’s not
Five years ago VW partnered with Fender, legendary American manufacturer of guitars and guitar amps, to include a free GarageMaster with every car. Perhaps realizing that few of the Camcord owners they hope to lure away aspire to become six-string samurai, for the new Passat (and the new Jetta as well) VW had Fender help develop (or at least put their name on) an audio system manufactured by Panasonic. The 400-watt system can certainly kick out the volume, with an extra helping of thrumming guitar-amp-style bass even with the slide centered. Even with songs that you weren’t previously aware had much bass. Prefer a more balanced sound, similar to the default position in other systems? Simply use the touchscreen to move the slide to the left a click or three.
Or, perhaps as a result…
#10C – We’re deaf
#11 – We can be suckered by a low starting price
VW successfully captured Americans’ attention by starting the Jetta just below $15,000, and clearly hopes for repeat by starting the Passat below $20,000. But these prices are before $770 destination, and without the popular third pedal delete option. The least expensive automatic Passat lists for $23,460. The least expensive with a V6: $29,765. (Add nav like in the tested car: $31,365.) In defense of the $20,000 car, a Passat with the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine, its attendant conventional steering and lighter curb weight, and the manual transmission should be the most engaging of the bunch. Not a bad way to go for enthusiasts with two big kids and a small budget.
Take the wayback machine to 2007, the last year VW last offered a Passat with a V6 but without leather, and you’ll find a $30,820 sticker. Adjust for the 2012′s additional features using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and the new car’s price advantage widens to about $2,400 (but only about $1,400 comparing invoices, dealer margins have been squeezed). So the new car is less expensive even when comparably equipped, just not nearly to the degree suggested by the $7,180 base price drop.
A Honda Accord EX V6 lists for $28,050. Even after adjusting for the Passat’s additional standard features it undercuts the Passat by about $400 at MSRP, and nearly $2,000 invoice-to-invoice. Willing to trade two cylinders for a turbo? The Hyundai Sonata SE 2.0T lists for only $25,405. The feature adjustment is only a few hundred in this case, leaving the Korean competitor with an over $4,000 price advantage.
#12 – We’re ready to forgive and forget VW’s past reliability lapses
Unfortunately, it remains to be seen how reliable the new Passat will be, and how soon Americans will be ready to accept that VW has changed (assuming it has). Based on responses to TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey, the new Jetta is about average so far, not bad for an all-new car. But the cars are still young.
At the end of the week, I wondered about some of VW’s choices with the new Passat, yet remained intrigued by the car’s combination of qualities: plain styling, lots of room, lots of power, an engaging chassis (if less engaging steering), value-grade interior materials, and limited refinement. If VW was trying to develop a twenty-first century interpretation of the groundbreaking 1977 Chevrolet Caprice (or the Ford Crown Vic that aped it) with the “cop suspensions,” this is about where they’d end up. With the TDI the Passat would make a great cab. With the V6 it would make a great cop car. Ed was in town for a few days while I had the car. His riff on VW’s current tagline: “Das Impala.” Coincidentally (or not), the current Honda Accord is quite similar. Did VW simply riff off the Japanese? Or do both the Germans and the Japanese know us better than we know ourselves?
Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.