As part of a drive to become the world’s largest car company by 2018, Volkswagen has decided to take the American market seriously. That means catering to American tastes, perceptions and sizes.
It also means that, by default, Canadians get the same cars.
VW has made a significant investment in this marketing move, building an entirely new production facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where it produces the 2012 Passat.
This Passat, unlike its predecessors wearing the same name, was designed and developed for America where mid-size cars like Accord, Malibu and Camry dominate the sales charts. All of these and the dozen or more others in the class are much larger than the old Passat, especially inside. So the new Passat is larger has grown – 863-mm in length and 12-mm in width and height.
More room inside
It is inside where the true growth is evident with limo-like rear seat legroom. Some clever styling touches allow it to feel even roomier than it is, with vertical surfaces and right angles everywhere.
Unfortunately many of these flat surfaces are covered in hard plastic, taking away from the otherwise upscale feel. Many of the top surfaces you touch are covered in soft touch material.
Countering the downscale issue of hard plastic is an impressive lighting array. The mirrors contain puddle lights and turn signal repeaters. There are lights at the bottom of each door to show where you are about to step and red backlighting for the highly legible instrument faces and switchgear.
The Passat also has an enormous trunk – almost a cave. Want even more room? Fold down the rear seat-backs. And that trend continues with a very large glove box and centre console storage bin.
Engine choices galore
There are three choices of engine. A 2.5-litre, in-line, five-cylinder gasoline engine, with 177 lb-ft of torque is standard paired with a five-speed manual transmission or a conventional (torque converter) six-speed automatic.
A turbocharged four-cylinder diesel with 236 lb-ft of torque can be had with a six speed manual or a six-speed dual clutch automatic.
Atop the powertrain ladder is a 3.6-litre V-6 gasolie engine putting up to 258 lb-ft of torque through a the same DSG automatic as the diesel. It is only available in the top two trim levels.
Four trim levels
The 2012 Passat comes in four trim levels – Trendline, Trendline Plus, Comfortline and Highline.
My test vehicle was a Highline with an arm-long list of standard equipment, including: a power glass sunroof, heated mirrors, seats and windshield washer nozzles, 18-in alloy wheels, dual zone automatic climate control, cruise control, remote keyless entry, automatic locks, power windows, eight-speaker, 400-watt Fender audio system with sub-woofer, eight-way power front seats with power adjustable lumbar support, HomeLink garage door opener integrated into the visor, tilt & telescope steering wheel, wireless connectivity and something called "Vienna leather/Dinamica" upholstery.
Options included a $1200 navigation system and a $700 sport package, which bumped alloy wheel size from 17 to 18-in, replaced the nut burl interior trim with faux carbon fibre and stuck a useless "spoiler’ on the trunk lid. Strangely, as well-equipped as it is, no rear-view camera is included or even offered.
Obviously some of that kit you could easily do without. You can get into a Passat for less than $25K, but my tester stickered at $40, 840.
Hits and misses
One feature I enjoyed was the Fender audio system. Developed in conjunction with Panasonic, it pumps out 400-watts of clear and clean sound. I also liked the lane change feature common to German cars, one touch, and three signal flashes.
Kudos also for tie-down hooks on the cargo floor to keep things from sliding around and auto up and down power windows at each door. A similar theme is carried over for the central locking system with a switch at each door.
I didn’t like the automatic locking feature. You have to manually unlock when you stop to pick or drop off a passenger. Ironically they automatically unlock in a crash.
On the road
On the road, the V-6 impresses for its power delivery with plenty of low-down torque.
It was introduced more than 20 years ago as the VR6 with a single head covering the two cylinder banks allowing it to be much narrower than conventional 60 and 90-degree V-6 engines. It was and remains unique but its age is showing when it comes to fuel efficiency.
The DSG transmission slapped off shifts with lightening-like speed and was caught out only occasionally at slow speeds on slight inclines while it decided which gear to use.
The suspension has definitely been tuned to American tastes giving up some of the vaunted German tautness for a more pillow-like turnpike ride. The upside is that it absorbs nasty road blemishes with ease.
Volkswagen was the first volume import manufacturer to build cars in the U.S. with the ill-fated Westmorland effort where more than one million Golfs and Rabbits were produced between 1978 and 1988. That attempt to meet American tastes was doomed to fail due to terrible quality control and pillow-soft suspensions.
But those vehicles were modified versions of existing German cars. The Passat rolling out of this new high quality high tech plant is a far different story.