2012 Volkswagen Passat Review
Volkswagen brings the Passat to the masses by dropping the price, but maintains the quality.
- Diesel option is great alternative to hybrid
- New entry-level price point
- Simpler buying options
- Steering overly vague and light
- Cost-cutting evident in places
- No manual transmission with VR6
Volkswagen's Passat has always been a bit of a head-scratcher in terms of price relative to the mean cost of a vehicle in the midsize sedan segment; that is, it has traditionally been pricey. This leaves most insiders wondering just what exactly does a prospective buyer get for those extra dead presidents?
Well scratch no more. The all-new 2012 Passat is more spacious, stylish and, most importantly, appropriately priced. Volkswagen has made clear its intentions to take on the likes of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, and the new price range is arguably its strongest selling point. Regardless, a drop in price may not be enough to woo buyers.
In 2008, the 4-door Passat sedan could be purchased in any of 128 dizzying variations. For 2012, Volkswagen gives us just 15 possible configurations, divided into three main trims based on engine size: the 2.5L, the TDI and the 3.6L. While this simplicity is likely to be appreciated by many, it can still be difficult to choose the right Passat.
The base 2.5L engine can be had in eight equipment levels, starting with the basic, manual transmission S and topping out with the SEL Premium. In between these two extremes are a variety of trims, including the SE, as well as different transmission and equipment options (sunroof and navigation). Only the basic S trim gets 16-inch steel wheels, while the SE and up receive 17-inch alloy rollers. A maxed out 2.5L carries a price higher than both the entry-level TDI and the 3.6L.
Next up is the diesel-powered TDI trim, which has four variants: SE; SE with Sunroof; SE with Sunroof/Navigation; and the SEL Premium. Like the 2.5L, the top diesel carries a price that's within a stone's throw of the highest-spec 3.6L VR6. The first two versions carry standard 17-inch wheels, and an 18-inch set finds its way aboard the higher two.
Finally there's the top-of-the-line 3.6L, which is available in three flavors — the same ones as the TDI, minus the first, unadorned SE trim. The 3.6L runs about $30,000 — plus or minus a couple of thousand — and features standard 18-inch alloy wheels and a host of interior convenience features.
Under the Hood
Those familiar with Volkswagen will find little to surprise under the hood of the 2012 Passat. With the exception of the glorious family jewel, the 2.0T engine, all of the usual suspects are found here: a 2.5-liter inline-5, a 2.0-liter diesel and a 3.6-liter narrow-angle V6, known as the VR6 in V-Dub lingo.
The naturally aspirated base unit, a 2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine, produces 170 horsepower and a reasonably flat torque curve peaking at 177 lb-ft. Engine power is served to a 5-speed manual transmission powering the front wheels. Fuel economy for this setup is estimated at 21 mpg city/32 mpg highway. With the optional 6-speed automatic transmission, fuel consumption changes slightly, to 22/31 mpg.
Next is the midrange 2.0L TDI engine, which serves as Volkswagen's argument in the hybrid wars. As a turbocharged 2-liter diesel, it produces 140 horsepower and a whopping 236 lb-ft of torque. This unit can be mated to either a manual or automatic transmission, both with six forward gears powering the front wheels, and both consuming diesel fuel at a rate of 31/43 mpg. Thanks to the Passat's 18.5-gallon fuel tank, the diesel trim is capable of a remarkable 795-mile range on a single tank. This engine gives the Passat a class-leading highway-mileage rating and tank range over its competition — the hybrids.
Finally, the top Passat sports Volkswagen's 3.6-liter V6 engine, complete with signature narrow-angle design (the V is roughly 10 degrees) and direct-injection technology. This engine makes 280 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Mated exclusively to a 6-speed automatic, the VR6 Passat achieves 20/28 mpg. Like the rest, the VR6 trim is only available in front-wheel drive.
For the most part, Volkswagen has managed to retain reasonable quality in cabin materials and inventive design, despite the significantly reduced price point. This was a major bone of contention with Volkswagen's recently revamped Jetta. In terms of features and gadgets, the new Passat comes fairly well equipped, although standard equipment has historically been an area in which the German automakers fall behind.
The list of standard equipment includes Bluetooth functionality and dual-zone climate control, as well as keyless entry and automatic headlights. Opting for higher trims (or stand-alone options) will net you an 8-way powered driver's seat, an all-new Fender audio system and a choice of two integrated touch-screen navigation systems.
As you'd probably expect, the Passat is still a 5-seater and larger than its predecessor. In fact, the rear seat has an added three inches of legroom, two inches more than the Toyota Camry, which is very noticeable. The rear seating area is downright cavernous for a car in this segment. This feeling of spaciousness is only outdone by the Passat's trunk — lifting that boot lid is like opening the wardrobe to Narnia. It's startlingly open in there, large enough to expect an echo.
On the Road
During our time with the 2012 Passat, we got a good feel for its capabilities. Unfortunately, that was perhaps the least interesting aspect of this otherwise much-improved sedan.
The steering feel, like so many cars nowadays, is simply underwhelming — far too vague, light and overly boosted, reminiscent of a yesteryear rental car. The handling itself is decent for daily use, despite the front end bobbing around a bit more than it should over bumps and undulations. In other words, it could use a bit more rebound damping.
It's not all bad, though. The top 3.6L model's VR6 engine is lively and strong, and its flat torque curve made for easy highway passing in any gear. The downside here is that, like usual, the larger engine adds some unwelcomed extra weight to the front end. While an overall curb weight of 3,446 pounds is reasonable for a full-size sedan these days, the new Passat 3.6L did feel a bit nose-heavy when pushed.
As it is in the Golf and Jetta, Volkswagen's 2-liter diesel engine is fantastically torque-rich and perfectly capable of moving the larger sedan around. It's also the only engine available with the 6-speed manual transmission, although the perky dual-clutch automatic did a great job managing the gutsy engine. With the muscle of a V6 and the economy of a hybrid, we truly hope American buyers will see the light when it comes to diesel with this one.
Even the base 5-cylinder engine was admirable, with plenty of power and usable torque for basic use. At no point did it seem cheap, buzzy and ratty, like so many of the base engines found in the Passat's competition (you hear that, Honda?). We're not surprised that Volkswagen expects it to see duty in 75 percent of Passats, with the VR6 and diesel evenly splitting the remaining quarter.
Right for You?
Volkswagen expects to move 800,000 of these by 2018, so there's theoretically a good chance it could be a good fit for you. Its new, wide price range will also certainly help the Passat achieve mass appeal, considering it starts below most of its competition ($20,590 for the base 2.5L S model), as well as extends above it ($32,950 for the 3.6L SEL Premium).
If you're simply looking for a reasonable midmarket family sedan and don't want to join the Accord and Camry cult, the Passat fits the bill with aplomb. Its unique, modern German flair is evident and appealing, and it offers plenty of gadgets and features for those looking to stay on top of the tech game.
However, those who consider themselves driving enthusiasts may be underwhelmed with the Passat's handling and road manners, which are acceptable but certainly not exciting. If you're expecting a grown-up family sedan version of the riotously fun GTI, think again. But then again, you're probably not. So it's a solid package and a much-welcomed revamp to a model that had all but faded into obscurity.
(As part of an automaker-sponsored press event, Volkswagen provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)
James Tate cut his teeth in the business as a race team crew member before moving to the editorial side as Senior Editor of Sport Compact Car, and his work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Automobile, Motor Trend and European Car. When not writing, Tate is usually fantasizing about a vintage Porsche 911.