What's New for 2012
The 2012 Volkswagen Passat has been fully redesigned. Highlights include a lower price, a roomier interior and a newly available turbodiesel engine.
If you've always wanted to drive a classy European sedan but have been put off by that nagging voice in your head telling you it's your patriotic duty to buy something built in America, you'll want to check out the 2012 Volkswagen Passat.
This all-new midsize sedan combines many of the qualities that likely drew you to German cars in the first place, including elegant styling and a more sporting driving character. But it's also the first vehicle to roll out from VW's brand-new assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Compared to the previous Passat (which, incidentally, continues to be sold elsewhere in the world), it's meant to better appeal to American tastes, with a roomier interior, a new selection of engines and (most important) a significantly lower price.
As for the engine lineup, last year's gutsy 2.0-liter turbocharged engine is no more. Instead, VW gives you a choice of three engines: a 2.5-liter inline-5 we've come to know in the Jetta, a 2.0-liter inline-4 diesel (the TDI, also from the Jetta and Golf) or a 280-horsepower 3.6-liter V6. All of them offer some form of six-speed automatic transmission, while the two smaller engines are offered with manual gearboxes as well. The TDI diesel is the one to get, as it achieves fuel economy greater than even its lofty EPA estimates. Essentially, you can get hybrid fuel economy at non-hybrid prices.
We suspect some prior owners of VW's mainstream sedan will lament the change in direction for the Passat, as it used to be a distinct bridge between regular family sedans and entry-level luxury cars. But the fact is VW's entry in the crowded family sedan category is now a better fit for the majority of consumers. It's priced right, drives well and finally holds a family of five comfortably. And thankfully, it still has its German roots.
There are some minor downsides to the new Passat package, notably the lack of some common features like a rearview camera and an eight-way power driver seat (it's only six-way). And given the state of the midsize segment, we certainly recommend buyers compare the Passat back-to-back with top choices like the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima. But for all that, the 2012 Volkswagen Passat remains uniquely positioned to satisfy your desire to drive European and own American.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2012 Volkswagen Passat sedan is offered in three broad models broken down by engine (2.5L, TDI and 3.6L), which are further subdivided into a trio of different trim levels (S, SE and SEL).
The lineup starts with the "S" base model (2.5L only), which comes standard with 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. An available Appearance package adds a six-speed automatic transmission, 16-inch alloy wheels and a rear-seat center armrest.
Move up to the SE trim level and you get 17-inch alloy wheels, chrome exterior trim, a six-way power driver seat, heated front seats, leatherette premium vinyl upholstery, a sliding front armrest and a touchscreen audio interface. Options on SE models include a sunroof and a navigation system, while TDI SE buyers can add 18-inch alloy wheels and foglights as well. The 3.6L SE comes standard with these options, except the navigation system, which remains optional. A nine-speaker Fender audio system is also included.
The 2.5L SEL adds upgraded front seats, the Fender sound system and an upgraded navigation system. The SEL Premium package adds keyless ignition/entry, remote ignition, foglights, a power passenger seat, driver memory functions and leather/faux suede upholstery. Both the TDI and 3.6L can also be had in SEL guise, but the Premium package is mandatory.
Powertrains and Performance
If there's one thing the front-wheel-drive 2012 Volkswagen Passat has plenty of, it's powertrain choices. Entry-level 2.5L models get a 2.5-liter inline-5 engine rated at 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. Transmission choices here include a six-speed manual and a six-speed automatic. In Edmunds performance testing, an automatic-equipped 2.5 Passat went from zero to 60 mph in 9 seconds, which is average for the class. EPA estimated fuel economy for the manual transmission stands at 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway and 26 mpg combined. The automatic drops slightly to 22/31/25.
Those looking for maximum miles per gallon can opt for the TDI model's fuel-efficient 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel, which produces 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. It comes mated to either the six-speed manual or a six-speed automated manual transmission (known as DSG). In Edmunds performance testing, the Passat TDI went from zero to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds -- this is on par with gasoline-powered four-cylinder sedans. The EPA-estimated fuel economy is an excellent 31/43/35 for the manual and 30/40/34 with the DSG. In extensive Edmunds fuel economy testing, we've also found that the Passat can easily surpass these numbers by 8-10 mpg.
If maximum thrust is what you're after, look no farther than the 3.6L's 3.6-liter V6, which puts out 280 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. VW's six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission is standard. In Edmunds testing, this engine was able to bring the Passat from zero to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds -- very quick for this class. EPA-estimated fuel economy stands at 20/28/23 mpg.
The 2012 Volkswagen Passat's list of standard safety features includes antilock brakes, traction and stability control, front side airbags and side curtain airbags. In the event of a crash, a new feature called Intelligent Crash Response automatically cuts off the fuel supply, unlocks the doors and turns on the hazard flashers.
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, the Passat earned a top score of "Good" for its performance in frontal-offset, side-impact and roof-strength tests. In Edmunds brake testing, both a Passat 3.6 SEL and TDI came to a stop from 60 mph in about 130 feet, which is longer than average. A 2.5 SE delivered a class-average 123 feet.
Interior Design and Special Features
The first thing you notice about the passenger cabin of this new, larger Passat is the sense of spaciousness. Space up front is good; however, the driver seat only adjusts in six ways (minus lumbar), lacking the seat bottom tilting ability of most competitors. There are no complaints in back, as the Passat is verging on a full-size sedan now. It gets an additional 3 inches of rear seat legroom that makes it possible for even good-size adults to stretch out. The backrest is too upright, however, which can result in taller occupants' heads grazing the roof. The spacious trunk can swallow 15.9 cubic feet of cargo -- a number that bests many of the Passat's competitors -- and is made more flexible by 60/40-split-folding rear seatbacks.
Once underway, you'll notice the interior is also relatively quiet compared to some other midsize family sedans. The quality of interior materials may not be as high as they were in the outgoing Passat, but they remain among the best in the class, while the design architecture adds an upscale feel. The layout of gauges and controls is also refreshingly simple. Finally, the new, premium Fender audio system has been tuned to the acoustics of the interior and will please even hard-core audiophiles.
On the road, the 2012 Volkswagen Passat's character depends a great deal on which engine is under the hood. Performance and fuel economy from the 2.5-liter five-cylinder are adequate and should be an acceptable choice for most buyers. However, we would recommend the 2.0-liter turbodiesel in TDI models, which offers livelier low-end power and truly extraordinary fuel economy. It's definitely the Passat engine to get. However, for those who care more about power than fuel economy, the 3.6-liter V6 engine does deliver much more enthusiastic acceleration.
The DSG automated manual transmission that's available with the turbodiesel engine and standard with the V6 works very well, and its regular and manual-shift modes mean the Passat is well suited both for commuting and more spirited driving. Unfortunately, the Passat's throttle response (with the automatic and DSG) is rather lackadaisical, with a noticeable lag between the time the pedal is pressed and when the engine actually kicks in. This is corrected by selecting the transmission's Sport mode, but the sportier shift programming results in worse fuel economy.
On the move, the Passat is an engaging sedan to drive thanks to its well-sorted suspension tuning. Steering is reasonably precise, although it's numb on center and a tad heavy at low speeds. Overall, though, the Passat manages to earn high marks for ride comfort, which is ultimately more important considering the fact that most buyers will be far more concerned with schlepping kids to school or co-workers to lunch than burning up winding back roads.