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Volkswagen's Passat for North America: A diesel delight

2012 VW Passat

Volkswagen/Volkswagen

Overall Rating
7.5
Overall
Love the diesel-based powertrain and the hugely roomy cabin. But the exterior could be much more interesting. You'll like this vehicle if you want a fuel-efficient diesel in a big, family-sedan package.
Looks Rating
6.5
Looks
We won't call this an inspired design, just an inoffensive one. The grille is a little too prominent and the three boxes of this tree-box design are a little too predictable.
Interior Rating
8
Interior
Big, big, big. VW has taken the measure of the super-size-this society and produced a roomy interior to match. Other than the tiny navigation screen, the cabin hits all the right notes.
Ride Rating
7.5
Ride
The diesel engine is a gem. It makes highway driving a joy and sips fuel. The dynamics are not astonishingly good, but quite nice and very good for a family car.
Safety Rating
9
Safety
An IIHS Top Safety Pick. 'Nuff said.
Green Rating
7.5
Green
If you want fuel economy this good, your only other option is a hybrid.

The Costco phenomenon is the guiding principle buttressing the 2012 Volkswagen Passat, i.e. it's a jumbo family pack at a special price, and if you want to buy in bulk, go for it.

All kidding aside, it's shocking that it's taken VW only about 60 years to figure out that North Americans are Costco-loving types, not Europeans in love with boutique shopping and local bakeries. The distances we travel are immense and completely unlike anything on the Continent. Size matters here, except when we're talking about the price tag. We love our bargains. And we like to buy in case lots – or, in the case of cars, those that can carry case lots.

But first the price. VW landed an all-new, made-in-America Passat listing for $23,975 to start – a $4,000 reduction versus the since-departed, undersized European Passat. Remember that car? It masqueraded as a mid-size but functioned as a relatively expensive compact. The VW types eventually concluded they were forever going to have a problem selling more than a handful of those Passats and they went looking for an answer. Ultimately an act of Wolfsburg – VW's international headquarters – dictated a change in thinking. After decades of stalled sales, VW decided to go native.

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Let's pause for a moment and ask how is it that VW – the world's No. 2 auto maker by sales – could so misread such an important market for so long. Stubbornness? Arrogance? A rigid adherence to accounting principles? Probably all three and perhaps more.

Regardless, VW has righted the problem by super-sizing the 2012 Passat for North America and other like markets. VW also built a subsidized factory in Tennessee to manufacture Passats. For the record, VW is not alone in this. BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and Toyota have all taken advantage of similar taxpayer handouts in the U.S. south.

In any case, after deciding to make cars in NAFTA and right-sizing the cars themselves, VW's next steps were obvious: tackle the twin issues of quality (as rated by third parties such as J.D. Power) and crash test scores (as rated by third parties such as the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety).

The good news is that the 2012 Passat is an IIHS Top Safety Pick. The not-so-good news is that in the latest J.D. Power long-term Vehicle Dependability Study, VW is ranked well below average. In addition, not a single VW model is ranked among the top three in any vehicle category.

That said, VWs across the board feel refined, have the best seats in the business and they drive well. Buyers like all that. Early sales results suggest VW might have a chance with more mainstream Canadian car shoppers now that the Passat is a proper size and an affordable price. VW, of course, has worked magic with this formula before. Last year, sales of the re-sized, re-priced Jetta were up nearly 90 per cent and that car continues to rank among the top 10 best-sellers in Canada.

This new Passat, though, has more pizzazz than the Jetta. No one should be surprised. The Jetta starts at less than $16,000. The Passat, on the other hand, is not a bargain-bin entry; it's starting price remains slightly higher than mainstream rival such as the Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Kia Optima, Hyundai Sonata, Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord, Mazda6, and even the sub-$19,000 Chrysler 200/Dodge Journey.

Now here is where you need to listen up: VW has something none of them can offer – a powerful, fuel-efficient diesel starting in the Passat at $27,475. This is the Passat I would always recommend. I am not a huge cheerleader for the five-cylinder engine (170 hp) in the budget Passat and the 3.6-litre V-6 (280 horsepower) seems like overkill and starts at $33,575.

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Get the Passat with the ultra-frugal diesel. Truly, the pickup is brilliant and the fuel economy will have you smiling like the Cheshire Cat. In fact, the turbocharged diesel has almost as much torque as VW's 3.6-litre V-6, yet fuel economy is rated at 6.8 litres/100 km in the city and 4.4 on the highway. If you don't want a diesel, your next-best fuel-sipping option would be something along the lines of a gasoline-electric hybrid such as the Camry Hybrid, Sonata Hybrid, Optima Hybird or Fusion Hybrid.

My bet is that you might end up enjoying the Passat TDI as much as me. And that's something. The performance is delicious. Tap the throttle and go. Yet there is no real diesel clatter and you won't witness great clouds of smoke belching from the tailpipe. Diesels are not as clean as hybrids – and by quite a bit – but the fuel economy and drivability of the Passat diesel is applause-worthy.

I am less a fan of the exterior styling. This three-box look does not break new ground in any noteworthy way; it is inoffensive and that's all I have to say on the subject. Other than to say, if you park this Passat beside the current Sonata or the coming 2013 Ford Fusion, you'll witness an interesting design comparison. 'Nuff said.

The huge cabin is another story entirely. VW has created a fine-looking interior with excellent seats and sensible controls. The navigation screen needs to be enlarged but the graphics are clear. The available 400-watt Fender audio system is marvelous.

What VW has done is exactly what should have been done some time ago. My prediction: Costco-size sales for this Passat.

jcato@globeandmail.com

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Tech specs

2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.0 TDI Highline

Type: Mid-size sedan

Price: $33,775 (freight $1,365)

Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbodiesel

Horsepower/torque: 140 hp/236 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.8 city/4.4 highway; diesel fuel

Alternatives: Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Kia Optima, Hyundai Sonata, Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord, Mazda6, Chrysler 200, Dodge Journey

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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More

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