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2012 Volkswagen Passat SEL Premium Review by Carey Russ +VIDEO

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Volkswagen Passat


• SEE ALSO: Volkswage Buyers Guide

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Volkswagen Passat

Volkswagen wants more market share, especially in the U.S. The American automotive market is very different from that of Europe, and so VW has changed its strategy. Formerly, Volkswagen cars and crossovers sold here were the same as those sold elsewhere, differing mostly in drivetrain choices. Not necessarily so now…

The Passat name goes back to 1973 in Europe, and 1990 in North America, where earlier versions were sold under the Dasher and Quantum names. Under any name, the car was a minor presence in the American market, appealing to the VW faithful, but not the multitude of midsize sedan buyers. The 1998 generation (1996 for Europe) changed that a bit, and gave VW a much greater presence, if still distantly trailing Japanese and American competitors. Its influence extended beyond sales, though, with various Passat styling features -- the roofline in particular -- heavily influencing other manufacturers. Model year 2006 saw the penultimate world Passat, which got more attention from American buyers, but never was a threat to the segment leaders.

Enter the New Midsize Sedan (NMS). It's built in North America, Chattanooga TN to be exact, for North America -- the US, Canada, and Mexico. And also South Korea, with a similar car built in China for the Chinese market. It's larger than any previous Passat, and designed specifically for the needs and desires of its potential buyers.

That's a risky strategy, but it has paid off with record sales. VW traditionalists haven't been happy; many, many more people who previously would have bought domestic or Japanese or Korean have bought Volkswagen. Sales are up, and increasing.

The American-spec Passat is noticeably larger than any of its predecessors, if smaller than the late Phaeton ultra-luxury sedan. A nearly four-inch stretch in wheelbase means that rear seat room goes from good to excellent. Length is up by three and a half inches, so squeezing into a tight parking space shouldn't be much trickier. The model lineup is different from other midsize sedans -- there's no four-cylinder, the base engine is VW's 2.5-liter, 170-horsepower inline five-cylinder. The V6 option is also uniquely VW, the latest iteration of the compact, narrow-angle VR6, 3.6 liters displacement and 280 horsepower. Want exemplary fuel economy with your new Passat space? That would be the TDI, with a 2.0-liter, 140-hp (and 236 lb-ft of torque) turbocharged diesel and capable of over 40 mpg on the highway. With an 18.5-gallon tank, that's easily over 700 miles.

Watch TACH's exclusive VW Passat promo video

Trim levels are, in increasing order of standard equipment, S, SE, SEL, and SEL Premium, with S being a 2.5-specific price leader, SE adding V-Tex leatherette, upgraded interior trim and audio system, and optional sunroof and navigation system, SEL and SEL Premium adding yet more, including leather seating, Fender (yeah, that Fender) audio, and other upgrades, so there is a Passat for every desire from a sub-$20,000 2.5S to the near-luxury 3.6 SEL Premium that was my test car last week.

I've always been impressed by Passats. This one is unlike any previous version. It's bigger, it's softer, and very American. But contemporary American, meaning with plenty of overseas influence in chassis dynamics and so really international. If you're a fan of the previous Passats, look carefully before dismissing this one. If you're looking for a comfortable, spacious, and contemporary sedan that is at the large end of the midsize class, take a careful look at Volkswagen's newest Passat.

APPEARANCE: If you like Volkswagen's Jetta, you'll like its Passat. There is a definite family resemblance. Although the Passat has the same basic "New Face of Volkswagen" design as the smaller Jetta, its proportions are a bit different, longer wider, and proportionally lower. It's conservatively chiseled in a way that should wear well, with an integrated mix of sharply-defined character lines and rounded shapes.

COMFORT: Larger really is better, inside. If the exterior styling is unfamiliar, inside is still classic Volkswagen -- meaning good-looking and functional design, simple and uncluttered. At the SEL Premium level, materials are first-class, with leather seating -- power-adjustable and heated in front -- textured soft-touch antiglare material on the top of the dash, faux walnut burl woodgrain trim, metallic bezels around the instruments and vents, aluminum trim on the shift lever, and an analog clock at the top center of the dash. Front seat comfort is very good, with eight-way adjustability for the driver in all trim levels, and power in the upper ones; the rear is the best and most spacious rear seat in a VW sedan since the Phaeton, at a fraction of that price. The steering wheel adjusts manually for both tilt and reach, with audio and information system controls on the spokes. Cruise control and wipers are on stalks. "American" is the theme when it comes to storage and use, so a deep, covered console box hides USB and minijack attachments for external audio players plus a power point, there are cupholders in the console, and all four doors have water bottle holders. The trunk is huge, and if more cargo space is needed there is a locking ski passthrough in the rear seatback, which also folds 60/40.

The SEL Premium also comes with VW's top-level navigation system and the Fender audio system. The nav system is simple to use, with a hard button and touchscreen interface. AM, FM, and XM satellite radio plus CDs and external audio players are the sound choices, and the sound quality is far better than a crunchy old Twin Reverb at 10.

SAFETY: The Passat's passenger cabin is surrounded by a reinforced safety cage, enhanced by anti-intrusion side beams in the doors and forged steel B-pillars. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes get hydraulic Brake Assist, and the ESC electronic stability control system is standard in all models. A tire-pressure monitoring system is also standard, and the Intelligent Crash Response System automatically unlocks the doors, shuts off the fuel pump, and turns on the hazard warning lights in the event of a crash. Front, front side, and full-length side curtain airbags are standard.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Yes, it's bigger than ever. But the newest Passat still has the ride and handling expected of a Volkswagen. Its fully-independent strut/multilink suspension is tuned softly, more for highway comfort than backroad fun. Which is entirely fitting to its mission in life as a family sedan, not a sports sedan. It's solid and stable on the road, and quiet inside.

PERFORMANCE: With its three engine possibilities, there is a Passat for every desire. Most people will find the 2.5-liter, 170-horsepower five-cylinder engine to be just fine. For highway fuel economy rivaling some hybrids, there is the 2.0-liter TDI turbodiesel, with 40 mpg there easily attainable if my time in VW diesels is any indication. And it won't be life in the slow lane, either. Those who want more power can get the VR6, an innovative and compact powerplant that gets 280 horsepower (at 6200 rpm) and 258 lb-ft of torque (at a low 2500 rpm) from its 3.6 liters displacement. A dual overhead cam, 24-valve design with variable phasing of both intake and exhaust cams, it's matched to VW's DSG dual-clutch automated manual transmission to drive the front wheels. The DSG is as smooth as any traditional torque-converter automatic in automatic mode, and more efficient. And with the VR6's copious torque, automatic works just fine, with manual there when wanted, never really needed. Fuel economy is listed at 20 mpg city, 28 highway by the EPA (as good or better than the Old Beetle I had years ago and this goes up hills and has a real heater). With a mix of highways, city traffic, and back roads I got 24mpg overall, not bad at all for a car of this size. Merging and passing will present no difficulty, as the engine only has 12.3 pounds of Passat to move for each horsepower.

CONCLUSIONS: It's bigger, it's American, and it's very different from any car to ever wear the badge, but the 2012 Passat is still every inch a Volkswagen.


2012 Volkswagen Passat SEL Premium

Base Price $ 32,950

Price As Tested $ 33,720

Engine Type narrow-angle DOHC 24-valve V6 with variable intake and exhaust cam phasing

Engine Size 3.6 liters / 219 cu. in.

Horsepower 280 @ 6200 rpm

Torque (lb-ft) 258 @ 2500 rpm Transmission 6-speed dual-clutch automated manual with automatic and manual modes

Wheelbase / Length 110.4 in. / 191.6 in.

Curb Weight 3446 lbs.

Pounds Per Horsepower 12.3

Fuel Capacity 18.5 gal.

Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline

Tires P235/45 R18 94H Hankook Optimo

Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS, BA, ESC standard

Suspension, front/rear independent strut / independent multilink

Drivetrain transverse front engine, front-wheel drive


EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon

city / highway / observed 20 / 28 / 24

0 to 60 mph est 6.5 sec


Destination charge $ 770