Honda's 2011 Accord sedan, according to the EPA, is the biggest "midsize" car you can buy. It's big enough, in fact, to be classified by the agency as a large car. Outsizing the competition was a bold move, which, when combined with the Accord's reputation for being reliable and not boring, continues to pay off in the form of a quarter-million or more sales annually since 2008. It's hardly surprising, then, that when Volkswagen redesigned the Passat for 2012, it chose the Accord as its primary target.
Larger in every way than the sedan it replaces, the 2012 Volkswagen Passat is designed for and is being built in America for Americans. Volkswagen even aggressively lashed pricing by as much as $7,180 to undercut comparably equipped Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys.
For 2011, the Accord receives a refresh that includes subtle sheet metal changes, increased feature content and a 1-mpg improvement in fuel economy.
Options Are Not an Option
Balancing features against price — a solid means to gauge value, but a complex evaluation method — was once the centerpiece of an Inside Line comparison test. However, both the Accord and Passat in this test are range-topping models and are priced only $1,120 apart.
The top-shelf 2011 Honda Accord EX-L V6 Navi is the best-equipped and most expensive version of the Accord sedan. For $32,600 it includes a 271-horsepower port-injected 3.5-liter V6, five-speed automatic transmission, 17-inch alloy wheels, remote entry and keyed ignition, leather seating, DVD navigation with traffic-flow info and a back-up camera (new for 2011), a seven-speaker audio upgrade including XM, Bluetooth phone-audio streaming, and iPod via USB. In other words, this is as premium as a midsize sedan can be, rivaling Acura's TSX in materials, features and performance.
The apex of the Passat model range is the 2012 Volkswagen Passat V6 SEL Premium. At $33,720 it includes a 280-hp direct-injected 3.6-liter V6, six-speed DSG auto-double-clutch manual transmission, 18-inch alloy wheels, intelligent keyless entry and ignition, leather seating, hard drive navigation with 10GB of music storage, traffic-flow info and a back-up camera, Fender-branded nine-speaker audio upgrade including Sirius, Bluetooth phone-audio streaming and iPod connectivity via a proprietary cable. It, too, rivals premium corporate siblings like the Audi A4 in size and features and even exceeds that car's power.
Also, despite what their badges might say, these cars are about as American as can be. The Accord features 80 percent North American parts content and the Passat's parts are 85 percent North American. Both are assembled in the United States — the Accord in Marysville, Ohio, and the Passat in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Cost vs. Benefit
A large portion of the price disparity between these two sedans comes down to the Passat's superior versions of similar features. Its 18-inch alloy wheels and genuine wood trim surpass the Accord's 17-inch alloys and poorly rendered simulated wood trim. The relatively ancient five-speed automatic in the Honda is no match for the sophisticated six-speed automated manual in the VW. Not only is the Passat's DSG transmission smoother and more intelligent about gearchanges up and down, it also provides Manual and Sport modes the Accord does not have, plus the VW has shift buttons on the steering wheel.
The Passat's hard-drive-based navigation system (versus Accord's DVD) features far superior graphics and an intuitive touchscreen interface, plus extra disc space allotted for music storage. Even the sound quality (and two more speakers) of the VW/Fender system is superior and it better integrates/interfaces iPod use.
From the outside, neither car is styled as aggressively as Hyundai's Sonata or Mazda's 6. Even though styling doesn't seem to count for much in this segment, it's a shame Volkswagen didn't instill a little more CC sedan into the 2012 Volkswagen Passat's styling. The Accord is less boring than a Camry but isn't really going to turn any heads.
Despite the 2012 Passat's cavernous appearance and ginormous trunk capacity (15.9 cubic feet), it misses the EPA's large car distinction by 2 cubic feet of combined passenger and cargo capacity, making it a very large midsize car. Its total interior volume falls 3 cubic feet short of the Accord. In practical terms, however, the Passat will better satisfy both your front and backseat drivers.
On paper, front accommodations are nearly identical between the two: both have standard, heated leather power seats, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and dual-zone HVAC. The Accord offers 0.7 inch more front headroom, but seat comfort and support are noticeably better in the Passat, front and rear. The VW further offers more rear legroom (by 1.9 inches), more rear shoulder room (0.6 inch) and more rear headroom (0.6 inch), plus vents for HVAC.
Both cars' rear seatbacks fold down to expand cargo capacity. Both rely on temporary, space-saver spare tires; however, the Passat's cargo lift-over height is 1.25 inches friendlier to your back.
Quality Is Difficult To Quantify
Steering feel, ride comfort, interior material quality, even that door-shut thump people associate with excellence are what separate merely adequate cars from those with real merit. The Volkswagen impressed us in each of the above areas and then some. The Germans probably use one of those notorious three-words-mashed-into-one word for the door thump sound — something like Türschließenklang, we reckon.
It probably wouldn't take the average Joe driving these two sedans a city block to say which one he suspected was the "more expensive" or "more sophisticated" sedan. The Passat supplies buttery-smooth steering (which happens to be well-executed electric-assist power steering) compared to what the Accord has had for a decade: moderately weighted and reasonably precise hydraulic steering. What's more, the Accord has lost some of the road connection or "feel" it once counted on to earn reviewers' praises.
The Passat's compliant and refined ride qualities contrast with the Accord's firm-ish sometimes-busy suspension. In this way, the Passat manages to feel like a large American car while maintaining the "European-inspired" ride and response people associate with Teutonic sedans. Despite this difference, this Accord weighs 67 pounds more than the Passat.
Neither of these V6 family sedans will set your hair ablaze, but they both illustrate the performance advantages of opting for a V6 rather than a four-cylinder (or in the case of VW, a turbocharged four- or five-cylinder) version of the same sedan. These domestic-duty devices are actually pretty quick.
At the end of the day, however, the Passat accelerated quicker, stopped shorter and handled better than the Accord across the board, putting yet another check in the Passat's "measurably better" column. It posted a 6.1-second best run to 60 mph (versus the Accord's 6.7-second run, both with 1-foot rollout like at a drag strip) and crossed the quarter-mile mark in 14.6 seconds at 96.4 mph — about a half-second better than the Accord.
The Passat stopped in 131 feet, which isn't all that impressive, but is still shorter than the Accord's 136-foot best. Its non-defeat electronic stability control (ESC) system limits its true handling potential. If possible, we test both on and off modes, and the Accord allowed full defeat of the electronics. Still, the Passat managed to weave through the slalom 0.5 mph faster at 62.6 mph and circle the 200-foot skid pad at 0.81g vs. the Accord's 0.80g.
Fuel grade is the only "performance" category where the Accord earned a slight advantage. It will tolerate regular fuel while the Passat demands premium (91 or higher octane). However, the Accord's superior 24-mpg EPA-combined fuel economy estimate (versus the Passat's 23-mpg combined) didn't pan out in our books. After 500 miles of combined driving in each, we earned 21 mpg in the Passat and 20 mpg in the Accord. Of course, "your results may vary."
Who's Trying Harder Here?
The Volkswagen Passat historically has been almost competitive among its peers, usually offering better dynamic qualities and responses, but always being a tad small, slightly underequipped and a little expensive. For the 2012 model year, all that's changed.
The 2012 VW Passat, especially the fully equipped V6 SEL Premium, offers all the features of its competition plus a few they don't have — like its sophisticated transmission. The front- and rear-seat comfort and sheer space advantage the Passat enjoys over the Accord make it a more competent, more relaxing family sedan every day. And when strapping kids in their car seats, a couple inches really matters for the parents, too.
The Passat's interior design/presentation plus superior ergonomics imbue a daily commute, carpool duty or a weekend trip with a specialness that the Accord does not have. The Passat feels like a premium car in a transportation-appliance segment.
With the death of a thousand cuts, the reissued 2011 Honda Accord Sedan falls to the all-new 2012 Volkswagen Passat. The Accord EX-L Navi fails to move the desirability needle, while the Passat SEL Premium finally finds its American groove. It's obvious VW is pedaling (peddling?) hard with the new Passat, while Honda is coasting on the legacy of the Accord. The 2012 Volkswagen Passat V6 SEL Premium coalesces better quality, performance, ride and value, which make it a truly superior (very large) midsize family sedan. And our winner.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.