Vital Stats

2.5L I5
170 HP / 177 LB-FT
6-Speed Auto
Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight:
3,221 LBS
15.9 CU-FT
22 City / 31 HWY
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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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 2 Years Ago
      The car seems fine minus the engine and price. I'd like the 2.0T instead. But $30,665 as tested? Wow. $30,910 gets you a fully loaded Camry SE V6 or $30,200 for a Kia Optima EX Turbo with all the options.. I like the Passat, but I don't see why I should settle for the base engine when I can get the other cars in its class with all the same options but with the top engines for less
      • 2 Years Ago
      For the price, it would make more sense to get a Subaru Legacy with the CVT transmission. Fully loaded, it's cheaper, has AWD, gets 31 mpg highway, and also has the Harmon Kardon audio.
        Justin Campanale
        • 2 Years Ago
        The 2.5 in the Leg' isn't any better. Coming from a Subaru fan and a former SVX owner. It is a dog in the legacy. The Legacy also doesn't have the interior quality the Passat has. 31 mpg is still short of the Passat's 33 mpg, and if you want a manual you'll have to settle for 27 mpg. I'll admit that the 2.5 Gt limited is a blast, but again, the mileage is pathetic and the interior is sub-par. Plus it costs only a little bit less than the Passat VR6 SEL.
      • 2 Years Ago
      • 2 Years Ago
      Bland sells in the USA so I don't think the styling of this car will be a problem. That 2.5L engine however is just laughable. As big as VW is, this is the best they can do for their flagship car in the USA? Why not make the 2.0T the base engine? Just bump the base price by $500.
      • 2 Years Ago
      No reason the 2.5 can not have 200hp/200 fl lbs of torque and get at or close to the fuel economy the hyundai sonata. Sorry t osee how VW has walmated this and especially the Jetta down
        • 2 Years Ago
        that should be "walmarted" down
        Alex Rodriguez MacFa
        • 2 Years Ago
        This is the first year of production. I'm pretty sure that engine options are going to change by 2013 or '14. There is rumor that a new unrelated to the 90s 1.8T will be the base engine. Power and torque should remain the same while increasing the MPGs. Ford eliminated the V6 option in the new Fusion much like Hyundai did with its Sonata, and I'm pretty sure most manufacturers will do the same. I won't be surprised if VW brings a more powerful version of the 2.0T as its flagship engine while leaving the VR6 for the CC only.
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Alex Rodriguez MacFa
        • 2 Years Ago
      • 2 Years Ago
      Wolkswagen is doing the new Toyota Camry with this Passat IMO. Whereas the old one was an entry level Luxury model, this one is bread and butter middle age boring. Yes, it will sell to a wider consumer base, but the important thing is will VW keep these customers when it's time to replace this car? They'd better get their act together reliability wise in order to succeed.
      • 2 Years Ago
      The CC is so much better looking and more expensive looking.
        • 2 Years Ago
        It should be, it is more expensive. Hence why VW redesigned the Passat, to appeal to the meat and potatoes of the midsize market.
      Alex Rodriguez MacFa
      • 2 Years Ago
      I really was considering getting a Passat for the summer but after seeing the new Fusion, I might end up in the Ford dealership. The new Altima and Accord are just around the corner and the Altima might come with more powerful engines and HIDs which the Passat doesn't have. VW might have to do some equipment modifications to the Passat and possibly a face-lift sooner than scheduled if it really wants to sell more than 100K units per year. Gotta love the competition!
      • 2 Years Ago
      Reviews of this car are all over the map. Most of the review of the V6 and TDI models are favorable, but the base models with that awful 2.5 not so much. I personally think the car is yet another example of the blanding and cheapening of VW automobiles. And you have to wonder with VW's iffy reliability record whether that cost cutting is going to bite you down the line. At least its better than the truly dreadful Jetta. My one hope is that they continue to bring over the Euro Golf and don't do an American lobotomy to the car.
      • 2 Years Ago
      When I saw the picture in the banner, I seriously thought it was a Jetta. Only the caption clued me in otherwise.
      • 2 Years Ago
      In TDI form, this car is nearly perfect. This car deserves the following: 1. An AWD choice 2. A wagon option 3. Xenon headlights (why was this left out if extras like high end audio or push button start are offered?) You are nearly there VW, please offer these soon and complete the Passat line-up. I would still take this car as is over any midsize competitor for its diesel engine's range alone...50+mpg for such a large car is fantastic!
      Avinash Machado
      • 2 Years Ago
      Purists may not like the decontended Passat but it seems to be selling quite well.
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