First Drive: 2012 Volkswagen Passat [Review]

VW begins a new era with its first Tennessee-built, North America-specific midsize sedan, the 2012 Passat.

It's now built in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and maybe even speaks with a decidedly Southern drawl (Achtung, Y'all!) But with the 2012 Volkswagen Passat, the people's carmaker is making its second attempt in gaining a U.S. manufacturing presence.

According to VW officials, the new Passat is designed, engineered and tested in Germany for North American tastes. (The Passat will also be sold in Canada and Mexico.) VW has been here before and success was less than palpable, but the automaker hopes that a couple of decades of experience will turn the tables in this, one of the most competitive segments in the industry.

So hop in, turn on the Fender-branded audio system and let's hit the road as Leftlane checks out the 2012 Volkswagen Passat.

On the map
Chattanooga is not totally foreign to foreign cars, or domestics for that matter. An automotive landmark that goes by the name of "Honest Charley's Speed Shop," is here, offering everything for the hot rod aficionado in search of a needed part or to channel the ghost of "Honest Charley, Hisself."

Next door is tire manufacturer Coker Tire Company, which is known worldwide for its continuation series of obsolete and out-of-manufacture tires for classic and collector cars. With character Corky Coker at the helm of both businesses, the city of Chattanooga has long been a part of the automotive landscape.

The Passat, meanwhile, is a new look for a venerable nameplate. A five-passenger sedan, it will be available in three trim configurations and three engine choices. Look for a base 2.5-liter five cylinder, a 2.0-liter turbodiesel TDI and a 3.6-liter VR6 naturally-aspirated V6 engine.

The Passat is up against some pretty stout - and conservative- competition in this, the most competitive segment of the market: Midsize family sedans.

New and improved
It's a cliché for certain, but one that V-Dub hopes to drive home to prospective buyers when the car goes on sale mid-summer. Of note right up front: The 2008 Passat offered 128 build combinations. The 2012 model offers 15. By combining options into various trim packages and option groupings, VW has managed to become more efficient in the build- and buying process at the same time.

If you liked the old Passat (and, judging by sales figures, you're pretty much alone), VW is selling an updated version in Europe, where this 'Mericanized Passat won't be on offer.

The hope is that all markets will be taken care of by offering something for potentially every type of buyer. Just a hint of that something includes three choices of engine and four transmissions: A five-speed stick or six-speed Tiptronic automatic for the 2.5-liter, a six-speed stick or DSG automatic (a dual clutch unit with ultrafast shifts) for the TDI and only the DSG for the VR6. Enough acronyms? Let's make it simple: The TDI and VR6 both offer the more advanced transmissions.

On the safety side of things, this new Passat manages a new intelligent safety function, which unlocks doors, and turns on the four-way flashers, presumably after the ABS and active head restraints have helped you survive a crash.

Brooks Brothers meets Southeastern Tennessee
The overall appearance of the 2012 Passat verges on excessively conservative. But the question is, "will it play in Peoria?" We think it will, something the sleeker outgoing model never did. The Passat was designed in Wolfsburg, Germany, with U.S. sensitivities such as size, interior space and other considerations all in place. We also think they paid attention to the size of their prospective customers/occupants.

A very upright-styled grille starts things off with horizontal chrome bands and the large VW crest. Featuring horizontal designs, the new Passat displays a visual strength in profile that starts from the multi-terraced hood and drops down through many layers. In fact, we count nine different layers of horizontal lineage from the roof to the rocker panels.

Conservative for sure, but it should definitely have more legs (longer life) as a result. In many ways, it's the complete opposite of what we're seeing from South Korea's Hyundai and Kia. It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out in the long run, that's for sure.

A traditional pod dashboard starts things off inside with an available faux wood trimming. Inspired by the dashboard found in the VW Touareg, the Passat's dash features a two-gauge binnacle that offers the driver a tachometer and speedometer with LCD screen in between that displays navigation, audio and vehicle information. A multi-function display operates available Premium VIII navigation, audio, and Bluetooth functions.

Overall, the Passat is loaded with upscale cues throughout. We liked the feel and thickness of the leather-wrapped steering wheel and the use of soft-touch material in all the right places, something we can't say about the Passat's little Jetta brother. But not all was perfect. An analog clock sits at the top of the center stack. A little cheesy at the moment, it would look much better with the addition of some chromed hands instead of the plastic pieces in place right now.

Seats were comfortable for the four-hour drive that took us from Chattanooga through Lynchburg (say hello to Jack Daniels). We do think the adjustable front seats would be that much better with a seat-bottom height adjustment instead of the limited movements they currently offer. We arrived at our destination of Tootsie's Orchid Lounge in Nashville, Tennessee, where live music is always on tap. Conversely, the Fender Audio System, which our tester was outfitted with, gave us a live concert hall experience inside our own private rolling listening room.

The surprising take-away from the Passat was the cavernous rear seating area. We were totally chuffed by how much legroom was really there.

The base, and most popular engine, VW reckons, will be the 2.5-liter inline, five-cylinder engine with multiport fuel injection. It produces 170 ponies at 5,700 rpm, and 177 lb-ft. of torque at 4,250 rpm. This is the one engine that we think might be left wanting in a car this size, although the 21/32 mpg EPA ratings aren't a great tradeoff compared to some more powerful and less thirsty rivals.

Next in line is the 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, turbocharged direct-injection TDI diesel. It cranks out 140 ponies at 4,000 rpm and a stump-pulling 236 lb-ft. of torque. VW mileage estimates have the TDI achieving 43 mpg highway (31 in town), with a range of nearly 800 miles per fill-up.

The final engine is a 3.6-liter VR6 V-6 fuel-stratified injection (FSI) engine that makes a segment leading 280 horsepower and 258 lb-ft. of torque. A great and powerful performer, our only wish is that it did not require premium fuel for optimum performance. Speaking of fuel, Volkswagen estimates 20/28 mpg for the 3,446 lbs. VR6.

The Passat is a unibody construction with a pair of struts with lower control arms, coil-overs and anti-roll bars. The rear is a multi-link kit with telescopic shock absorbers, an anti-roll bar and an acoustically decoupled rear axle. A hydraulically-controlled rack and pinion steering system is speed sensitive and builds up resistance, as speed increases as well as when the vehicle is shifted into sport mode.

VW officials were very quick to point out how the Passat suspension has been tuned for US roadways, while keeping the characteristic fun-to-drive German sensibilities in place. For the most part we would agree. But we did notice a couple bugs: Steering in the range of 50 mph seemed a bit sloppy. When shifting into sport mode it offered a marked improvement.

Further up the road, we observed the DSG holding gears longer than we found appropriate, at one point even past redline, at which point we took matters into our own hands with the use of the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters. We pulled the car over at a driver's change point and shut it down. After restart, the problem never appeared again, so we will chalk it up to electronic gremlins at work.

Seeing that the Passat is not scheduled for sale until September, they have ample time to address the issues - something VW is no doubt trying its best to do in order not to repeat its last U.S. manufacturing experience.

Leftlane's bottom line
Bugs aside, we think V-Dub really has a contender with the 2012 Passat. Improved at most every turn, it is not the sexiest design out there, but that could help its longevity in the marketplace.

Add to that, the fact that VW Group is cognizant of climbing fuel costs and rightly aware of the diesel engine's place in the segment. Combine all of that with a priced-right starting point of $19,995, and no-charge three-year/36,000 mile Carefree Maintenance program and it's clear that VW is going for "Great for the price of good, v2.0."

2012 Volkswagen Passat base price range, $19,995 to $28,995.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.