Review: 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI SEL Premium

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh
review 2012 volkswagen passat tdi sel premium

Last Monday’s review of the new 2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SE found the large, value-priced German sedan to be roomy but unpolished. Today: the TDI in SEL Premium trim. In this form the “from $19,995*” new Passat gets a bit far from the segment’s mid-twenties sweet spot, with a list price of $32,965. But perhaps the turbodiesel engine and top-of-the-line interior transform the car?

In SEL Premium trim the new Passat exterior is slightly more attractive, thanks to one-inch-larger, more stylish wheels and an extra helping of chrome accents (as recommended by Maximum Bob). The latter and the car’s conservative shape team especially well with dark colors, including the tested car’s black paint.

Inside the Passat SEL Premium, the SE’s extensive faux metal trim is replaced by equally plentiful faux wood and its leatherette seating surfaces are replaced by a combination of leather and synthetic suede. The budget grade leather is hardly more convincing than the “wood.” I thought it was leatherette until I happened to notice on the window sticker “leather trimmed comfort sport seats” (which, though large and firm, are too lacking in contour to excel at either comfort or sport). It doesn’t help that light beige like that inside the tested car makes all but the best materials look cheap. Though the materials inside a Ford Fusion or Toyota Camry are little if any better, in the mid-thirties you can find some much nicer cabins. A key advantage shared with all 2012 Passats: an exceptional amount of legroom in both rows. Unfortunately, even in the SEL Premium the climate control knobs feel cheap and a storage tray occupies the space where rear air vents should be, so on hot days that expansive rear seat won’t be so comfortable. Another victim of cost-cutting: still no separate front and rear height adjustments on the power front seats, to adjust tilt independently of height, and still no height adjustment for the lumbar bulge.

The 400-watt Fender audio system deserves special mention. The bass was initially so overpowering and muddy that I assumed someone must have set it to 11. Then I tapped my way through the pages of the touchscreen control panel to discover that it was centered. For the first time ever I had to take an audio system’s bass down a few clicks to balance out its sound.

The 2.0-liter turbodiesel is good for 140 horsepower at 4,000 rpm (30 fewer but 1,700 lower, respectively, than the 2.5-liter gas engine) and 236 foot-pounds of torque at 1,500 rpm (59 more and 2,750 lower). As the specs suggest, the diesel feels especially strong off the line and at low speeds. Over 30 miles-per-hour or so the gas engine is quicker, but the diesel remains easily adequate and even at highway speeds does not feel sluggish. The TDI’s sound is clearly that of a diesel, especially when idling, but is much quieter and less clattery than the oil burners of decades past. The six-speed dual-clutch automated manual (DSG in VW parlance) behaves very similarly to the six-speed conventional automatic in the 2.5. Whether creeping along without a foot on the gas or shifting at full throttle it’s smooth. I attempted to trip it up, and failed. The DSG’s shifts are quicker than the conventional automatic’s, but when paired with the inherently slow-revving diesel this is of limited benefit.

When paired with the TDI, the DSG primarily benefits fuel economy by eliminating the fluid coupling of a torque converter. The EPA ratings of 30/40 are quite good for a large sedan. The trip computer reported even better numbers: high 30s in typical suburban driving and low 50s while cruising at 70. My suspicion: it lies.

Compared to the Passat 2.5 SE, the TDI SEL Premium rides more smoothly, handles with less agility, and generally feels like a larger, heavier, and more relaxed car. More competitive in some regards, but also less engaging. Frankly, I was startled by the difference between the two. My initial assumption: the TDI has much more weight in its nose, which can be expected to dull the steering, reduce agility, and settle the front ends tendency to bob a bit in the 2.5. Checking the spec sheet, the TDI does weigh nearly 180 pounds more, and the uplevel trim with its power passenger seat and sunroof probably adds another 70. But even 3,470 pounds isn’t heavy for such a large car. The tires might deserve some of the credit / blame, as the TDI SEL Premium’s wheels are shod with 235/45HR18 Bridgstone Turanza EL400 touring tires instead of the narrower ContiProContacts fitted to all trim levels of the 2.5. The Bridgestones grip the road a little better, but this is probably thanks to their greater width, as their design prioritizes ride over handling. It’s also possible that the TDI has additional sound insulation, to counteract its louder engine.

Still, it seemed unlikely that even all of these factors together could explain the difference in how the two cars felt through the steering wheel. Then, glancing over a photo of the TDI’s window sticker while writing this review I noticed “electric power steering.” Hmmmm…the system in the 2.5 felt too communicative to be electrically-assisted. The system in the TDI, not so much. Pull up the photo of the 2.5’s sticker, and my newfound hypothesis is confirmed: it retains “hydraulic power steering.” So if you were hoping to combine the refreshingly direct steering feel reported in the Passat 2.5 review with the efficiency of the TDI, too bad. Can’t get this combo. And the 280-horsepower V6, which system does it include? Unclear— says electric in some places, hydraulic in others. Most signs point towards electric. Hopefully they have this sorted out in the Chattanooga assembly plant.

Compared to the Passat’s other two engines, the TDI costs $2,300 more than the 2.5 and $755 less than the V6. Until someone else finally follows through and offers an affordable midsize sedan with a diesel engine in the United States (Honda, Nissan, and Subaru have all announced then canceled such plans), VW has this space to itself. This leaves midsize hybrid sedans as the Passat TDI’s closest competitors. A comparably-equipped 2011 Toyota Camry Hybrid lists for $460 more—but about $1,000 less if you compare the two invoice-to-invoice (Toyota dealers enjoy much fatter margins). Adjusting for feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool and both shift about $900 in the VW’s favor. So with a feature-adjusted invoice-to-invoice comparison they’re very close. A loaded 2011 Ford Fusion Hybrid lists for about $500 more, but invoice-to-invoice it’s about $1,000 less. The feature adjustment goes $500 in the Ford’s favor. A 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid with Premium Package checks in the lowest: about $1,300 less than the Passat TDI SEL Premium at MSRP and $1,900 less invoice-to-invoice. Feature differences between the two are a wash.

The Passat TDI SEL Premium looks and feels like a more expensive car than the 2.5 SE, but might nevertheless struggle to support its mid-thirties price tag. Even with the upgraded interior many of the cheap bits remain, and the rear seat, though very roomy, doesn’t get its own air vents. The TDI-DSG powertrain performs well and gets exceptional fuel economy given the size of the car. But the ride, though quieter and smoother than that in the SE, is still average at best. Most disappointing: the steering system that made the 2.5 SE fun and engaging on a curvy road isn’t included in the TDI. Instead, the TDI’s electric power steering cuts off communication with the front wheels and makes the car feel much larger and heavier. (In the EPS’s defense, this is partly because the TDI SEL Premium is about 250 pounds heavier.) Bottom line: if you’re seeking a roomy, highly efficient midsize sedan, the Passat TDI compares well against others’ hybrids and is priced similarly. But it’s not the stellar car it could be with a few minor upgrades and alterations.

Vehicle provided by Dan Kelley, Suburban VW in Farmington Hills, MI, 248-741-7903

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

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3 of 97 comments
  • Andyadviser Andyadviser on Mar 14, 2012

    Choices: 2010 Audi a4 premium with 2.0 l Quattro with 44,000 miles for $22,000 or new passat tdi sel? Married with two very young children. Thoughts?

  • Donerightray Donerightray on Jun 28, 2012

    I think VW is currently making some poor decisions on top of good ones. Diesel are good decisions but trying to fake their way into luxury segment like this article hints at is wrong. You buy diesels to commute, commute or run cheap. Yes they run cheap. The Jetta DSG diesel is super ...consistently 44+ combined mileage over 100,000 mile experience. I know. The best thing for a commuter is to avoid the extra stops on the way to work during the week to fill it up. How about close to 600 miles per that! So VW ..if want to make a luxury car do it and stop faking it! Otherwise give me a cost sensitive solid engineering which you can!!!

  • Theflyersfan There are times in the comments section where I think either some meds really need to be increased, or meds need to be started...Guys, man, this sort of crap is the new normal. Yes, in 2019, a VW project car would have been in very low four digits, but "in these difficult and trying times," I think the only used cars that exist in that price range are stripped and on concrete blocks in a burned out part of town, or are being used as taxis in less wealthy parts of the world. And all that being said, to the wannabe tuners out there who envision themselves croaking about "family," sucking down product-placed Corona beers, and launching Fieros into space or outrunning submarines on ice in Siberia, I don't think there are enough suckers out there who want to pick up the pieces of your bombed-out Fast and Furious fantasies. Watching YouTube videos and having some help from your cousin fresh out of rehab doesn't turn anyone into an expert under the hood, especially on a quality nightmare called the 2003 VW GTI.
  • Azfelix From certain angles the bonnet appears oversized with respect to the rest of the car - like a skinny teenager wearing a bulky sweater nicked from her older sister's wardrobe.
  • Tassos This is way too god damned OLD, 21 years old to have all the necessary options you need TODAY. You need a 10 year old or less car. AND if you give us THIS POS, a 21 year old model, that is not even a LUXURY car, whoever pays $10k for a Golf, And I Do NOT care what anniversary it is (they are all UTTERLY INSIGNIFICANT) deserves to get this MOST UNRELIABLE AND COSTLY TO REPAIR OF ALL LOUSY ECONOBOXES< EVEN THE DOMESTICS AND THE KOREANS.
  • Tassos As you say, Toyota confirmed this on TUESDAY. Today is WEDNESDAY. Why is everything on TTAC held back one or more days before you tell us the NEWS when it is NO MORE THE NEWS?
  • MRF 95 T-Bird You can find a decent and far more stylish Audi TT or an S4 of a similar vintage for under $10k.