As an automaker, how do you take a good – but slow selling – car and improve its sales by two or threefold? Volkswagen faced this very question during the development of the new-for-2012 Passat. Some people – my father-in-law included – really liked the Passat. But many more other potential buyers were unwilling to pay a premium price for a car from a non-premium brand. That Volkswagens had a run of reliability issues over the past several years didn’t help either. The solution? Remove a significant amount of cost from the car to dramatically drop its price, while disguising as much of the cost cutting as possible.
VW was certainly successful in its cost cutting. The new Passat, despite being much larger and more comfortable, is some $5,000 less expensive than the car it replaced. VW took other steps to move its midsize offering into the sweet spot of the market, where Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Chevrolet, Hyundai, Kia, and Ford sell millions of Camrys, Accords, Altimas, Malibus, Sonatas, Optimas, and Fusions each year as well. For instance, the car is larger than the old Passat, with a limousine-like back seat. The lineup was simplified; gone is the wagon (there are no wagon versions of any of the aforementioned competitors) and gone is a lot of the premium feel of the former Passat.
But when you’re talking about a car that literally costs thousands of dollars less than the car it replaces, while at the same time providing “more” on the spec sheet, in terms of space, features, and technology, it makes me and other automotive pundits sound like idiots when we criticize Volkswagen for assuming that “fat, dumb Americans” want a “fat, dumb car.” It turns out that VW was apparently correct, because these things are selling like crazy. So much so that VW just announced that it’s hiring another 800 workers at its Chattanooga, Tennessee Passat plant to increase production to about 170,000 vehicles annually. The 800 new hires are on top of 200 new hires announced earlier this year.
But the thing with the old Passat is that it really was over-engineered. It was chasing a small segment occupied by the likes of the Acura TL and Volvo S60 that collectively doesn’t sell as many cars as Ford sells Fusions. Now, it’s aimed at the much larger midsize sedan segment. The top-selling competition – while all good, capable cars – is not breaking any new ground in any category. There’s no mileage champ, performance champ, luxury champ, or comfort champ among the Passat’s newfound competitors. All of them are basically each of their respective manufacturers’ efforts to build a sedan that seats five people and their luggage comfortably, and can be purchased or leased by a middle-class American family.
Some of those competitors do some things better than others. The Camry may be the durability champ. The Sonata the design champ. The Altima the dynamic champ. The Fusion (Hybrid) the mileage champ. But by and large, they all feature hard plastic, fairly basic infotainment systems, and four cylinder engines that produce between 170 and 200 horsepower. They all go for about $25,000 in their middle trim levels.
So when the average new-car buyer ambled over to her local Volkswagen showroom in 2010 to check out a Passat, she might have pivoted on her heel and immediately turned around to see a then-new Passat with a $36,000 MSRP on its window. Sure, it had a nice interior and could cruise the Autobahn all day, but it also had poor reliability scores from Consumer Reports. Plus, that fancy interior was a little cramped relative to many of its competitors.
Volkswagen’s engineers did a much better job of hiding the cost cutting in the Passat than they did in the Jetta a year earlier. The Jetta’s hard plastic upper dash and A-pillar are soft to the touch and fabric-covered, respectively, in the Passat. The Passat gives less of an echo sound effect when closing the doors than in the Jetta (though they still don’t seem to have the same smooth precision that Honda bestows upon its Accord doors). Many villagers donned pitchforks when the 2011 Jetta ditched the 2010 model’s independent rear suspension for a twist beam axle; fret not, Passat buyers: IRS is standard in the larger Passat.
Aside from the deletion of a Passat Wagon variant, the 2012 Passat also loses a few other entries from the former car’s options list. A few examples: HID headlamps, rear seat air vents, all wheel drive, the excellent 2.0T engine, backup camera, and rain-sensing wipers.
But what do you get for your money (in the case of our tester, which was a 2.5 liter SEL Premium model, its MSRP was $29,895 plus $770 destination, for a not-insubstantial $30,665 out the door. And don’t forget, while the stuff you see is mostly there (I’ll note that the Accord also cannot be ordered with rain-sensing wipers or all wheel drive), you’re saddled with a hulk of an engine in the Passat for your $30k-plus.
While not as slow as the Jetta’s base 2.0 liter four (otherwise known as the “two-point-slow”), the Passat’s 2.5 liter engine has some interesting traits. It sounds almost like a six cylinder, but with NVH characteristics more similar to a four cylinder. Whoever thought that five-cylinder engines were a good idea didn’t think about it for very long. There are always going to be an uneven number of cylinders going in a particular direction – either three are up and two are down, or two are up and three are down. The 2.5 liter five-banger doesn’t do itself any favors with its cast-iron block(though it does give reviewers license to refer to it as a “lump,” since it’s leaving a lot of extra weight over the Passat’s drive wheels versus a comparably-sized aluminum block powerplant).
Aside from curious NVH characteristics, the 2.5 liter isn’t exactly a champ when it comes to power density. Its 68 horsepower per liter does not compare well to the Accord’s 79 horsepower per liter from its 190-horsepower 2.4 liter four cylinder. Plus, the Accord’s four hums like a Japanese sewing machine. Agricultural implements are the furthest thing from your mind when winding out a Honda four to its redline. Not really true for the Passat 2.5.
German cars, including Volkswagens, have traditionally carried the label of “driver’s car” with pride. Compared to a Camry, that’s still true. A Mazda6, not quite as much. Part of what helps the Passat deliver decent (though not class-leading) mileage despite its old-tech engine are its 17 inch 215/55 R17 all season tires. With renewed focus on fuel economy numbers as a selling point over the past few years, it’s no surprise to see mainstream vehicles using higher-mileage, harder compound tires. They’re great on the highway, but ultimate cornering grip is sacrificed. Read into that as you wish, but the bottom line is that most Americans don’t need maximum-g abilities from their tires 99.99% of the time. Hence, the focus on saving some fuel.
The EPA rates the Passat 2.5 liter with the six-speed automatic (as tested) at 22 MPG city/31 MPG highway. As noted earlier, this is respectable, if not class-leading (the non-hybrid Sonata sports a 24/35 rating, and the non-hybrid Fusion delivers 23/33.) Despite the only-good ratings on the Monroney, the Passat actually delivered very good real-world mileage. In roughly 400 miles of mixed (though highway-heavy) driving, I saw numbers in the high twenties. Twenty eight and up was not a rare sight.
The six speed automatic is of the conventional torque-converter variety (no DSG; sorry, those cost more and are not offered in the 2012 Passat), but does make the most of the 2.5 liter’s capabilities. It was quick to downshift and found a high gear when settling into a steady-state cruise. Shifts don’t occur with the abruptness of VW’s DSG gearbox, but the conventional automatic probably improves customer satisfaction by making low-speed driving a nonevent. If you don’t think that’s a priority for car buyers, ask Ford how much Consumer Reports readers have enjoyed their PowerShift transmissions in the Focus and Fiesta.
Infotainment choices in the Passat vary by trim level. Our tester had the top-spec RNS 510 Navigation system with Fender Premium Audio (that just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?). Lower-end cars have a so-called RNS 315 Navigation system, and even lower-end cars have a plain vanilla touchscreen radio with a low resolution display. The top-spec system sounds all right (apparently it produces 400 watts from its 9 speakers), and I liked the fact that its Bluetooth streaming audio could display the artist and song title from my iPhone. Of the dozens of cars I’ve tested with Bluetooth streaming audio, the Passat was the first to ever offer complete integration, and it was nice to have. Navigation calculations were a bit on the slow side (which will probably seem more annoying as the car gets older and the pace of technological advancements drives long-term owners crazy with their old-tech navigation systems).
The RNS 510 audio system also boasts a 45 GB hard drive that devotes some space to navigation data while allowing 25 GB for personal music storage. Never lose or scratch another CD once it’s loaded! Finally, it has Sirius Travel Link capability, which gives weather reports, fuel prices, traffic reports, movie listings, and sports scores. The live traffic feature doesn’t overlay on the map, though – only providing the data in a list format – which is counter-intuitive. It’s a shame that the Audi A7 (which, by the way, costs twice as much as this car) has such a magnificent navigation system to this one’s bare-bones model, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.
Sitting in the Passat’s driver’s seat, the view is better than average, thanks to the car’s open greenhouse and fairly low decklid. There’s no gun-slit sensation in the Passat as you might experience in the likes of the Camaro, or even the Sonata. (Perhaps they eliminated the need for the missing backup camera by baking decent visibility right into the car’s actual design). The seat itself seemed to be reasonably supportive (if not cossetting), and all controls fell neatly to hand. Every control – buttons on the steering wheel, radio, HVAC, etc. – has a solid feel. VW may have cut some corners with the Passat, but not in this department.
The back seat is amazing. With an additional 3.7 inches of wheelbase compared to the 2010 Passat, I’m really not exaggerating if I call it limousine-like. Not in features, but certainly in terms of legroom. In terms of usable legroom, it bests larger, more expensive cars like the Hyundai Genesis (yet the tale of the tape shows that the Genesis tops it by a little more than an inch). Put it this way: at 6’4″ tall, it’s unusual for me to be able to adjust the driver’s seat to a comfortable position in a car, then climb into the back seat “behind myself” and fit comfortably. Yet I can do that in the smaller Jetta and have a few inches between my knees and the front seatback in the Passat. In terms of normally-sized humans, it means that you can install rear-facing infant seats in the Passat without them touching the front seatbacks.
Just like its rear legroom, I found the trunk’s 15.9 cubic feet to seem larger than the numbers would indicate. The Genesis has the same volume, but the Sonata and Fusion, for example, have larger trunks than does the Passat. Peering in the opening, it sure looked large, though admittedly, I didn’t haul anything meaningful in the trunk during my week with the car.
So, the Passat actually turned out all right. It’s not a premium car anymore; it’s a mainstream midsize sedan. And really, that’s OK, because despite what Ferdinand Piech would like you to believe, Volkswagen is not a premium brand. It’s the “people’s car.” It’s the brand that brought us the Beetle, and then the Rabbit. With nine other brands in its stable, many of which are significantly upmarket from VW (Audi, Bentley, and Lamborghini to name a few), there is no reason for the mothership to try to position itself as a luxury brand (or even a near-luxury brand). It’s a car I wouldn’t mind driving every day, but you can bet I’d either step up to the 2.0 liter TDI diesel (rated at an impressive 31 MPG city/43 MPG highway and a bladder-busting 796-mile cruising range) or the much faster 3.6 liter VR6 before I signed on the dotted line for a five cylinder Passat.
The proof is in the sales results. The old, allegedly beloved, Passat couldn’t sell at all in this country. The new one is selling so well that it needs a thousand new workers at its US assembly plant. Maybe we car guys really don’t know what we’re talking about, or – more likely – the American car-buying public has completely different priorities than enthusiasts do.
Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.