By David Undercoffler, Los Angeles Times
10:00 PM EDT, August 31, 2011
An earthquake recently cracked the Washington Monument. Billionaire Warren Buffett wants to pay more taxes. Volkswagen is building a big-ol' American car.
If you're a believer in the apocalypse, this may be a good time to replenish the canned chili in your Y2K bunkers.
But whether or not you think it foretells of the end of days, VW's all-new 2012 Passat is the car they've never built for a segment they've never appreciated.
The midsize class now holds Volkswagen's attention because it wants to be the world's No. 1 automaker by 2018. Because Americans buy piles of midsize cars, at the rate of about 250,000 a month, VW sees gold in them thar hills.
But to be successful, the 2012 Passat has to stand out among such sales-chart luminaries as the Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu.
Its base price of $19,995 is a good starting point, especially since the Passat you get for this price is well-constructed and nicely masks the fact that VW had to cut costs judiciously to hit that target.
One has only to look at the company's smaller Jetta sedan that was redesigned last year to see that the strategy can work. That car was critically panned, but consumers responded to the lower base price, and so far the Jetta has been a sales success.
So you can bet your canned chili that VW is hoping American consumers take to the Passat with similar gusto.
The company's devotion to this goal can't be understated. For the first time in the Passat's history, the U.S. market gets its own version, which is built in an all-new, $1-billion plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. The rest of the world gets a smaller and more expensive Passat similar to the one we used to see on our shores.
It would seem that VW wised up to the fact that we Americans like our cars like we like our buckets of chicken or pallets of toilet paper: big and cheap. And this Passat is red, white and blue to its core.
The 2012 car's length and wheelbase are each four inches longer than the outgoing model. This growth means the Passat's rear legroom, trunk space and interior space rival or beat its peers.
Not only does the Passat have the space to take a family of five eating-contest enthusiasts home from the state fair, but it also offers them an appreciable amount of comfort when doing so. Occupants of the Passat will be impressed by the quality they are getting for their dollars.
The seats are wide and yielding, and surfaces like the dashboard and armrests are reassuringly pliable. Road, wind and tire noise are all but banished from the interior. As with the rest of the car, the construction of the cabin is first-rate, although the design and layout on lower-end models reflect a conservatism that almost topples into austerity.
Which might be expected on a car with the Passat's base price. Except there's more to that price than meets the eye. Literally.
When the ads for the 2012 Passat start tickling the airwaves, you'll probably hear a big fuss about that $19,995 starting price. It's sure to draw curious VW neophytes into a showroom they might not have otherwise considered. But once they're there, they'll learn about the additional $770 destination fee and the fact that this price is only for Passats with the five-speed manual transmission.
Because most Americans are as likely to get a manual transmission as they are a recreational root canal, the cheapest Passat that's actually relevant to consumers is the $23,460 Passat 2.5 S.
This model adds a six-speed automatic transmission and alloy wheels to the advertised car's standard dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth, steering-wheel-mounted stereo controls and that pesky destination charge.
The $24,495 Passat 2.5 SE piles on 17-inch alloy wheels, leatherette seats, power driver's seat, and a touch-screen audio system. The automatic transmission is an additional $1,100.
The upmarket 2.5 SEL trim starts at $29,165 and includes the automatic transmission, a navigation system, leather seats, keyless entry, a premium stereo system made by Fender (of guitar and amplifier fame), and wood-grain trim.
As you may have guessed, the 2.5 in these cars' monikers refers to the base engine in the Passat. It's a 2.5-liter, five-cylinder unit that's borrowed from the Jetta and produces 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque.
Although it's a highlight of the Jetta, when it's powering the larger Passat, it tends to get overwhelmed. It's remarkably refined and quiet, but the power deficiency is tedious when entering the freeway or passing. Fortunately some of these doldrums are relieved by putting the automatic transmission into sport mode.
Otherwise the Passat's complacent road manners err on the soft side — once the curse of American cars. Perhaps it really is a sign of the apocalypse when a Volkswagen handles like a Buick.
Volkswagen doesn't yet have the EPA fuel economy figures for the Passat 2.5, but in more than 440 miles of testing a preproduction 2.5 SEL, I averaged 25.2 miles per gallon.
If you're looking for more power or efficiency, VW has you covered. A 3.6-liter V-6 will be available, and it puts out 280 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Figure on an additional $3,000 to $3,300 for this engine.
Also available when the Passat goes on sale this month will be a 2-liter turbo diesel, good for 140 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. Volkswagen estimates that this engine will get 43 mpg on the highway. This engine will add about $2,300 to the 2.5 pricing.
All Passats come with a three-year, 36,000-mile warranty, which also includes no-charge maintenance for the duration. This is a nice touch, but keep in mind, automakers like Hyundai, Kia and Chevrolet offer powertrain warranties for up to 100,000 miles.
Unfortunately there's nothing in the warranty that mentions what buyers should do when they get maddeningly tired of how the Passat looks. Which should take about a week.
Boring is an understatement. Watching a C-SPAN marathon of transportation reauthorization roundtables — on mute — is more exciting than looking at this car.
The Passat is unoriginal to the point where one wonders whether designers lost the plans for the Passat, then grabbed a photo of the Jetta and said, "Magnify that by 20."
Still, the Jetta is selling like crazy, so maybe we're less automotively vain than I thought.
If so, the Passat could be poised to grab a solid slice of America's midsize-car pie. While dull to look at and a bit lazy on the road, the car is comfortable, well-made and competitively priced.
All that from a German automaker? Apocalypse indeed.