Stereo Review: Volkswagen – Fender Premium Audio System

Differentiating the good from bad in modern cars today has become increasingly difficult. The playing field has improved to the point that it’s the details and available features that make the difference when deciding what automobile deserves your 60 monthly payments. One of those areas that has always swayed my purchase decision is the quality of the stereo that comes with the car. As a result, we have started to ask manufactures that have specialty branded audio systems to have a chance to review them on their own. Recently, we asked Volkswagen to sample their Fender branded system as the word on the street was it was a solid system for a reasonable price. Read on to find out if it lived up to expectations.

Fifteen years ago the quality of a cars stereo was far less of a concern. First, it wasn’t worth considering the quality of a factory stereo because they were all pretty terrible. Second, car stereos used to be easily upgradeable. Do you remember the terms DIN and double DIN? (DIN is a German abbreviation for the ISO standard size of a stereo head unit – bore someone to death with that fact at dinner.) Today, stereo head units are deeply integrated into complex dashboard designs resulting in a challenging upgrade path for a factory stereo. The point? A quality sounding and functioning factory stereo today matters as you’re pretty much stuck with it for the life of the car.

I have to admit that when I first heard that Fender was slapping their brand on VW stereos I was skeptical. A guitar maker was getting into car stereos? That makes about as much sense as Puma partnering with Mini for auto branded sneakers. Oh wait, that happened and seems to be successful. Hmmmmm. Maybe this isn’t so ridiculous after all. As it turns out, it is a pretty logical partnership and one that has resulted in a quality product.

The Fender audio system that we sampled was in a 2012 Volkswagen Passat, and boasts of 400 watts and nine speakers. Want a hint that things are going to sound good? Notice the number of watts that are quoted. In today’s world it is easy to come up with ridiculous and fundamentally fake peak wattage numbers to fluff your stats and VW and Fender have steered clear. The other thing that Fender did was skip all of the “dynamic surround” nonsense that has become so popular in today’s world. They call stereos stereos because they are typically dealing with two channels of audio. It may be true that signal processors can approximate surround sounds, but in the process they are (most likely) adding a layer of noise that was never intended to be their during the music’s recording.

So how does it sound? The Fender Premium Audio System sounds damn good on any type of music that could have been produced using a Fender instrument. In other words, rock, jazz, country, and classical music are represented as purely and loudly as you can find in a car. That is a huge compliment considering that the Fender Audio System is included in the SEL trim level of the Passat and appears to add less than $1,000 of cost to all other models in which it is available. We have not sampled the Fender system in the Beetle, but the system that is in the Passat and Jetta are fundamentally the same. One thing that Fender and VW have done is given the subwoofer 17 liters of enclosure to work with in the rear deck. Having a sealed space (in contrast to using the entire trunk as an enclosure) for the subwoofer has paid dividends in both punch and control of bass.

You may have picked up that I noted that the Fender system does well with all types of music except for Rap and R&B. If there was one area that could use improvement is with re-creating machine-generated 808 tracks. Here, the subwoofer just doesn’t quite have the guts or excursion to be able to keep up with tracks from Lil Wayne and Beyonce. At lower listening volumes it does fine, but at high volumes things get muddled. It is clear that they system just isn’t built for this type of music. I would be more harsh about it, but the Fender system isn’t designed to shake mirrors it is built to represent rock at ear splitting levels accurately.

What appears to be the real magic of the Fender system you can actually turn the volume all the way up. Unlike most car stereos where the volume knob (boy do I want to make a Spinal Tap reference here) goes up to some level that you could never actually use, the Fender system can handle full volume. At all levels, the detail and differentiation of the music shine in the Fender system. I found myself focusing on country and Metallica with the Fender system. I’m always impressed with stereos that can show me a new dimension or sound in a song that I know well. The Fender audio system showed a new layer of echo in tracks like Master of Puppets that I had not noticed before.

The Fender Premium Audio System in the 2012 Volkswagen Passat ends up being a smart brand partnership and a high quality product. They managed to stick to the fundamentals of a quality stereo and produced a solid system. If non-rap music listening is important to you the Fender system is worth a listen.

Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.

Author: Kevin Gordon

Kevin is Autosavant's owner and Editor-in-Chief, responsible for setting the overall strategy and editorial direction of Autosavant. He's also the primary contributor to Autosavant's YouTube channel (youtube.com/autosavant) where you can find a comprehensive library of new-car reviews.

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8 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review. I never knew Fender was in the car audio business, but now I’m very interested in their systems. If I didn’t already have a paid-off car that still runs, and could afford another car payment, I’d be certain to find a car that has a Fender system! I’m very impressed with what you said here.

  2. Given Fender’s exact role in this case, I’m not sure if even they could categorically claim that they are in the car audio business (yet), anymore than, say, a car stereo hobbyist who tweaks his car’s acoustics. (Or does being paid for doing what the tweaker-hobbyist does qualify you as being in the business?) This Fender system 100% comprises Panasonic hardware, so I don’t think that it could be called Fender’s system. My understanding is that Fender assessed the acoustics of the Passat, et al, and had the systems adjusted to their collective ear; no criticism implied, though. The reviews so far are quite favorable, and I did have a chance to have a listen in a recent test drive. It was a blast. Clean, balanced, detailed sound. If other future vehicles start appearing with Fender stereo system branding, then that would bode well. Still, you don’t market a car’s stereo by stating fact: This vehicle comes with a sound system manufactured by a company not known for getting customers’ pulses to race, but that has had its sound quality adjusted to the requirements of a company that does not design or manufacture car stereo hardware.

  3. I didn’t realize Fender, who I recognize as a musical instrument maker, has their name on my brand new VW Passat SEL TDI. I thought Fender was an obscure German outfit. Unfortunately, I was completely confused and underwhelmed by what came out of my brand new Passat audio system. Lack of definition, muddy sounding audio from Bluetooth, cd’s, satellite radio or FM. Underwhelmed is kind and very much understated. My 2007 Eos with Dynaudio and an aftermarket nav/audio deck was at least what I expected. I MUST have gotten a unit that is not functioning properly or tweeters were never hooked up. I plan to return to the dealer and sample other Passat SEL Fender systems. By god this cannot be right.

  4. Ok, I am starting to hear a difference in the sound. I guess leaving the speakers run for a break-in period is true after all. It does seem to sound a little better after cranking it up a smidge and let it run. Date two is sounding a little better than day one and I hope day three and four will see further improvement.

  5. Its OE’d by Panasonic built to Fender Spec’s

  6. Listen to a basic Pioneer car audio player and hear the difference.I am so disappointed and would change the system in my 2012 Passat if I could. I no longer enjoy listening to music while in my vehicle. I had Pioneer systems since 1993 until 2012.

  7. I can’t believe the negative comments. It is the best stereo I’ve ever heard in my TDI Jetta wagon. I’ll admit I don’t have much experience with extremely high end car stereos, but I’m a lifelong music fan and musician with a nice home system, so I think I have a decent ear. Before I knew Fender tuned the system, I thought that one of the things I like is how the stereo is tuned. I am coming from a piece of junk car and stereo, so maybe that has something to do with it, but I love it. I have always liked the sonics in a wagon or SUV, so maybe that is also a factor.

  8. If you’re looking for the best in car audio, check out the ELS system also by Panasonic. Think you’re an audiophile? Once you’ve heard a DVD Audio in surround, nothing else comes close.

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