The adorable little kid in the Darth Vader outfit who starred in VW’s popular Super Bowl commercial, The Force, won’t need to invoke The Force to compel consumers to buy the all-new 2012 Volkswagen Passat. I’m relieved to report that the car is good enough to sell itself. [For the record, that commercial turned out to be a very good investment for Volkswagen as it went viral and has been viewed more than 41.4 million times on YouTube alone. ]
Like most auto enthusiasts, I was concerned and apprehensive last year when VW announced that its new mid-size car was going to be a US-only Passat with an inflated size and a deflated sticker price. To do this, VW built a beautiful, shiny, new $1 billion factory in lovely, noisome Chattanooga, Tennessee. And they did it all with “only” around $557 million in state and local taxpayer incentives.
The new Passat was announced after the 2010 launch of the all-new 2011 Jetta. I found the new Jetta disappointing in almost all metrics save for the wonderful TDI engine option. The Jetta had been stripped of suspension parts and fitted with interior plastics courtesy of Walmart. Built in VW’s Puebla, Mexico plant, the Jetta is now cheap enough to compete with the Asians. Ugh. In short, the new Jetta had turned to the Dark Side to boost sales.
Americans respond to big price reductions, so sales of the Dark Side Jetta are up. I mourn the loss of a Jetta sedan with a class-leading interior, independent rear suspension and 4-wheel disc brakes. I’ve always been a fan of VW because the little German-engineered cars were günstiger.
The 2012 Passat, with a base MSRP of $19,995, is targeted directly at the mid-size family sedan leaders: The Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu. It’s thousands less than the previous German-built Passat, primarily due to cost cutting and elimination of the profit-sucking exchange rates.
Where the Jetta’s styling redefines anonymous, the new Passat is more detailed and mature, albeit as conservative as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Pictures don’t do the Passat justice and color makes a significant difference. All the promos show the car in a pale color; however, my black tester really popped with its controversial, bright, rapper-size fore and aft VW badges and sinister-looking polycarbonate shades streamlining the halogen headlamps into the prominent 3-bar corporate chrome grille. It may look like Darth Vader, but it hasn’t gone to the Dark Side.
I contacted VW Santa Monica (part of the LACarGuy group) ahead of time to make sure they had a diesel Passat available to test. The test car was just that – a VW tester sent directly to the Santa Monica dealer to make the rounds of local events and provide a dedicated test vehicle for 40 mpg-hungry LA-area greenies.
I’m sure the base Passat 2.5L, saddled with VW’s unremarkable 170 hp 5-cylinder hamster wheel, will be the volume leader. Inexpensive always sells. VW also offers a top-line Passat with a 3.6L 280 hp V6; but here in green veneer L.A., the marquee model is the TDI with the 2.0L 140 hp 236 lb-ft torque turbo-diesel direct-injected engine mated to either a 6-speed manual or VW’s 6-speed DSG dual-clutch automated gearbox.
Why the excitement? Well it’s because the manual version is rated at 31 mpg city, 43 mpg highway and the automatic is rated at 30 city/40 highway. The Passat’s highway mileage meets or beats any mid-size sedan, including the Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata Hybrids. Anecdotal evidence from numerous sources suggests that the TDI’s highway mileage will actually be higher. With its 18.5 gallon tank, the Passat TDI has a cruising range exceeding 700 miles. Vegas road trip anyone?
It was a nice day for a drive in Santa Monica where the blistering summer heat was all the way up to 73 degrees — a daunting test for the Passat’s standard dual zone automatic climate control.
The little diesel engine feels right at home in the Passat and has no problem tugging around its 3,360 pounds. I experienced a bit of hesitation from the DSG when I punched it into a turn from a stand still; however in normal driving in city traffic, the transmission shifted smoothly. I never felt a lack of power because of the gobs of torque available from only 1,400 rpm.
The new electromechanical power steering felt light, somewhat isolated, but on center. It retains enough German precision to make it a better driver’s car, particular in DSG sport mode. The front wheels tracked dead straight. As with most VW products, torque steer has been all but banished by the engineers in Wolfsburg.
I did my usual tap and scratch test on the interior plastics of the new Passat and I have good news: This isn’t the Jetta. The dash cowl is covered in a pleasing, textured, soft-touch plastic. The “Autumn Nut Burl” trim, while not real, is convincing enough. The door trim above armrest level is textured and softened while the trim below the arm rest and below the dash belt line is a harder plastic that taps a bit hollow.
The tilt/telescope three-spoke multifunction leather-wrapped steering wheel felt good in my hands and adjusted for a perfect view of the instruments. Basic functions were all easily accessible and my hand fell naturally both to the shifter and adjacent start/stop button.
I was grateful for the 8-way power sports seat with driver’s side memory that are part of the $4,300 TDI SEL2 option package. It took a bit of fiddling, but I found a comfy position for my 6′ 1” lanky frame. The heated and leather-trimmed seats have Dynamico ® (synthetic suede) inserts that tether you in for an added sporty dimension.
I didn’t test the navigation system, but the smallish 6.5” touch screen had sharp graphics and was easy to read. The Fender Premium Audio System has a 30 GB hard drive, Bluetooth, satellite radio and iPod control. The interior is almost Lexus-quiet, with surprising little engine or road noise infiltrating the airy cabin. This modern advanced “clean” diesel engine is both quiet and odor-free.
I missed a backup camera or sensors that would be an inexpensive add-on to the existing navigation system. There were no rain-sensing wipers either. And I’d prefer the iPod controls in the center armrest area rather than the glove box.
The 2012 Passat has class-leading front and rear legroom and its cargo capacity is almost at the top with 15.9 cubic feet. The standard 60/40 split rear bench folds down so that long flat cargo (think flat boxes at IKEA) are an easy fit. The trunk was completely lined and flocked; however, the trunk lid was naked and sported goose neck hinges rather than gas-pressure struts. I smell a diligent cost accountant at work.
Base MSRP for the 2012 Passat TDI with DSG is $27,895. The SEL2 package is $4,300; however, you get almost every luxury feature and infotainment upgrade you could want. In fact, there are no other options offered. Add the $770 destination charge and the fully-loaded car is $32,965. This prices the 2012 Passat TDI smack in the middle of its similarly-equipped fuel sipping hybrid competition and it is, by far, the frugal enthusiast’s pick of the bunch.