Volkswagen is serious about becoming the world’s dominant automobile company. Anyone doubting that should go for a long drive in the gasoline-fueled 2012 Passat SEL family sedan. In terms of standard equipment and quality of interior materials, it beats the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion. In terms of road performance and fuel economy, it challenges them all. It also sports exterior styling that favorably sets it apart from its rivals.
In short, a potentially new leader in the midsize sedan segment has entered the U.S. automobile market. And this one is no “Germany over all” rendition of what Germans think Americans should drive. It was engineered in Germany. But much of its design and all of its assembly were done at VW’s huge new plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.
For those of you who might scoff at the idea of American Southerners building a premium German contender in a market now dominated by some of the world’s best midsize sedans, consider that many of the Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz cars rolling out of German and other European plants are assembled by Turkish and North African guest workers.
It’s a global economy. The good people of Chattanooga, through their rendition of the 2012 Volkswagen Passat, are determined to prove that they are among the world’s best craftspeople. Currently, they are proving it without membership in the United Auto Workers union, which is one of the reasons that Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Hyundai and Kia have set up assembly plants in the South. But that’s another story.
The story here, labor-management politics aside, is that those workers are doing a mighty fine job. The front-wheel-drive 2012 Passat is the latest example of that truth.
Start from the outside: Exterior lines are clean yet muscular, exhibiting a kind of strength in restraint. Some people might call the styling “conservative.” I prefer describing it as “rich,” especially considering the Passat’s attractive, redesigned horizontal front grille.
Sit inside: It is hard to believe that this is an “affordable” midsize sedan, although the car in hand is the currently top-of-the-line Passat SEL. (The caveat is because the diesel-fueled TDI SEL Premium and the gasoline-fed V-6 SEL Premium models will soon roll into the market. I will drive and report on those when they are made available to me.)
For this column, I drove the 2.5 Passat SEL Premium, the number referring to its 2.5-liter in-line five-cylinder gasoline engine (170 horsepower, 177 foot-pounds of torque — more on that later).
The Passat SEL has one of the most comfortable, richly textured, ergonomically sensible interiors available in the midsize sedan segment. The seats are trimmed in leather with inserts of Dinamica, a high-quality, ecologically engineered microfiber that looks and feels like suede. Dinamica is a product of Italy’s Miko Design, a company specializing in the development and use of recyclable materials for the car business and other industries. Wood veneer and brushed-aluminum inserts add to the feeling of richness. Bluetooth phone, iPod, and iPad connectivity is standard, with the phone capable of being operated via steering-wheel controls.
Navigation and other infotainment devices are easily accessed through a touch screen sensibly placed at the top of a floor-mounted center console stack. It is a simple, yet high-quality, rich-feel cabin layout.
Back to those engine-performance numbers: The Passat SEL has a better launch feel than its rivals because it has better torque — the twisting power generated by the engine and sent, in this case, to the front drive wheels. The Passat SEL checks in with 177 foot-pounds of torque, compared with 162 foot-pounds for the comparable Honda Accord EX, 170 for the Toyota Camry XLE, 172 for the Ford Fusion SEL and 160 for the four-cylinder Chevrolet Malibu LTZ.
Three of those rivals have more horsepower than the Passat SEL — the Honda Accord EX (190), the Toyota Camry (178) and the four-cylinder Ford Fusion (178) — but I’ve long concluded that horsepower, which speaks to the overall amount of work an internal combustion engine can do, is a marketing ruse designed to accommodate the American bias that says the best horsepower is more of it. The trouble is, by the time you use all or most of the horsepower in driving a car or truck, you’ve gone to jail, to the hospital, or to heaven or hell.
Torque speaks to something different. It’s the thing that gives you a good start and keeps you going at a reasonable speed, feeling good all the way. It is why many of us prefer the new, advanced diesel engines, which generally produce more torque with 30 percent less fuel consumption than their gasoline counterparts. I eagerly await a chance to drive the diesel-fueled Passat TDI SEL Premium.