Warren Clarke, Automotive Content Editor
Volkswagen's new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a bright, airy facility that shatters old notions about assembly-line gloom. The 2012 Volkswagen Passat is built here, and it's a car that the manufacturer hopes will shatter old notions about Volkswagen being merely a niche player in the American market for full-size sedans. We're in Chattanooga to drive the Passat on a trip that will take us some 100-plus miles to Nashville, home of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry.
The marketing folks at Volkswagen aren't shy about saying the Passat has been redesigned with American audiences in mind; this is a car crafted for the mainstream, created to compete squarely in the lucrative family-sedan segment. U.S. shoppers like 'em big, so the current model is 4 inches longer than its predecessor, with an additional 3 inches of rear legroom. U.S. shoppers also favor value, so the sedan has become more affordable, with a base price that's been slashed by $7 grand to start at around $20,000 (although the top-of-the line SEL model we drove has an MSRP closer to $33K).
Happily, quality didn't wind up on the cutting room floor. As we cruise through verdant Tennessee countryside, the Passat feels substantial and expensive on the road, treating us to comfort without sacrificing road feel. And its cabin — with impressive materials quality and Euro-clean design — offers quiet elegance in a segment often cursed by mundane aesthetics.
It's hard to make a wrong move in the family sedan segment these days, and Passat rivals like the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima and Mazda 6 are all tremendous picks for various reasons. Still, the 2012 Volkswagen Passat succeeds as the best choice for those who want their big family sedans served with a dollop of European refinement.
The 2012 Volkswagen Passat offers a wide range of engines: a 2.5-liter inline-5 rated at 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque; a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel that produces 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque; and a 3.6-liter V6 good for 280 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. The V6 in our test car is a willing accomplice in every adventure, easily getting up to speed in the fast lane and providing enough off-the-line thrust to sweeten the driving experience.
Our test car features a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission, which is the standard setup in every V6-equipped Passat. It's a good match for the V6; unlike some transmissions geared more toward fuel economy, this six-speed isn't slow to downshift, and makes the most of the engine's power. At the Edmunds test track, this combination helps it accelerate to 60 mph from a standstill in 6.4 seconds on the way to completing the quarter-mile in 14.6 seconds at 96.4 mph. The 3,517-pound car doesn't come to a halt with the same confidence, however, as it takes 131 feet for the 235/45R18 Hankook Optimo H426 tires to stop rolling once the brakes are applied at 60 mph.
This transmission/engine combo delivers fuel efficiency of 20 city/28 highway mpg — decent for the segment, though not exceptional. The Passat V6 is more fuel-efficient than the comparable Ford Fusion with its 3.5-liter V6 (18 city/27 highway mpg), but less frugal on the highway than the V6-powered Honda Accord (20 city/30 highway mpg). For maximum fuel efficiency, you'll want to consider the diesel-powered Passat, which merits an outstanding EPA rating of 31 city/43 highway mpg.
As we slide into the driver seat, we're greeted by bolsters — both on the seatback and the seat bottom — that keep us firmly in place as we hug the corners of a Southern byway. Our Passat's power-adjustable lumbar support does its job earnestly, and will satisfy those who like an aggressive assist in this area.
Solid and unflappable, the 2012 Volkswagen Passat goes down the road with an assuredness more reminiscent of an entry-level luxury model than a modest family sedan. With a couple of stops along the way to check out local specialties like mud pies and deep-fried peanuts, the journey to Nashville takes us about 3 hours, and the fact that the seats draw no complaints during this time is testimony to their comfort.
This VW's cabin is a relatively quiet refuge when compared to other choices in this segment. Still, expect some road and tire noise. We also couldn't escape the chirping of the cicadas that were everywhere in Tennessee this summer as we snaked through the woodlands.
Within the Passat's cabin, a spirit of simplicity prevails. It's evident in the controls, which are logically clustered and placed exactly where you'd expect to find them. It's also evident in the various interfaces, which allow us to tap the car's stereo, climate control and navigation systems without scrolling through endless menus.
When a vehicle gets a price cut, it often comes with a decimated standard features list, but this isn't the case with the 2012 Volkswagen Passat. Even base models come with a generous array of amenities, and upscale features like Bluetooth connectivity and dual climate control (features that are only available on higher trim levels of the Accord) are always standard equipment.
The Passat doesn't fare quite as well when it comes to in-cabin storage. While the center console bin is fairly deep, it's too narrow to offer any meaningful capacity. The storage bins on the doors are slight, and even the glovebox is on the smallish side.
However, rear passengers will be happy to know there's no shortage of space in the backseat. The sedan offers class-leading rear legroom — 39.1 inches, which is almost 2 inches more than Accord's and almost 5 inches more than the Sonata's. Unfortunately, the backseat isn't built for three, due to a tall hump on the floor behind the center console that makes life uncomfortable for the unlucky person seated in the middle. On the upside, when there are just two in back, you get the chance to use the rear seat's nice pull-down armrest, which features ample padding and a couple of cupholders.
Offering 15.9 cubic feet, the Passat boasts one of the larger trunks in the segment; the Accord is good for just 14.7 cubic feet, while the Camry trails with 15. The trunk's wide maw makes loading easy, and its flat floor provides lots of usable space. Outward visibility is good from most angles, which makes passing on the freeway and backing into parking spaces a stress-free endeavor.
Design/Fit and Finish
When it comes to the Passat's sheet metal, understatement prevails. Some editors see a certain European elegance in this simplicity, but others have said that they find the car's looks rather dull.
Halfway through our journey, we stop in Lynchburg, where Volkswagen has gathered some competing models — the Accord, Sonata and Camry — so we can hop into their cabins for a quick comparison. With its clean, modern design and abundance of nicely grained, soft-touch plastics, the Passat's cabin stands out as the most upscale of the bunch. Our test car features generous wood accents on the center console and dash, which serve to give it a premium feel; viewed side by side with rivals from comparable trim levels, it's clear the Passat comes decked with more timber than these contenders.
Who should consider this vehicle
Drivers who want a family sedan that is less ubiquitous and a dash more high-rent than the usual suspects will appreciate the 2012 Volkswagen Passat. Additionally, the car's generous legroom makes it a great fit for those who frequently haul taller passengers in back, though you'll want to look elsewhere if you want a sedan that comfortably seats five. Thanks to its low price and impressive feature content, the VW Passat also shines as an excellent pick for shoppers in this segment who prioritize value.
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