Ich bin ein Mainstreamer

Volkswagen tried building cars in the U.S. once before, and it didn't end well for the Rabbits assembled in Westmoreland, PA. "In Vietnam, 'Westmoreland' was a synonym for boundless optimisim in the face of raw facts. The same principle applies here," said my friend Mike, explaining why his Rabbits at the time were imported from Das Vaterland. The real problem with American-made VWs wasn't Pennsylvania or a self-deluding General, Mike continued, but "mushbucket suspensions, chintzy build quality, frou-frou styling compromises," all resulting in a sub-par experience that's got Volks-folks with long memories wondering if we're doomed to repeat the past.

Volkswagen wants its new 2012 Passat to disprove that trope about repeating history, and the Passat has racked up awards like the Motor Trend Car of the Year and was a North American Car of the Year finalist, lending credence to VW's efforts. We contemplated if the United States earning its own version of the Passat makes us elite or uncultured swine in the wake of our First Drive, and so we signed out a Passat SEL with a 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine to see what the Mainstream American Sedan Songbook sounds like when delivered with a German lilt.
When we first clapped eyes on the 2012 Volkswagen Passat, our immediate impression was "11/10th-scale Jetta." That's okay for the exterior, as nobody will argue that the carefully sculpted Jetta is ugly. The Passat's styling features the same crisp edges and clean conservatism. It's distinctive enough to be recognized as a Volkswagen at first glance, but will take you a second look to figure out which Volkswagen. Clean lines are timeless, so expect the 2012 Passat to look just as Deutsche-Bland in a decade. You'll be able to spot Passat SEL models by their standard foglamps in the front airdam and 17-inch alloy wheels.

2012 Volkswagen Passat side view2012 Volkswagen Passat front view2012 Volkswagen Passat rear view

The Passat interior left behind a good impression when we first drove the car back in May, which continues to hold up. Volkswagen paid attention to making what you touch feel nice, giving all Passats competitive cabins, though the days of Audi-like opulence have passed. Our 2012 Passat SEL Premium carried nearly the full complement of luxury and equipment available. The $29,895 MSRP included keyless entry and push-button starting, spiffy-looking leather and Dynamica (faux-suede) upholstery, power adjustable heated front seats, and an RNS 510 touchscreen navigation system that plays back through a Fender-branded premium audio system.

There is no denying that the Passat is a well-equipped car at the $30,000 SEL Premium level, and with all that stuff, you don't even notice that you can no longer get all-wheel drive or a station wagon. Volkswagen has done a deft job of turning the cost-cutting frown upside-down. That fake suede on the seats, for example, looks great with its stylishly stitched pattern, and synthetics can be exceptionally durable. Careful trimming of low-demand options is part of what helps keep the car's new price so low – starting below $20,000 – without most buyers having to sacrifice. The fake wood, though, can go.

2012 Volkswagen Passat interior2012 Volkswagen Passat front seats2012 Volkswagen Passat rear seats2012 Volkswagen Passat trunk

Volkswagen's 170-horsepower 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine is the volume powerplant for the Passat, though it's rumored to be phased out in favor of a turbocharged four-cylinder soon. The engine patters out an offbeat rhythm with overtones completely lacking in enthusiasm. This motor sounds unhappy about its work, and we were unhappy with its power delivery. It feels weak off the line, because it is, and you've got to get it flagellating 4,200 times per minute before you get the fully underwhelming 177 lb-ft of torque. At least it only requires regular fuel and can return up to 31 miles per gallon on the highway when paired with the six-speed automatic like our test car.

It's one thing to have an engine that calls no attention to itself; that's perfect for a car designed to appeal to the innocuous nougat center of the North American sedan buying public. The problem the Passat 2.5 SEL faces is that its sour-sounding powertrain scrunches up occupants expressions into an "ew-face." There's simply more refinement and better power delivery available from the majority of four cylinders across this crowded, competitive field, not to mention the V6 mills available at this price level.

Enthusiasts, do yourself a favor and spring for the V6 SEL Premium. At $32,950, it's not much of a stretch from this car, and it's packing a 3.6-liter VR6 with 280 hp, and more importantly, 258 lb-ft of torque that's all-in by 2,500 rpm. The rest of the car-buying public won't care, and the 2.5 is a fine engine for people who don't get excited about such things.

2012 Volkswagen Passat engine

The ride and handling balance of the Passat 2.5 SEL is also tuned to appeal to the meat of the car-buying public, folks who don't care a whit about turn-in or spring rates. Still, there's an underlying whiff of what once was, and the Passat felt capable, if underdamped. Large bumps and expansion joints are soaked up without complaint by the well-tuned suspension and rigid structure, and there's more verve in the way the Passat rounds corners than you'll find in the Hyundai Sonata or Toyota Camry, though it's not enough to inspire dreams of weekend autocrossing.

Out on the road, this car does all the right things for the everyman; it's smooth, it's quiet, and with 102 cubic feet of interior space, it's accommodating. It's a big, comfy car that rides nicely and handles without surprises. The Passat is German in its nicely-weighted steering, but the brakes are missing the stern rigidity you'd expect. The automatic transmission, too, wants to be asked twice (nicely) for kickdowns.

The SEL features a chunky, leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel that feels good, and the rest of the ergonomics inside the cabin adhere to Volkswagen practice. The climate controls are clear and concise, and all of the switchgear feels tight and high-quality. There's the characteristic cruise control stalk that all VWs have, and the audio/navigation system is somewhat fussy to use – just try manually tuning it, for instance – but there's no colored quadrants or overly distracting six-level menus. The trunk is on the larger side for its class at 15.9 cubic feet. It's also very accessible, which helps you make the most of its space, another nod to what real people actually want in a car. There's also a pass-through and split-folding rear seatbacks to add to the capacity.

2012 Volkswagen Passat rear 3/4 view2012 Volkswagen Passat front detail2012 Volkswagen Passat wheel2012 Volkswagen Passat badge

While the Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SEL Premium won't blow your hair back, there are some points of amazement. First, its reasonable price of entry. It starts below $20,000 and our tester is loaded for under $30k before destination charges are added. Second, its efficiency. The tradeoff between lusty performance and robust economy tilts in the right direction with an EPA-estimated 22 mpg city, 31 mpg highway. Finally, and this one is a little more car-geekish, Volkswagen's ability to hold the line on weight. The Passat weighs in at 3,221 pounds in 2.5 SEL Premium trim, impressive in this age of 4,000-pound porkers.

True success in the U.S. mainstream sedan market hinges on hitting the right notes for a middle-of-the-road audience. Guys like Mike, who could pick out General Westmoreland from a photo lineup and remember when VW manuals talked about items like "der puttersparken und die drizzleflappen," are hoping Volkswagen gets it right this time. The key to attaining Volkswagen's lofty sales goals will be mass appeal that avoids mediocrity. The Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SEL manages to do that at the expense of making enthusiasts priapic. Don't be shocked when they sell a zillion of these things.

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