2012 Volkswagen Passat- Das Amerikanische Auto

DSCI0264It used to be so simple in the automotive world.  Cars were cars and trucks were…..uh….trucks.  There were no crossover thingy-majigs or niche markets.  And when it came to selecting a national origin of a new car; the choices were even more clear.  Japanese cars were technologically advanced and well-made.  The Koreans aimed for the thriftiest of shoppers.  The Americans had the sumo-sized accommodations in the bag.  And the Germans graced our roads with performance oriented, but pricey, status symbols.  But things are no longer what they seem, and when a car that hails from the land of Autobahns and bratwurst starts off with a lower base price than its main Korean competitors, something is, as they say, “whack”!  Volkswagen, having nearly lost its way in the American market two decades ago, is determined to seize its share of the 16 million cars sold in the US market annually.  But to do so, they’ve fought back with larger interior dimensions and a lower price tag, addressing common complaints about the big V’s prior offerings.  In fact, the all-new 2012 Passat’s base price is $7,000 cheaper than the outgoing models ($19,995 vs. nearly $28,000 on the 2011).  This new version takes direct aim at the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, and Chevy Malibu.  Uh oh, we’ve heard this approach before with the Jetta and the results weren’t so flattering; a mediocre car that felt cheaper than some of the Germans you’d find on Oranienburger Straße.  With that dark cloud looming over, how does this transformation work on the new Passat?

IMG_20130526_194641Pretty good actually.  And despite the criticisms about the Jetta’s diluted charm, sales have been the highest ever on that car.  However, the Passat’s approach is more like the tale of Frankenstein, with a combination of elements sewn together to make an appealing package.  Although the huge VW emblem is proudly worn like a belt buckle on the front grill and screams “Ich bin Deutsche!” (“I’m German!”)- the car is in fact designed specifically for the North American and South Korean markets under the codename NMS (New Midsize Sedan).  European and Australian versions remain smaller, and in turn, pricier. Not only that, the Passat is built at VW’s all new award-winning Chattanooga plant in Tennessee and has an amazingly high 85% domestic part content.  For those of you longing to own German charisma but were afraid of not supporting the local economy, this is your lucky day!

CAM00116The new Passat is over three inches longer than the outgoing model and boasts a wheelbase stretched four inches, increasing interior space by six cubic feet.  That sounds great for passengers, who would’ve complained in any previous Passat, but larger size and heft could risk the neutering of driver involvement, as was the case in the base Jetta.  It was evident why I would be so cynical of this new “American” Volkswagen.

CAM00120The styling doesn’t help matters at all.  Since it’s launch almost two years ago, I’ve been guilty of dismissing the latest Passat as an unstimulating family car from the looks alone and have never recommended it to friends or family.  For anyone who is in the witness relocation program, your car is here!  The design is so inoffensive that it is offensive.  The family resemblance to the smaller Jetta is strong and aside from the extended greenhouse and extra rear pillar on the Passat, distinguishing the two can be difficult. Even my rental car agent thought it was a Jetta at first.  But when you look past the unimaginative shapes of the sheetmetal, there is some creativity here.  The creases on the side panels break the monotony and slab sidiness, and sculpt the lines of the headlights and tailights.  One ridge frames the eggcrate grille and runs the length of the hood and creates the shell of the A-pillar and eventually the C-pillar.  The look is forgettable and will never turn heads, but few Passats ever have, and I boldly predict that this car’s restrained look will age gracefully.

CAM00134Inside is much the same story; bland and generic.  My mother, initially excited to be in a VW, exclaimed as though being cheated at a casino card table: “Hey! This car looks like it’s from decades ago!”  She may not be far from the truth; unlike many competitors, there’s no swoops or curves, just basic straight lines that wouldn’t seem out-of-place in the 80’s.  The beauty may not be obvious, but dig a little deeper and it’s there.  Unlike the penny-pinched Jetta, the Passat still exhibits the classic impeccable VW build quality and ergonomics.  Plastics on the top of the dash are squishy soft and tolerances between the panel gaps are tight.  Some of the plastic towards the bottom of the dash is cheaper and more brittle, but still feels well assembled.

CAM00128The no-frills, business like approach to the styling results in easy to read gauges and controls.  The radio is shared with other VW models which is good news; it has a straightforward display and simple knobs for adjustments.  Three large intelligible dials control the air conditioning, which comes standard with dual climate settings.  They are mounted a little low in the dash and the system is stubbornly determined to automatically blow hurricane force gales out of the vents with any change of setting.  Gauges are tastefully crisp and give all of the vital information at a glance.  A CAM00138trip computer in the center information screen gives all of the stats and figures without hassle.  Stalks and switchgear are decidedly European in their look and feel, and the cruise control, while logical, is a little different from those on American and Asian cars.  The left lever, in particular, is very busy and it’s easy to accidentally turn on the blinkers or turn off the cruise while cancelling the speed control.  Like most things, smooth operation came naturally with time and the arrangement is logical, although steering wheel mounted controls are easier.

CAM00124Speaking of which, audio buttons on the wheel are straightforward and there is one sole button to operate the bluetooth.  After the previous test in a Ford Taurus with its maze of buttons, the utter simplicity of the Passat cannot be taken for granted.  The steering wheel itself tilts and telescopes to fit any body shape and is a comfy three spoke design that elegantly frames the gauges.  All-in-all, the Passat’s ergonomics should be a case study for most other cars in the segment.

CAM00137Those Germans are known to be punctual when it comes to being on time, and the Passat has no less than three clocks within the driver’s view; one in the radio, instrument panel, and the upscale analog clock house between the center vents.  There’s no excuse for being late in this car.

CAM00127A new, welcome improvement to the new Passat is space, and not in the Star Trek sense.  Once the most cozy of the family cars, the new version can boast 103 cu ft. of interior space which leapfrogs most family cars.  That handily beats the Camry, Accord, Sonata, Malibu and the Kia Optima.  And the measuring stick doesn’t lie.  Front space is excellent with plenty of room all around.  Front seats are very nicely bolstered and are homey for long trips.  VW has thankfully done away with the twist-knob adjuster for the seatback angle to suit American tastes, but the new lever is far behind to the sides of the seat bottoms and requires a difficult reach for some not-so-agile folks.  The driver seat has a height adjuster with a generous range of settings. and a hearty footrest made for Iowa grown feet.  The rear seat is a pleasing place to spend the time as well.  Leg room is good enough for CAM00132passengers to cross their legs and the roofline is easily able to clear the tallest of heads.  Even three seated across can still be friends after a long drive.  The only complaints were the intrusive large center floor hump and some outward passengers had their necks sliced away by the poorly positioned pillar mounted rear seat belts.  Otherwise, the Passat back seat provides some top-notch accommodations.

Thanks to the conservative styling, the beltline is low and window area generous; giving the roomy cabin an airy feel.  Thin roof pillars aid with driver visibility, however the small side mirrors, that also incorporate indicators, don’t cover blind spots to the rear.  The high decklid can also make reversing somewhat of a guessing game.  Entry and exit are terrific front and rear for most folks, with large openings and wide swinging doors.  Some taller folks may have a to duck a little to enter the rear, but this is just nit-picking.

All four doors have ample storage bins and there’s a nifty compartment to the left of the steering wheel below the dash.  The well-placed center armrest houses a voluminous bin and the well-lit glove box is nicely shaped with a special shelf to hold the owner’s manual.

CAM00130When it comes to cargo hauling, the Passat excels.  Trunk volume is at 15.9 cu. ft, which beats all of its competitors except for the Sonata.  Not only is the cargo area expansive, but also flexible due to a wide floor area with minimal wheel intrusion and a generous opening complimented by a low liftover.  An immense 55in. X 39in. framed picture from IKEA had no trouble sliding in, a feat which proved to be impossible CAM00139in the Toyota Camry we tested a few weeks ago.  The trunk lining is nicely carpeted and adds to an opulent feel.  The rear seats boosts versatility by folding 60/40 although the releases are in the trunk and not the cabin.  Trunk hinges are the traditional gooseneck and there is a spare tire under the cargo floor.  Another nice thoughtful touch is the inside emergency trunk release.  Most cars use cable-operated CAM00136handles, which are flimsy and have been known to snap in certain Lexus models, but VW decided to use a more complicated and intricate lever situated in the trunk lid that’s solid and easy to find.  It’s little novel touches like this that make VWs feel so special.

CAM00129Three engines are available on the Passat, each with a distinctively different flavor.  The base models receive a 2.5 liter five-cylinder rated at 170 horsepower.  The frugal among us can get an efficient 2.0 liter four-cylinder turbo-diesel that is rated at 140 horsepower and returns 43mpg highway.  Or the speedsters can go for a 280 hp 3.6 liter v6.  Our test Passat had the humble 2.5 liter that was a relatively modern unit with dual overhead cams and 4 valves per unequally balanced cylinder.  But the power from this engine pales in comparison to other family car’s base powerpants.  Accelerations were decent and the Passat is no slouch, but it doesn’t have the mojo of the Camry or Sonata from a standstill.  Unlike those cars though, the Passat can climb to well beyond 90mph while still feeling well-planted to the road and eager for more speed, a testament to its Autobahn background.  In everyday conditions the car is more than adequate and effortlessly climbs hills and merges freeways.  Engine noise is hushed even under full accelerations, but road and tire noise is apparent.

DSCI0263The Passat is one of the few family cars available with a manual, a six-speed in this case, and VW deserves credit for appealing to enthusiasts.  Rental cars being what they are, ours was equipped like the majority of Passats on the road with a six speed automatic.  The shifts were smooth and perceptual in most conditions and even under hard acceleration, remained placid.  However, when driving up hills or gaining speed, the transaxle would  be reluctant to downshift, or once leveled out to speed would continue to hold lower gears.  The same bizarre characteristics plagued the Jetta from weeks ago, but it wasn’t as noticeable on the Passat.  There’s a manumatic mode that is responsive and resolves the transmission’s timing issues.

The front strut and rear mulit-link four-wheel independent suspension is firm in the European sense.  It’s not at all harsh and does an admirable job of absorbing road ruts and imperfections.  I found it to be quite comfortable on most surfaces, but those who are used to the more forgiving and floaty nature of the Passat’s competitors may find it too rough.

CAM00119What the relatively rigid underpinnings equates to is excellent handling.  The car remains stable and level through hard cornering and doesn’t waft like one would expect a family car to do.  This is where the Passat’s German roots are apparent.  The car readily aims to where the steering wheel is turned and belies its size.  Only on extreme hard cornering over bumpy pavement does the back-end want to kick out.  Steering feel is very linear and communicative, adjusting to the speed of the vehicle.  This is truly a pleasing car to drive.

DSCI0262Our Passat had 26k miles on the clock at the time of testing.  Everything worked as it should and there were no notorious VW gremlins lurking about.  VW has been walloped in years past for inconsistent reliability, especially when it came to electrical issues, but the company has vowed to improve quality.  Our car could be a testament to that.  There were some minor issues though; one of the releases for the fold-down back seat had snapped out of its housing (although was still operable) and there was a minor rattle coming from the driver’s door.  But otherwise, the car felt solid and well-built.

CAM00143The EPA rates the 2.5 liter automatic Passat at 22mpg city and 31mpg highway using regular unleaded.  In mixed driving, I was able to average 25mpg, which sounds about right with the EPA ratings.  Due to the engine’s easy-going nature and some conservative driving, I was able to obtain an astonishing 40pmg on a 200 mile freeway run!  That is economy car territory.  With an immense 18.5 gallon tank, the range of one fill-up could be a bladder-busting 700 miles or more.  The fuel range computer was even more optimistic and was placing the range at over 800 miles.  Incredible!

DSCI0261As aforementioned, prices on the Passat are lower than they have been for years in a hope to shuffle more American buyers into dealerships.  The base 2012 Passat “S” trim with manual starts just below that magical $20k target price at $19,995 (2013 models just barely clear it).  That comes with an impressive list of standard equipment including 16-inch steel wheels, keyless entry, full power accessories, automatic dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth, an eight-way manual driver seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, steering wheel audio controls, and an eight-speaker sound system with a CD player and an auxiliary audio input.   Our tester was the S trim, but came with the available Appearance package with adds the six-speed automatic transmission, 16-inch alloy wheels and a rear-seat center armrest and costs a healthy $2,695.  The only other option that was added to ours was random; the Passat Mat Kit which includes four rubber mats and a trunk liner and costs $235.  Once destination was added, our Passat came up to $23,695, which is extremely competitive to its American and Asian foes.

CAM00121After the latest Jetta redesign, it was only natural to be skeptical about the newest Passat going through its own “Americanization.”  However, what VW has done is make the best Passat ever.  The compromises that used to exist with the car, namely the high price of admission and cramped quarters, are now gone and it still retains most of its fun-to-drive demeanor and solid construction.  The end result is a family car that can carry five in comfort, offers loads of luggage space, and places a smile on the driver’s face while being economical.  The fact that is built locally here in the US yet retains its German character is just icing on the cake.  It’s only a shame that its dowdy looks may drive away some buyers.  What they would be missing out on is my new-found favorite mid-size car. which I was not expecting to discover at the beginning of the test.  If it weren’t for the styling, I’d be happy to give it a 5.0 rating, but for now it earns a solid 4.5/5.0 boomerangs.

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One Response

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