2012 Volkswagen Passat Driving Impressions

VW's many-times stated objective with the new, 2012 Passat was to make it more attractive to mainstream Americans, thereby increasing the car maker's share of the U.S. new car market and helping justify that new Chattanooga assembly plant. At the same time, VW understood that it also had to retain enough of the Passat's original VW-ness to maintain its appeal to the traditional VW buyers. Our test drives in the new Passat suggest VW may have had more success with the former than with the latter.

The Passat TDI's diesel engine produced linear power delivery with little of the surge sensation common with a turbocharger, but not as torquey as expected following our experience with VW's Golf TDI. Shifts from the 6-speed automatic, which felt programmed for conservation over quickness, were noticeable but generally smooth.

EPA-estimated fuel economy of 31 mpg City and 43 mpg Highway from the TDI diesel tops the gasoline-powered competition, by 8 mpg Highway (Hyundai Sonata) to 14 mpg Highway (Ford Fusion). Volkswagen Passat TDI bests the Toyota Camry Hybrid, which manages only a 31/35 mpg City/Highway on EPA's charts. The Fusion and Sonata hybrids better the Passat TDI with 41/36 mpg and 35/40 mpg respectively.

The Passat 3.6L was more fun to drive, primarily due to its responsiveness to a heavy foot on the gas pedal. The Direct Shift Gearbox delivered solid shifts but less promptly than expected in comparison with the Golf version, and even in manual-select mode. Expect stops at the gas station to happen at about the same frequency as with other V6-powered cars in this class; the Passat 3.6L's V6 is EPA-rated 20/28 mpg City/Highway, about average for the class.

We didn't get any seat time in the Passat 2.5L with the 2.5-liter five-cylinder gas engine at the launch event. Those who did reported it trailed behind the TDI in quickness off the line and exposure to oncoming traffic in passing zones, with credit for the difference going to the TDI's substantially higher torque (236 lb.-ft. vs. 177 lb.-ft. for the 2.5L). It generally trails, too, in fuel economy, with a 21/32 city/highway that falls most significantly short of the Sonata's 24/35 and its highway rating bettering only the Fusion's 29 mpg.

Ride quality in the new Passat is, well, very American. There's a bit of body roll in corners, although no float on mildly heaving interstates. But graded on what people might be sensitive to in a car wearing a German car maker's logo, it's definitely on the gentle side of firm. There was a bit of a whistle at speed from somewhere near the outside mirrors (from their 2-piece housings, perhaps?) on the Passats we drove at the launch, but nothing serious. Tire and road noise was minimal and varied little on different qualities and types of pavement. Put up against the competitors, it fits right in, not really standing out in any measure, but not falling short in any, either.

Which is pretty much the case in the handling department, too. Understeer (where the car wants to go straight when the driver wants it to turn) is the predominant characteristic when the Passat is pushed in a curve. Between the TDI and the 3.6L, the 3.6L feels less put upon when driven aggressively. We were told the 3.6L's steering is a bit tauter, closer to what's in the German-market Passat. None of the Passat models beg to experience an energetic blast through an extended set of twisties, however. Clearly, the Passat much prefers casual motoring, like a casual weekend getaway to the beach or a vacationing meander along the Blue Ridge.

Based on our experience, the Honda Accord feels more planted in winding roads, although the Accord filters out less of the mechanical and road and tire noise than the Passat does. The Ford Fusion All-Wheel-Drive is the most balanced in responding to steering inputs and quick changes of direction. The Fusion AWD exacts a price, however, with the worst city/highway numbers of the crew, at 18/26 mpg.

What was most disappointing with the new Passat was the brake feel, which clearly has been tuned for the American market. Gone is the prompt, sure-footed, throw-out-the-anchor response to the brake pedal that we're used to in VWs, and German-brand cars in general. We never worried about stopping power when driving the new Passat, but there was still this softness, not sponginess, just not the high quality firmness we've come to know and love, and appreciate, in Volkswagens. Thus, in comparing brake feel and the confidence it can inspire and the distinctiveness it can impart, we could have been in any of the five all-American competitors.

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