Review: 2012 Volkswagen Passat SEL 2.5

Alex L. Dykes
by Alex L. Dykes

Volkswagen’s “premium” image in the minds of car enthusiasts is not entirely accurate. From the Beetle to the Rabbit, VW has a long history of making budget cars for the masses. While the automotive press lauded the high-rent interiors and Audi-sourced parts, the Touraeg and Phaeton were mere detours on the road to brand identity. Shoppers wanted a “people’s” VW again, and the result of this outcry is the 2012 VW Passat SEL.

While other VWs may get an expressive fascia, the new Passat is pure conservative VW. From the geometric grille to the character line that’s as flat as Kansas, the Passat never strikes a pose that would offend a conservative mid-size shopper. If you want a VW with more excitement or Euro flair, the CC brings more aggressive bumpers, more chrome and sexier tail lights to the party. While some in the press have called the Passat boring, I would posit the sedate lines will help the Passat age more gracefully than some of the competition, most notably the new Sonata.

Those of us that seriously considered the previous generation Passat when purchasing a near-luxury vehicle like an Acura or Volvo (myself included) will be disappointed with the interior. The new Passat is now $8,000 cheaper than the previous car, and it’s re-positioning as a mid-size, rather than near-luxury car meant that something had to give. Mid-size shoppers demand expansive rather than expensive cabins, and VW took note. Camcord shoppers also place fuel economy, electronic doodads and rear-seat leg room higher on their list than squishy dash bits. As a result, the new Passat is as mainstream as any, with parts quality a notch below the outgoing model but easily on par with Ford’s Fusion and the new Camry, right down to the fake wood on the dash.

The lack of real tree is just one of the changes that VW made to pull the Passat out of the near-luxury market. Now missing at any trim level are HID headlamps, optional AWD (although the rumor mill says it may be available later), the turbo four-cylinder engine, a station wagon variant, backup camera, rain sensing wipers, rear seat HVAC vents and a few other items that the VWVortex crowd feels are essential for a Passat. All this really means to the shopper is that the Passat is finally aimed squarely at Camry and Accord shoppers who don’t buy those sorts of options anway. Perhaps because of VW’s reliability numbers in past years the one standard feature VW didn’t remove is their 3 year/36,000 mile scheduled maintenance included on every Passat.

Fitting in with the rest of the class, VW fitted a 2.5 liter naturally aspirated base engine under the hood. Unlike the competition, the Passat’s engine sports a 5-cylinder design. The five-banger is smoother than the competition’s base engines and the average shopper won’t notice (or won’t care about) the odd cylinder count. Channeling the 170HP and 177lb-ft of torque to the front wheels is a standard 6-speed automatic (SE models have a manual option while TDI and V6 models get a 6-speed DSG). 2.5 shoppers aren’t likely to get hot and bothered for a DSG either, as long as they don’t have to work a clutch and gearshifter, and the combination delivers 22MPG city and 31MPG highway according to the EPA. Over our 480 miles with the Passat we averaged a respectable 28.5MPG in mixed driving with highway runs easily hitting the advertised 31MPG.

The Passat’s longer wheelbase (up 3.7 inches from 2010) pays dividends with a smoother highway ride, but notably less poise in the corners compared to the old model. While the tuning of the suspension may be slightly softer than before, much of the difference comes down to a rubber change. The outgoing model wore fairly wide (for a mass-market car) 235/45R17 shoes while the new Passat slips on svelte 215/55R17s. I like my tires wide,but this change brings the Passat in line with the Camry, Acrcord and Mazda 6 which all wear 215-width rubber on comparable models. Aiding the Passat’s agility, which I subjectively place somewhere between a Camry and a Mazda 6, is a fairly light 3,221lb curb weight.

As Ford has shown with their SYNC product, volume car shoppers want technology. VW has unfortunately decided that your level of infotainment tech directly relates to a trim level. While it is possible to upgrade some of these items after you drive off the lot, it’s far easier if you know what you want going in. Base models have standard Bluetooth integration with streaming audio, an auxiliary input jack and 9 speakers. Jumping up to the SE trim may get you a touch-screen interface and Sirius satellite radio but if iPod love is what you’re after you’ll only find that in the “SE with Sunroof and Navigation” or higher trims. The top-of-the-line SEL model will get you 400 watts of Fender amplification, and a subwoofer that’s tuned toward the “boomy” side of the baseline.

The base infotainment system, dubbed “RNS315” gives you a 5 inch medium-resolution (400×240) touchscreen display, a single CD player and Sirius satellite radio. Stepping up to the SEL we tested gets you the “RNS 510” which is a 6.5 inch high-resolution (800×480) touchscreen system with a single slot DVD player and 45GB of hard drive storage split between maps (15GB) and personal music storage (25GB). The 510 is also capable of displaying live traffic data as well as “Sirius Travel Link” fuel prices, ski info, sports scores, weather forecasts and movie listings. While most of the information is superfluous, the fuel pricing is handy, especially if you opt for a diesel Passat as locating a diesel station can be tricky at times. The traffic and Travel Link features require a Sirius subscription and VW tosses in a 6-month trial for free. While I normally think the live traffic feature is worth the cost, VW has relegated traffic displays to a single map view rather than overlaying the information on all map views as most other manufacturers do so you might just skip the service if you have a smartphone and Google maps.

Now to the nitty-gritty. In 2011 the average vehicle sold in the US left the dealer show room for just under $30,000 before taxes. Since VW is aiming straight at the mainstream it should be no surprise that our SEL tester rang in at $28,395 (not including a $770 destination charge). Based on my research, the Passat compares well with the Camry and Accord but the Hyundai Sonata enjoys a pricing and feature advantage over the VW, while also possessing more radical styling and a Hyundai badge. My local VW dealer wouldn’t give me any firm numbers, but indicated the “2.5 SE with Sunroof” ($25,625) and “2.5 SE with Sunroof and Navigation” ($26,795) were their top selling Passat models.

Last time I new-car-shopped I was torn between the Lexus IS350, a Passat 3.6 4Motion and a Volvo S60R. While the R got the final nod, this speaks to the market position the former Passat held. This position seems to be the hardest thing for VW lovers, VW shoppers and the automotive press to let go of. This Passat is no longer a Volvo/Acura competitor. Instead, it’s exactly what the American shoppers asked for: a grown up Jetta. As painful as this may be to hear, it’s good for VW, and it’s good for the Camcord shopper looking for something different. For the shopper looking to replace their 2007 Passat with a new VW or the forum fanoy that’s broken hearted VW has “ruined” the Passat, get over it. Your Passat is the Volkswagen CC.

Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Specifications as tested

0-30:3 seconds

0-60: 8.9 seconds

1/4 mile: 16.9 @ 82.9MPH

Observed fuel economy: 28.5MPG over 480 miles

Alex L. Dykes
Alex L. Dykes

More by Alex L. Dykes

Join the conversation
2 of 86 comments
  • ZCD2.7T ZCD2.7T on Feb 08, 2012

    Had one of these as a rental a couple of weeks ago - it's a nice mainstream sedan, with a creamy ride, extremely quiet interior and decent materials. Not "sporty" at all, but then neither are most of its competitors. The 2.5 seems to me to be a great engine for the car's intended market. As much power as most need, and with a very cool offbeat 5-cylinder engine note. Would I buy one? Nah, I'll keep my S4. Is it better-suited for volume sales in the US market than all of its predecessors? No question.

  • Philadlj Philadlj on Feb 09, 2012

    Both the Jetta and Passat are success stories. Now all VW has to do is jack this Passat up six inches or so, give it beefier bodywork, a third row of seating, and a strange name, and they'll be able to sell 50-60K more. Big CUVs SELL. VW needs one.

  • John Hummer owners don't care. Like shingles.
  • Wjtinfwb Funny. When EV's were bursting onto the scene; Tesla's, Volt's, Leaf's pure EV was all the rage and Hybrids were derided because they still used a gas engine to make them, ahem; usable. Even Volt's were later derided when it was revealed that the Volt's gas engine was actually connected to the wheels, not just a generator. Now, Hybrids are warmly welcomed into the Electric fraternity by virtue of being "electrified". If a change in definition is what it takes, I'm all for it. Hybrid's make so much sense in most American's usage patterns and if needed you can drive one cross-country essentially non-stop. Glad to see Hybrid's getting the love.
  • 3-On-The-Tree We also had a 1973 IH Scout that we rebuilt the engine in and it had dual glass packs, real loud. I miss those days.
  • 3-On-The-Tree Jeff thanks. Back in 1990 we had a 1964 Dodge D100 with a slant six with a 3 on the tree. I taught myself how to drive a standard in that truck. It was my one of many journeys into Mopar land. Had a 1973 Plymouth duster with a slant six and a 1974 Dodge Dart Custom with 318 V8. Great cars and easy to work on.
  • Akear What is GM good at?You led Mary............................................What a disgrace!