By Jim MacPherson
While most automakers want to move models "up market" to command higher prices and, theoretically, produce more profit, Volkswagen has recently moved two of its "up-market" cars down. The results have been astounding.
First came the redesigned 2011 Jetta, which was more affordable and featured more interior room. Buyers like approach, though critics have bemoaned the austere interior and loss of some of the premium features that made the prior Jetta an outstanding automobile.
Now Volkswagen is using the same approach for the redesigned 2012 Passat, its midsize premium family sedan. The new Passat is larger than its predecessor, with what Volkswagen calls “best-in-class” rear seat room and a trunk that should accommodate a family on a cross-country trip. The base trim is also around $7,000 cheaper than the 2011 model. Buyers have noticed, as October sales of the new Passat were up over 800 percent from October 2010.
There are several reasons for the price reduction, including a new factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., where all Passats for the United States will be made. Shipping costs and overhead should be lower as a result.
In addition, as a week with the new Passat demonstrated, the car has been "Americanized" to a degree. The ride is more absorbent. The trick, of course, is to make the car more comfortable without adversely affecting the handling, which has long been a Passat high point. The good news is that Volkswagen has done this, though the new Passat is not quite as sharp as the outgoing models when it comes to slicing its way through a tight turn. Nonetheless, the more enthusiasm the driver has, the more this Passat seems to hunker down. It doesn’t demand to be pushed, but it doesn’t object, either.
Three models are offered. The base S and mid-level SE come with a 2.5-liter, five-cylinder engine and the buyer’s choice of a five-speed manual transmission or optional six-speed automatic. SE and SEL buyers can upgrade to a 3.6-liter VR6 or a 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel engine. The VR6 comes only with a different, dual-clutch six-speed automatic transmission.
Diesel buyers can opt for this dual clutch automatic transmission or take a standard six-speed manual. All SEL models come with the appropriate automatic and all Passats are now front-wheel drive sedans. The wagon and the all-wheel drive models are gone.
Inside, there's good news for anyone who thought that Volkswagen went a little too far in cost containment with the Jetta’s interior. The new Passat’s interior looks and feels pretty good. Granted, our review car was the top-of-the line SEL Premium, which featured handsome wooden accents, leather seating surfaces, keyless access and eight-way power front seats, with memory for the driver.
The front seats are comfortable; ditto for the rear seats. A six-footer can sit comfortably in the front seat with another six-footer finding comfort and space in the rear seat.
The 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine delivers a frisky performance, with 60 miles per hour arriving in 8.3 seconds. The engine, which growls a bit on full-throttle acceleration, is smooth and quiet while cruising. A shorter drive in the diesel version produced a slightly slower zero-to-60 time, about 9.5 seconds, but outstanding fuel economy. The trip computer showed 45 miles per gallon in easy driving. Our 2.5-liter version went 24 miles on each gallon of regular.
Bigger isn’t always better, but here it is. The new Passat is also much cheaper– a winning combination that hasn’t escaped buyers' notice.
Starts at: $19,995
Engines: 2.5 Regular gasoline 3.6 VR6 Premium gas 2.0 Diesel
HP 170 280 140
Torque (lb-ft) 177 258 236
EPA Manual 22/32 N/A 31/43
EPA Automatic 22/31 20/28 30/40