Volkswagen Passat — A new look and feel

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

 As limo and shuttle services phase out the venerable and soon-to-depart-the-scene Lincoln Town Car perhaps they should consider replacing it with the Volkswagen Passat.
Sounds a bit off the wall; replacing the spacious luxury of the $60,000 Lincoln with a 25 grand Volkswagen. In fact it strikes as being over-the-top ridiculous. But perhaps judgment should be reserved until you get the opportunity to visit the stretch-out rear-seat leg room of the 2012 Passat.
It’s amazing, especially for a sedan that resides in the mid-sized segment stretching out just 191 inches. But every time we get into the back seat of a new Passat — and we’ve been in several including shuttles from airport to hotel — we are amazed at the leg and shoulder room, the ease of entering and exiting the car, the comfort the Passat offers passengers that isn’t available in most mainstream mid-sized offerings.
The new Passat, which went on sale in September, has been completely redesigned for the North American market and, in fact, is built in a new state-of-the-art assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.
The athletic German qualities of the last-generation Passat have been diminished in favor of a spacious and considerably less expensive car that rides more like a current-generation Buick or Toyota than a German sports sedan and comes with rather conservative styling that should be offensive to no one.
Doesn’t sound too much like a recipe for success. But the same can be said for the smaller Jetta, which endured the same Americanization fate two years ago, and has become a sales hit, up 51 percent over 2010 sales during the first 10 months of 2011.
While automotive journalists and diehard Volkswagen owners decry the perceived blandness VW has engineered into its two mainstream vehicles, the folks at the European automotive juggernaut seem to have a very good grasp of the U.S. market.
Don’t take these statements the wrong way, the Passat is, indeed, a very good car and can offer other automakers a lesson in how to design a pleasing yet conservative interior that will house four adults in long-distance comfort for a starting price of $20,765.
The price is about seven grand less than the starting price for the 2010 Passat and for no other reason should garner the attention of folks who like the Volkswagen brand, but have gone elsewhere because of high price points. In addition to the lower price and the attractive look of the car inside and out, the Passat comes with three very distinct engine choices designed to please the pocketbook, performance junkies, and those who seek superior gas mileage at any cost.
One disappointment — the award-winning 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine is no longer offered. We consider it the best engine currently in the VW stable. Most buyers will probably opt for the 2.5-liter inline 5-cylinder generating 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. We found it adequate and it should satisfy a majority of people, especially when they figure in 22 mpg city and 31 highway gas mileage. 
It will win few head-to-head performance challenges against the current 4-cylinder competition, but partly because of its diet-light curb weight of 3,221 pounds, the 5-cylinder Passat can knock off a 0-to-60 run in 8.7 seconds. 
For those who need the most performance from their car, VW has the answer with a 3.6-liter V-6 making 280 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque mated to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic manual transmission. Measured performance is 6.3 seconds from 0-to-60 and 14.8 seconds at 99 mph in the quarter mile. Those times compare extremely well against the V-6 offerings in the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry and the turbocharged 4-cylinder Hyundai Sonata.
Our choice, hands down, is the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbodiesel making 140 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. If you have never driven a diesel and are not familiar with the performance derived from prodigious torque, then these numbers may seem small. But the torque gives a great push off the line and results in a 0-to-60 time of around 8.5 seconds with fuel mileage measured at 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway with the automatic and 31/43 with the six-speed manual. 
Here’s the thing — the TDI will consistently get better highway mileage than the EPA numbers. It’s not unusual to hit 42 to 43 on the highway with the automatic transmission. And with the car’s 18.5-gallon tank it is not inconceivable to have a safe range of 750 miles.
We have spent several hundred miles behind the wheel of TDI-equipped Passats in various locations, including the winding, hilly roads near the new plant in Chattanooga and some winding state roads in Virginia, and it delivered good performance and excellent mileage on all occasions. We’ve also logged a considerable number of miles in the V-6 with treks through coastal mountains and on long ribbons of interstates. The V-6 is quick and equally easy to drive as the TDI.
Along with the rather compliant ride that we feel most buyers will enjoy, the Passat displays sharp steering with good on-center response and decent feedback. Despite that the Passat retains minimal smiling inducing German driving and handling traits.
Most noticeably missing is the tight, secure feel of yesteryear. There is a modicum of body motion that constantly reminds you that sense of security is no longer present.  
From behind the wheel, the driver is rewarded with straight-forward controls, a very pleasant change from the convoluted layouts found in many cars these days. Radio and climate control knobs harkens back to a simpler time, although the radio operated through the touch screen is a bit befuddling; pre-sets rarely match the band selected. Materials seem to be of good quality and fit and finish is first class.
Volkswagen it seems has made a Passat for virtually every budget. As noted one can be purchased for as low as $20,765 in S trim although customers may be hard pressed to find that model. The more popular trim level will be the well-equipped SE 5-cylinder with automatic transmission starting at $24,495 including destination charge. Move up to the top SEL trim with the same engine and the price jumps to $29,165.
The diesel starts at $26,765 in SE trim and the V-6-equipped Passat begins at $29,765.
Our TDI test car in SE trim with a couple of options carried a bottom line of $28,790.
All SE trim cars feature a large amount of standard equipment including full power switches, six-way power driver’s seat, heated front seats, leatherette upholstery, an eight-speaker sound system, steering wheel audio controls, and a full range of safety features including something Volkswagen calls Intelligent Crash Response which automatically cuts off the fuel supply, unlocks the doors and turns on the hazard flashers.
The Passat seems an excellent value and when you consider the spaciousness and comfort you’ll find this VW easy to appreciate. And some shuttle services may be remiss in not giving the Passat consideration when resupplying their fleets.
Base price: $20,765; as driven, $28,790
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged diesel
Horsepower: 140 @ 4,000 rpm
Torque: 236 pound-feet @ 1,500 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed dual clutch automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 110.4 inches
Length: 191.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,469 pounds
Turning circle: 36.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.9 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons (diesel)
EPA rating: 40 mpg highway, 30 mpg city
0-60: 8.7 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion
The Good:
• Roomy back seat
• Fuel efficient diesel engine available
• Good array of standard features
The Bad:
• Missing, the award-winning 2.0-liter gas turbo 4
The Ugly:
• Bland exterior styling