2012 Volkswagen Passat First Drive Review
Tucked away in the back corner of this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Volkswagen unveiled its next puzzle piece to increasing its role as a global automaker with a car built for one of the most important markets, North America. Not only will the 2012 Volkswagen Passat be built specifically for customers in North America, it will be built in the heart of the United States at VW’s newest assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Based on the success of the 2011 VW Jetta (which saw record sales in June thanks in large part to its bigger size and a lower price), Volkswagen AG seems well on its way of achieving its goal of selling 800,000 units per year by 2018 with the all-new Passat that has also grown in size and dropped in price.
VW’s mid-size sedan skipped the 2011 model year, but it is back for 2012 with a new look, a bigger interior and a lower starting price. The 2012 Volkswagen Passat will go on sale in late August or early September with a starting MSRP of $19,995 which is about $7,000 less than the 2010 Passat. While the all-new Passat is available in three trim levels (S, SE and SEL), it is actually easier breaking down the price of the sedan by its three engine offerings (base price for the 2.5, $25,995 for the TDI and $28,995 for the VR6). The model used for this review was the fuel-efficient Passat TDI which is actually priced lower than most mid-sized hybrid sedans while offering superior fuel economy and interior space.
When the 2012 Volkswagen Passat made its debut in Detroit, it looked like VW had merely supersized the Jetta, but after seeing the redesigned Passat out in the wild, it’s obvious that VW definitely managed to create a unique design not only from the smaller Jetta but also from the European-spec Passat. While the North American Passat shares the same basic look as its European counterpart, the two cars actually share very little in terms of parts including no shared exterior panels or glass. There are plenty of small differences between the two Passat designs, but the easiest ways to tell the two cars apart are the rear doors (the Euro model incorporates quarter windows) and the rear end (the North American version moves the license plate into the decklid).
Up front, the two Passat designs have more in common using Volkswagen’s current design language found on all other North American VWs except for the CC. This styling leaves the new Passat less distinguishable in the line-up as past Passats, but, at the same time, the look of the 2012 Passat easily has more character than the previous global design. Up front, this starts with the rectangular headlights and three-bar grille while the subtle body creases in the hood and along its flanks are what really sets this design apart from competitor designs as well as past Passats. Compared to the new European Passat that debuted last year, the North American version is bigger in just about every dimension, but the biggest change is that it has an overall length that is almost four inches longer. Fortunately, the wheelbase has also been lengthened on the Chattanooga-built Passat which helps disguise the car’s stretched dimensions.2012 Volkswagen Passat: Interior and Safety
The added length of the 2012 Volkswagen Passat directly results in a roomier cabin especially in regards to the rear seat which now benefits from additional headroom and best-in-class rear legroom. In addition to being roomier, the five-passenger Passat should also be considered a class leader in terms of cabin design and materials. While some panned the redesigned Jetta for its lack of interior luxury compared to the previous model, this was not the case with the new Passat as even the base model comes with plenty of soft-touch materials including the instrument panel, door panels and even a leather-wrapped shift lever. Stepping up to the Passat TDI also includes more interior luxury such as the leather-wrapped steering wheel, power lumbar driver’s seat and heated front seats. All 2012 Passats comes standard with dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth hands-free connectivity and VW’s V-Tex leatherette seating material.
Still, the new Passat offers plenty of options, but most come at the expense of packaging simplicity. In an attempt to make it easier to order a 2012 Passat, Volkswagen cut down the number of available build configurations (from 128 in 2008 to just 15 for 2012) which makes it especially hard to special order a vehicle. In the case of this Passat TDI SE, for example, the only way to equip the car with a sunroof is to choose the DSG transmission in a $1,900 package. That being said, the 2012 Passat offers plenty of high-tech options such as the entry-level, SD-card based RNS 315 navigation system, the more advanced hard drive based RNS 510 navigation system and even the crisp sounds delivered by the Fender-branded premium audio system. Instead of plastering the Fender badges all over the cabin, VW added two small logos to each corner of the instrument panel as an understated nod to just how great this system is. During the drive, VW made sure to have a demo CD available to show how well the Fender audio system worked, and it is easily one of the best audio systems on the market – let alone in a sub-$30,000 car. The one down side about the North American Passat versus the European model is the lack of available tech options such as start/stop technology, Adaptive Chassis Control and lane change assist.
Official crash test scores probably won’t be available until after the launch of the 2012 Volkswagen Passat, but it does come standard with plenty of safety features such as include six airbags, active front head restraints, electronic brake-force distribution with brake assist, four-wheel anti-lock disc brake system, tire pressure monitoring system, traction control and stability control.2012 Volkswagen Passat: Performance
Three engines will be offered in the 2012 Volkswagen Passat including the volume-selling 2.5-liter inline-five, but during this test drive we spent most of the time behind the wheel of the fuel-sipping Passat TDI. Volkswagen AG is still pushing its TDI engines pretty strong – although hybrid technology is slowly starting to find its ways into VW, Audi and Porsche models – and the diesel engine of choice for the 2012 Passat is the 2.0-liter inline-four that produces 140 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual is offered as standard equipment, but this test vehicle came with the VW’s quick-shifting, six-speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox as part of a $1,900 package.
So far, the EPA has only released official fuel economy estimates for this Passat TDI at 31 miles per gallon in the city, 43 mpg on the highway and a combined overall rating of 35 mpg. Not only is this better than the smaller Jetta, but without resorting to any kind of annoying hypermiling driving techniques, I was able to get the new Passat to average around 53 mpg on the highway and equally impressive 42 mpg around town. VW says that the Passat with the base engine gets 21 mpg city and 32 mpg highway (with the manual transmission), while the range-topping Passat VR6 model is expected to return 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway with its only transmission option, VW’s six-speed, dual-clutch DSG gearbox. Competitive performance and fuel economy are great, but VW also ups the ante in this segment by offering the 2012 Passat with the Carefree Maintenance service (the only non-luxury brand to offer free maintenance) on all non-wear items for three years or 36,000 miles.
To show that the new Passat can still live up to its German roots, VW sent us from Chattanooga to Nashville along road conditions that varied from wide-open interstates to narrow, two-lane switchbacks. Despite growing in size, the new suspension setup (including four-link independent rear suspension) feels good enough to tackle just about any roads most Passat drivers will drive on, but the Passat TDI feels even sportier thanks to peak torque kicking it at just 1,500 rpm and the TDI-specific electric power assist steering. One of the ways VW cut costs on the new Jetta was by giving the base model rear drum brakes, but all 2012 Passats will come with four-wheel disc brakes as standard equipment. With this being a family sedan, though, don’t expect the Passat to handle like a sports car – leave that to the sport-tuned GLI that will likely be available in the not-too-distant future.2012 Volkswagen Passat: Summary
While most automakers are going to global platforms and vehicle designs, Volkswagen is hoping that market-specific models such as the all-new 2012 Volkswagen Passat will help improve its presence as a global automaker. In the U.S. alone, VW says the mid-size sedan segment sold 2.9 million units in 2010 with only 40,000 of which being the Passat, so it would seem that a roomier and more affordable 2012 Passat would be a great way for VW to improve its market share in this lucrative segment. Volkswagen has also priced its new Passat competitively against rival cars (including the TDI against mid-size hybrids), but one of the most surprising pricing comparisons is the fact that 69 percent of all 2012 Passat build combinations are priced below the starting price of the base 2010 Passat.
This new Passat couldn’t have come at a better time for VW either as the mid-size market is not only big, but it’s also rapidly improving in quality thanks to new additions such as the Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Chevrolet Malibu and, soon, the all-new Toyota Camry. In its TDI form, the 2012 Passat manages to take on some of the fuel-efficient mid-sizers such as the Toyota Camry Hybrid, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Chevrolet’s upcoming Malibu Eco. If the initial sales success of the new Jetta is anything to go on, Volkswagen’s all-new Chattanooga assembly plant should have no problem selling its initial production capacity of 150,000 annual units to U.S., Canadian and Mexican buyers with the larger and more affordable 2012 Volkswagen Passat.
“The 2012 Passat is a true Volkswagen, offering German engineering, class-leading standard features, and superior fuel economy, all for a remarkable value,” said Jonathan Browning, President and CEO, Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. “Demonstrating our commitment to the American market, the car will be produced at one of the newest, most advanced, and environmentally responsible auto assembly plants in the world in Chattanooga, Tennessee.”
Pros – competitive pricing and size; Made in the U.S.A.; TDI model returns excellent fuel economy
Cons – new option packages limit a la carte features; less technology than European Passat; new design not as distinctive as previous Passats
Volkswagen provided travel, lodging and vehicle for this review.
Photos by Jeffrey N. Ross