Motor Trend Picks 2012 VW Passat as Car of the Year, but …

By Charles Krome

To say the all-new 2012 VW Passat is having a successful launch could be the understatement of the year: Volkswagen’s all-American mid-size sedan reaped a tidy 986.2 percent increase in sales last month, and although that’s partially because VW only sold 464 of them in October 2010, the bottom line here—5,040 deliveries—is a fairly strong achievement. To put that into context, that total is higher than the October sales for cars like the Ford Mustang, Hyundai Accent or Nissan Maxima. Then, just a few days ago, the new Passat added to the sales excitement by being named Motor Trend 2012 Car of the Year.

Now, I’m guessing most Autosavant readers are less than impressed with this selection—and the majority of the other third-party auto awards—if for no other reason than that these kinds of honors often seem to be based on something other than vehicular merit. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have even mentioned it on this site if it weren’t for the way this year’s award brings exactly that problem into focus: If there’s any truth in that expression about being damned by faint praise, the Passat is well on its way to Hades.

MT’s evaluators started on the exterior, and the car’s workmanship is strongly praised. But the actual design, not so much. One writer compared the VW’s sheet metal to that of an Audi A6(!), but overall, “The result is sort of a time-release appeal that blossoms upon close scrutiny or when hand-washing the vehicle.”

In other words, the car isn’t that good looking, but if you stare at it very carefully for a few hours, the result does have some “appeal.”

Oh, and “There’s nothing trendy going on inside, either,” with writers criticizing “the choice to prioritize the dash vents over the multifunction display, the low placement of which looks dated and represents an ergonomic back-step. Ditto the fiddly turn-signal-stalk cruise controls and the entertainment system’s lack of a USB port.”

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement for Volkswagen’s design, and neither are MT’s comments on the Passat’s standard engine: “It’s the best-tamed VW I5 application ever. … A fine choice for middle America in real-world driving conditions.”

That’s like calling the 2012 Jeep Wrangler—with an EPA rating of 18 mpg in combined driving—the most fuel-efficient Wrangler ever. Even VW is giving up on the notoriously harsh I5 engines and will soon be replacing them with turbocharged I4s. And shouldn’t we expect more from a Car of the Year than it being a “fine choice for middle America?”

The publication then makes a pretty big gaffe in discussing the Passat’s safety performance, indicating the VW has six air bags, “like every new car in the segment.” The problem? The Toyota Camry has 10. But at least the Passat can outdrive the Camry … sort of. As MT admits, the Passat SE is slower than the base Camry, with worse braking performance, too. But, hey, the Passat did cover the magazine’s figure-eight course a full 0.4 seconds quicker than the Camry, “proving that the VW corners far stronger than the Toyota.”

So, yes, your 2012 Car of the Year can out-handle a Toyota Camry.

With its new pricing, the Passat did well on the MT’s value scale, but the magazine stacks the deck by primarily comparing it to the old Passat, which started well north of $27,000. And after a quick discussion of VW’s improving third-party quality scores, MT notes that none of the three Passats it tested for the story betrayed any of the stereotypical quality issues of Volkswagens) past. Except for one car that already had developed a “buzz” in the dashboard.

I suppose the noted American philosopher Meat Loaf must have been right when he said, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

Finally, we get to “Performance of Intended Function,” and “It’s in this category the bigger Passat really shines.” In theory, that’s thanks to attributes like 49 cubic feet of rear passenger volume and a trunk that holds 15.9 cubic feet of cargo. The thing is, the Camry has more overall passenger volume, including more front and rear (head room) and more front shoulder room, and it’s within an inch of the Passat’s rear shoulder room and front/rear leg room. (Note: It’s not that I think the Camry should have been the Car of the Year, it just happens to be the vehicle MT keeps using it for comparisons. The Hyundai Sonata also has more overall passenger volume, more front head room and leg room, the same amount of rear head room and a bigger trunk.)

Motor Trend then caps off its article by reminding folks the Passat is “less-boring-than-it-looks” and does offer a “100-percent-German-driving” experience—remember, the VW is even more dynamic than a highly driver-oriented car like the Camry.

And I’ll cap off my article by reminding folks that MT did have plenty of nice things to say about the 2012 VW Passat. It’s just that, even for a Motor Trend Car of the Year, I was expecting more—and I think many of the magazine’s writers were, too.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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  1. Great review Charles. I got quite a few laughs reading it. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve noticed over the last 6 months or so Motor Trend is tryimg to become more euro-centric. I think in part it’s in response to all the critisism they’ve taken over the years for their COTY choices. At any rate I’m done with them when my subscription ends. If I want a euro-centric magazine I’ll subscribe to Road And Track.

  2. When I first heard the news of the Passat getting the COTY award via social media, I went to Motor Trend’s website to read about it from the source. I was immediately greeted by a 1/4-page Passat video ad. Go figure.

  3. I’m a VW fan generally, but this Passat? Not so much.

  4. I see eight references to Camry in the article. I wonder if this is an objective analysis or just an advertisement for Camry!

  5. I wonder how Tom McCahill would had reviewed the Passat for Mechanix Illustrated if he was still alive? 😉

    Meanwhile Green Car journal gived the 2012 Green COTY to the Civic Natural gas version, I guess it’s a consolation prize after the harsh crictic then Consumer Reports gived them.

    And in the Great White North, the AJAC prizes are dominated by Hyundai and Kia this year

    VW compared a lot the Passat to the Camry forgetting some rivals like Fusion, Malibu, Accord and the Sonata who did huge progress over the years.

  6. The opinion of the Passat is very mixed in Germany.

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