There was a time when Bose was the only recognized premium car stereo brand. Then Nakamichi blew our minds in the 1990 Lexus LS 400. Since then, automakers have scrambled to align themselves with whatever home or car-audio brand, music producer or musician they could find.
What do these alliances mean? Absolutely nothing. Decades of experience in home audio — or the music business — don’t guarantee performance. Performance is its own bottom line. That’s why I was impressed with the latest newcomer, a premium stereo in the 2012 Volkswagen Passat developed with Fender Musical Instruments and Panasonic.
The Fender-branded stereo is just that: a stereo, meaning two channels, not the multichannel approach many automakers — especially luxury brands — have taken. It’s about as effective evidence as you’ll find that high speaker counts and complexity aren’t necessary to deliver quality audio. (The Suzuki Kizashi’s Rockford Fosgate system is another.)
For the 2012 Passat, the Fender system is available as an option for the SEL trim and higher, which starts at $28,395, well above the car’s $19,995 base price. Fender also developed audio systems for most of the 2012 VW lineup.
Below I dissect the plusses and minuses of the system. As a former editor at Audio, Car Stereo Review and Sound + Image magazines, I am unfathomably nerdy about audio performance in or out of a car.