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For many car shoppers, price is king — so it's no wonder the prior-generation Volkswagen Passat, a 2010 model that started at $27,195, didn't have much of a chance against family sedans from Honda, Toyota and others that cost thousands less.
Now, however, its chances are much better.
The redesigned 2012 Passat combines the driving dynamics and interior quality that VW fans expect with the roominess, comfort and value that the wider public demands.
The 2012 Passat has been designed specifically for the American market, and it starts at $19,995 — squarely in the heart of the midsize segment. Expect it at dealerships nationwide by the fall.
Offered in three trim levels — S, SE and SEL — the Passat is available with a choice of three engines, including a diesel (TDI). I drove two versions of the car: an SE with the 2.5-liter inline-five-cylinder gas engine, priced at $23,725, and an SEL with the diesel 2.0-liter four-cylinder that lists for $32,195. A gas 3.6-liter V-6 is also offered. Models with that engine start at $28,995.
Ride & Handling
One of the Passat's most impressive qualities is its forgiving suspension, which translates into comfortable highway cruising. The four-wheel independent suspension yields ride quality that's nearly as soft as a Toyota Camry's, but with better body control over big dips and rises. It's a departure from the previous-generation Passat's firmer ride, but the move makes a lot of sense for this car class, where comfort is more important than sportiness.
As with other Volkswagens, the Passat has light-effort steering whether you get the gas engine, which uses hydraulic power steering, or the diesel, which has electric power assist. The steering wheel provides virtually no road feel — typical for this class — but good precision makes it easy to steer on winding country roads.
Despite the comfy suspension tuning, the Passat doesn't turn into a wallowing mess on serpentine roads. For a big sedan, body roll is well-controlled. All versions of the Passat have the same suspension tuning, but wheel sizes range from 16 to 18 inches.
Gas or Diesel Power
Volkswagen expects most Passat buyers to choose the 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter inline-five-cylinder engine, which is new to the Passat for 2012. I had my reservations about how well this engine could perform in a large sedan, but it impressed me with acceptable power in city driving. It also had no trouble maintaining a steady highway cruising speed of 65 mph even in hilly country around Chattanooga, Tenn. It sounds more refined and works more harmoniously with the optional automatic transmission than the same engine manages in VW's recently redesigned Jetta. The only time the five-cylinder's power trailed off was when dipping into its reserve for high-speed passing; at that point, the well was pretty dry.
My five-cylinder test car had an optional six-speed automatic transmission (a five-speed manual is standard). The automatic is well-matched to the engine, and it makes refined upshifts and kickdowns. I actually liked it better than Volkswagen's dual-clutch six-speed automatic, which is optional with the diesel engine (a six-speed manual is standard). That dual-clutch transmission has a tendency to let go when shifting, producing a slight hesitation, and it isn't as smooth at low speeds compared with the traditional automatic (which teams with the five-cylinder engine).
The five-cylinder Passat gets an estimated 21/32 mpg city/highway with a manual transmission and 22/31 mpg with the automatic. Those figures trail the estimates for the four-cylinder Kia Optima and Honda Accord, but the diesel significantly improves efficiency with a rating of 31/43 mpg, regardless of the transmission. Passats with the diesel engine include an exhaust after-treatment system for better emissions; Volkswagen recommends that the system's fluid reservoir be replenished at normal service intervals. The V-6, meanwhile, gets 20/28 mpg and requires more expensive premium gas.
In addition to the diesel's superior fuel economy, the engine feels stronger than the five-cylinder at city speeds. Thank the diesel's abundant torque — 236 pounds-feet at a low 1,500 rpm — for the edge. The power difference narrows at highway speeds, but the diesel still feels a little stronger. In terms of pure acceleration, Volkswagen says manual-transmission versions of the five-cylinder and diesel can go from zero to 60 mph in about 8 seconds. The V-6 can hit 60 mph in a significantly quicker 6.5 seconds.
I've been critical of Volkswagen's decision to remove some of the upscale cabin niceties in its redesigned Jetta compact sedan in order to price the car more competitively. Likewise, the new Passat goes without some features that VW enthusiasts might appreciate, like a height-adjustable front armrest, but the overall materials quality, attention to detail and standard features — like one-touch up/down power windows for front and rear occupants, Bluetooth cell phone connectivity and dual-zone automatic air conditioning — make the Passat competitive with the best the family sedan segment has to offer.
The Passat has grown some with its redesign — 4 inches in length, half an inch in width and half an inch in height — but the cabin feels substantially roomier than the outgoing Passat. Legroom and shoulder room have increased — considerably in some instances. I'm 6-foot-1, and even with the front seat adjusted for me, the backseat has nearly as much legroom as a long-wheelbase full-size sedan, which the Passat isn't. This is the kind of car four tall adults could take on a long road trip and arrive no worse for wear — even those sitting in back.
The cavernous passenger area doesn't come at the expense of cargo room, as the trunk measures a competitive 15.9 cubic feet. It's very deep and rectangular, with few intrusions. A 60/40-split folding backseat is standard, and lowering the rear backrests reveals a large opening between the trunk and the cabin.
As of publication, neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had crash-tested the 2012 Passat.
As required of all vehicles starting with the 2012 model year, the Passat includes an electronic stability system. Also standard are antilock brakes, side-impact airbags and active head restraints for the front seats, and side curtain airbags for both rows.
Passat in the Market
Kevin Joostema, Volkswagen's general manager for product marketing and strategy, called the Passat critical for the brand in the U.S., where the family sedan is a way of life for many drivers. It's also critical to the automaker's business goals: VW is on a mission to sell lots of cars — 800,000 annually in the U.S. by 2018, more than triple its 2010 sales — and to get there it needs a high-volume family sedan.
The Passat may have had a hard time fitting into the mainstream midsize segment in the past, but it's clear the 2012 edition has a lot that will appeal to American buyers in addition to its competitive price.
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