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2012 Volkswagen Passat SE Road Test

Volkswagen builds us a German Impala

Who It's For
Plays to family sedan shoppers still searching for that German cachet.
Best Thing
Comfortable, quiet, and drives with confidence.
Worst Thing
Interior is scratchy and cheap, compounded by the only choice of leatherette seats.
Snap Judgment
Hits all the points that you want in a sedan.


Hey Germany, this is America speaking. You know what? We're a lot alike, you and us. We both have a penchant for deep-frying slags of breaded poultry. We both drink enough beer to qualify for inclusion as an Olympic sport. We both went through our phases of appreciating David Hasselhoff (though you took it to a whole new level). And despite the rich culture of sports car racing we both share -- yes, Americans too -- we both appreciate a cushy highway cruiser when we see it.

Why else do German automakers make such a big deal out of their vehicles being "autobahn tested?" Why all the hoopla? Citizens of both countries find it a necessity, possibly a necessary evil, to bomb down a state-of-the-art, two-lane divided superhighways at speeds once deemed impossible a century ago. Whether it be the autobahn or Eisenhower's finest, these drivers both have the same qualities: they demand a large, comfortable car with a soft suspension, built to withstand constant speeds all day without giving its occupants hernias. The speeds may be different, but fundamentally we're just the same. And isn't that what makes the world go round?

This new Passat, in fact, is just for us Americans -- it's completely different than the model it replaces, and different than the one in Europe. Because yes, while Americans want a comfortable, cushy cruiser just as much as your average Berliner, they also want lots of room for their Hardees-infused glutes and those of their friends. Most importantly, they'd prefer to obtain it for cheap. Chevrolet hit upon this model with the Impala for the past 60 years, which explains why -- to the chagrin of ADHD-addled automotive scribes everywhere -- legions of the cars have been sold in places as diverse as Leavenworth to Iowa City. Volkswagen wants a piece of this lucrative market, too. It builds the Passat in a brand-new facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee -- it doesn't get any more American than that--and that's why Volkswagen declared a sales target of 800,000 cars per year, with the reassuring backing of typically Teutonic focus.

Will the new Passat help achieve these sales figures? There's no reason why it wouldn't. Question is -- does it deserve to? Well, that just depends on how good it is. Is German engineering the same as American engineering? Remember, the latter brought us to the moon -- but not without the help of a couple Von Brauns.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

What We Drove

Our Passat was an SE model, which in Volkswagen parlance means that it comes with 17-inch wheels, satellite radio and Bluetooth controlled via touchscreen, and a three-spoke steering wheel, but little else. With the automatic transmission, our model came in at $25,595, including a $770 destination charge, or right in the middle of the Passat's pricing range. We could have added a sunroof plus a navigation system for $800 and $1,970, respectively, but it was cloudy in Los Angeles anyway, and we know our way around.

All Volkswagen Passats come with front and side airbags and side curtain airbags that stretch the entire length of the cabin, for six bags total. Standard LATCH points are fitted to the two rear seats in back. Anti-lock brakes, Intelligent Crash Response (which unlocks the doors, shuts off the fuel pump and turns on the lights after a crash), and stability/traction control are also standard on all models.

The Commute

The Passat comes with just one engine, a 2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine that produces 170 horsepower. Given the fact that it's got a lugubrious 3,166 pounds to shuffle around, one would think it wise to spring for the V-6 engine. But the smaller engine proved thoroughly adequate. Power comes on in a rolling wave, not instantaneously as you would expect with more horsepower, and in typical German dynamics, it builds speed quickly and confidently. Steering is direct and actually has some weight to it, which makes itself noticeable in parking lot maneuvers. Its suspension does an excellent job at quelling freeway imperfections without bouncing, as softly-sprung vehicles are wont to do.

The interior is arranged practically, with three large knobs to control the climate and a touchscreen for radio and, if you spring for it, navigation purposes. Problem is, the screen is low-rent, with a resolution that's at least five years out of date. Contrary to common sense, setting up the Bluetooth is done not through the touchscreen but on the 8-bit "information panel," embarrassingly clustered between the gauges, and looking more like it should display the high scores to Galaga instead of any pertinent information.

The entire interior, in fact, is low-rent: disappointing, surely, for legions of former and current Volkswagen owners. Hard plastics thrive below the faux aluminum trim. The knobs rattle in their places. The seats are ugly, plain and flatter than Nebraska: their "V-Tex" leatherette upholstery--that's vinyl to you and me --- looks tawdry and feels slightly sticky, like a kitchen counter that somebody spilled Hi-C on three days ago and didn't wipe it off. Why not real leather? Or even cloth; do cloth seats contain cooties? The entire interior looks like it will trap dirt and become dingy with just a few months' use -- better pack plenty of Armor All.

And eccentricities abound: why is the lidded bin in the center console just exactly a centimeter too small to fit a smart phone? Why is there a "DRL" light on the dashboard that informs us that our daytime running lights are on, as if we haven't spent the last 15 years getting used to this technology? Why does Volkswagen continue to hide its has cruise controls in obscurity as on a rocker switch on the turn signal stalk? How on earth do you change the analog clock? Cruelly, our car didn't have its owner's manual inside its deep glovebox, leaving us feeling like we were deciphering the Antikythera mechanism.

The Grocery Run

There's no way for a car to remain competitive in the fierce midsize-sedan market if it doesn't pack a trunk that could double as pachyderm transport. Likewise, the Passat's trunk is massive -- it stretches deep into the passenger compartment, and less wide, all but guaranteeing that your bags of groceries become pins and bowling balls. The trunklid is very short; when it springs open it feels like it's coming right for your chin like an expertly-delivered uppercut.

Parking the Passat is easy thanks to its excellent visibility and formal roofline -- and the latter also provides decent headroom for all passengers. The rear seats flip down easily with a tug of their upper latches, almost doubling storage space. How's room in the back? Cavernous: to give you an idea, Volkswagen also sells this particular model in China, a country that so loves its rear legroom it thought the regular BMW 7-Series just wasn't long enough.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Weekend Fun

The Passat's weighted steering that actually imparts some feel that doesn't appear very often in this segment. And given its German background, it is supremely comfortable -- in typical VW fashion it feels hewn from one solid ingot of steel, and more solid than either the Toyota Camry or Hyundai Sonata, two of its biggest competitors in terms of volume.

At the same time, it's one of those cars where going 80 mph actually feels like you're going 80 mph. It's a surprisingly non-Volkswagen-like characteristic, where even in a Golf 90 mph feels like a parking lot maneuver. Not a knock against its solidness, but more a reflection of its smooth driving dynamics.

Some nice touches: the headlights turn on when you unlock the car remotely, which is convenient. The aforementioned ugly seats make up for their appearance by being supremely comfortable, with no fatigue and good support throughout. The Passat offers a huge footrest for your left foot, and its working pedals are pushed all the way to the right--this may sound uncomfortable on paper, but they're actually well-positioned.

Lastly, the one advantage to the Passat's dull styling is that it will make a perfect getaway car for aspiring bank heisters. It, like the rest of the car, is very straight-laced, almost to a caricature. Lacking the chrome-bedecked grille of the Sonata, or the strange fangs of the Camry, the Passat will probably age better than the ephemeral styling of the two, and might even fool people into thinking it's more expensive than its $25,595 as-tested price reflects. "That's a Passat?" said one passer-by when I was picking up my car at the mall parking garage. "I thought it was a BMW."

Summary

Big, comfortable, and smooth, the Volkswagen Passat is the German answer to the Chevrolet Impala. Is that a bad thing? Well, millions of Impalas sold can't be wrong. And Volkswagen is certainly trying to get a piece of those big, juicy sales figures. A spot at the head of Motor Trend's Car Of The Year table can't possibly be wrong either.

On the other hand, a dramatically cheapened interior might. Still, the Passat hits on so many other points: a comfortable, spacious transport pod that never gets flustered; and styling that grows on you and never makes you regret trading in that bus pass. In that vein, the Passat is as welcome a German import via middle America as Shiner Bock. Prost!

Spec Box

Price as tested: $25,595
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 22
EPA Highway: 31
EPA Combined: 25
Estimated Combined Range: 462.5 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Average

Notebook Quotes

"I'm not particularly interested in sedans, but if I were looking to get one under $30k, and this one is 24k, I'd get this. In fact, I wish we had this as a long-termer." -Matt Askari, Associate Editor

"The last car I owned that had 'leatherette' was a 1977 Toyota Celica, for crying out loud. I'm getting sick of carmakers cheaping out on this stuff." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director

"The interior looks well laid-out, but it's actually an ergonomic mishap. The materials are noticeably cheaper in this model. It's a shame VW couldn't dump $500 more per car into the interiors, which would go a long way, but it probably didn't make too much sense for them to do so, logistically." -Jacob Brown, Associate Editor

"The most American of the German vehicles. Feels like Volkswagen took a German car and detuned it." -Joel Arellano, Associate Editor

"I'm not going to lie, even coming from someone who drives a Volkswagen product daily, I still felt Motor Trend should've given the Chrysler 300 its 2012 Car Of The Year award since it sucked for so many years before. The Passat didn't have as far to go to meet the criteria, in my opinion, but after spending some time with it, I can justify how it was picked for 2012." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor

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