By Steven Cole Smith
August 20, 2011
Remember the 2011 Volkswagen Passat? Sorry, trick question — there wasn't one. But there's certainly a 2012 Passat, and it's prepared to make some noise, the way the new-for-2011 Volkswagen Jetta did.
And the biggest draw for the new Passat is the same as it was for the new Jetta: A lower price. The 2010 Jetta started at $19,045, but the 2011 model started at a bargain-basement $16,135. This caused some friction between me and some of my automotive-journalist colleagues: I thought the new Jetta was perhaps the best I've driven, all things considered — and one of those considerations was how much you get for your money. Multiple colleagues groused that the new $16,000 Jetta just wasn't as nice as the old $19,000 Jetta — the interior wasn't as luxurious, and the suspension wasn't as sophisticated, but I found no real degradation in ride and handling. After all, with a $3,000 price cut, you are certainly going to see evidence of it somewhere, but I thought VW did such a nice job of hiding it that the price cut was an asset, not a liability.
I expect the same sort of divide over the 2012 Volkswagen Passat, which starts at $19,995, more than $7,000 less than the base 2010 Passat, which cost $27,195. Again, if you look for it, you'll find evidence of price-cutting, but I'd also submit that the 2010 Passat was annoyingly overpriced. By offering a version of the Passat for under $20,000, Volkswagen is finally taking direct aim at the real meat of the mid-sized market — the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Malibu, Hyundai Sonata and Ford Fusion. There isn't a mutt in that pack, and by offering European sensibilities in a sedan priced right in the middle of the crowd, suddenly there's a new player in this market.
Size-wise, the new Passat is four inches longer than the old one, with an overall length of 191.7 inches, making it longer than the Camry, shorter than the Accord. Even so, interior space is excellent — rear seat room is spacious for two, passable for three. There's a fold-down console in the rear, and a flimsy plastic pass-through door to the spacious trunk (yes, that pass-through feels like a lowest-bidder item). As I said, you look, you find some of that $7,000 discount.
For the most part you don't find it under the hood, though the turbocharged engine standard in 2010 is now replaced by a 2.5-liter, 170-horsepower engine. That comes in the base model, with a six-speed manual transmission — that's the sub-$20,000 car (or, with shipping, $20,765). Even at that price, you get air conditioning, power locks and mirrors, Bluetooth connectivity and steering wheel-mounted audio controls, plus all the expected safety features. You can work your way up with a six-speed automatic transmission, alloy wheels, a premium sound system and other features.
At the top is the model with the 3.6-liter V-6 engine, which has a more sophisticated six-speed automatic transmission, a sunroof, a Fender premium audio system, fog lights and heated front seats, plus options that include a navigation system, leather upholstery, keyless entry and a lot of other luxury features. The price tops out at just under $34,000.
And in the middle — this being a Volkswagen — is a high-mileage diesel, with a 2-liter engine which is offered in three trim levels. EPA-rated mileage: 31 mpg city, 43 mpg highway. That beats our V-6's 20 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, premium gas preferred. The diesel starts at $25,995.
On the road, I couldn't find any sign of cost-cutting. Handling was precise, steering had that just-right German feel, and the ride was excellent, even on rough roads. Front seats were supportive, instruments and controls in the right places.
One criticism: The new Passat, even with alloy wheels, was awfully generic looking, especially compared to the chance-taking Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima. Even after a year absence from the market, not one person commented on the 2012 Passat, or even seemed to notice it.
That's a pretty minor issue, though, for a car that offers so much for the money, especially in the lower- to middle-trim range.