Model: 2012 Passat TDI SEL
Engine: 2.0 liter, 4-cylinder turbo diesel
Mileage: 43 mpg highway, 31 mpg city
Torque: 236 foot-pounds
Maximum range: Nearly 800 miles between fill-ups
Sound system: Fender, 400 watts
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Color: Tungsten silver
Safety: The 2012 Passat has not been crash-tested
Price as tested: $32,195 (base TDI SE is $25,995)
Full-model price range: $19,995 to $32,950
Available at dealerships: September-October 2011
• Interstate 24: Crawling up the Ridge cut in 5 p.m. rush-hour traffic in 100-degree heat last week was a breeze. The car has splendid cabin isolation, and a premium Fender sound system keeps you company.
• W Road (Signal Mountain): The Passat TDI is the perfect car for mountain twisties. With 235 foot-pounds of torque, the turbo-diesel engine allowed the car to scamper through the switchbacks. Wheee!
• Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park: While the Passat is built with enthusiasts in mind, it also is a comfortable cruiser. A low-speed drive through the park was quiet and relaxing.
• Interstate 75: Once clear of heavy traffic, the Passat TDI goes to work; the spirited engine propels effortlessly to highway speeds. Wind noise is noticeable at 70 mph, though.
• Forest Avenue (North Shore): The Passat TDI launches up one of Chattanooga's most vertical city streets at full throttle without breaking a sweat. Generic styling makes this car a stealth rocket.
Volkswagen turned over the keys to its Chattanooga-made Passat to North American automotive reporters last week and crossed its fingers.
Unlike almost any other consumer good, new automobiles get scrutinized by a swarm of media, including industry press, car-enthusiast magazines and auto websites.
Those reports can help make or break a new product, especially one with as dramatic a storyline as the 2012 Passat - a new car, made in a new plant, in a new country, by an untested work force. Frank Fischer, VW's plant manager here, conceded last week that some have said it's "crazy" to introduce so many variables into a car.
The flip side to this potential for chaos, though, is a clean-sheet product design, built by energetic workers at a state-of-the-art facility; oh, and managers who promise that they have doubled down on quality.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press was among the media outlets given an extended test drive of the 2012 Passat last week.
The Passat will appeal to buyers who recognize the value of German engineering at moderate prices. It will have trouble, though, wooing style-conscious shoppers looking for a driveway showpiece.
By lowering the entry-level price of the line about $7,000, the Passat is aiming for the sweet spot in the midsize segment. The new pricing will put the Passat in the typical price range of more than two-thirds of American midsize car sales, the company says.
By contrast, the old, more expensive Passat was priced within the price range of only about 8 percent of typical midsize sales, according to company research. (The strategy worked for the new, lower-priced Jetta, with sales up 58.6 percent in May over last year.)
VW also says customers wanted a larger Passat, so VW added 4 inches to the length of the car. This results in 3 more inches of backseat legroom, a vast improvement in interior volume. A 6-foot-5 Times Free Press photographer sat in the back seat with knee room to spare.
The bad: To our eyes, the styling of the new Passat is too generic. A chase car taking photos of the car for this review often lost the vehicle in traffic because it didn't stand out. In a full afternoon of Chattanooga driving and photography, ours failed to turn many heads.
While a well-executed whole, the car has some maddening quirks. The fuel gauge moves counterclockwise, which is counterintuitive to American drivers. The shifter indicator light becomes invisible in full sunlight. Wind noise also was prevalent in our test car at highway speeds.
Here's a full breakdown from the Times Free Press test drive.
The Passat line offers three engine variants. All told there are 15 possible build combinations of the car, compared to a whopping 128 as recently as the 2008 model year. Good move. Simple is better.
VW Passat product manager Serban Boldea says the low-priced $19,995 entry-level Passat will represent a sliver of sales. Still the base engine, a 2.5-liter five-cylinder power plant made in Mexico, will be Passat's bread and butter, accounting for perhaps 75 percent of sales, the company projects. (Expect the five-cylinder Passat SE, $23,725, to be the volume leader.)
For drivers seeking more performance, there are two higher-output engines. The Polish-made TDI clean-diesel engine in our test car is a sweet power plant that ladles out power in abundance. A V-6, with class-leading 280 horsepower, also is available.
With fuel prices surging, the diesel engine could be VW's secret weapon. The Passat TDI, rated at 43 mpg highway, can go from Chattanooga to Miami on a single tank of fuel. Across the VW brand, such high-mileage TDI models now account for 22 percent of sales.
Our TDI tester scampered up the W Road on Signal Mountain and climbed North Shore hills with ease. If this is your commute home, owning a Passat TDI would be like having a season pass to Six Flags.
The turbo diesel gathers itself instantly and responds to your right foot with a kick in the pants. The volume-leading 2.5-liter, five-cylinder engine makes 170 horsepower, which is plenty for drivers who aren't as adventurous.
Handling is the Passat's strong suit. Steering is well-balanced, and steering feedback is similar to 3-series BMWs. The TDI SEL rolls on 17-inch alloy wheels mated to all-season Continental-brand tires.
The interior of the Passat is a blend of tasteful materials. Fit and finish are on par with the best in the segment. The craftsmanship throughout the car is impressive, just a notch below premium brands such as BMW and Audi. Our car was outfitted with nicely stitched tan leather seating surfaces, which were still comfortable on a blistering hot day.
The Passat is a five-passenger sedan, as opposed to VW's gorgeous CC sedan, which seats only four. The addition of 3 inches of legroom in the 2012 Passat for rear passengers is one of VW's proudest achievements. Rear headroom is a little less generous.
The Passat's cockpit is a blend of tasteful plastics that all pass the touch test. A beefy, padded steering wheel feels substantial. Higher trim levels, such as our tester, come with a premium Fender sound system. (Yes, it's the same folks who make Fender guitars).
Passat product specialist Boldea notes that unlike many premium systems that create a surround-sound effect, the Fender soundstage washes through the cockpit from front to rear, mimicking a real concert experience.
Analog gauges and switches are intuitive and easy to master - except for that backward fuel gauge. Even the base car has steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and BlueTooth connectivity for hands-free cell-phone use.
Cup holders (not a German strong suit) are well-integrated. Fischer said an adviser explained to him once that Germans - who tend to be high-speed, white-knuckle drivers - underestimate the American preoccupation with cup holders.
With millions of midsize cars sold in America each year, the segment is known for conservative, inoffensive styling. (Hyundai is an exception with its dramatic new Sonata.)
The new Passat, like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, has a solid design, which emphasizes clean lines and precision assembly. The designers are particularly fond of a character line along the shoulder of the car that emerges from the headlamps and wraps around the entire vehicle.
Even the fuel door carries the precisely aligned design crease. The obsession with this particular line is so pronounced that it begins to sound forced, like a tailor overemphasizing the crease in a pair of trousers.
The assembly line at the Chattanooga plant is programmed to shut down if body-panel fit is off by more than 1.2 millimeters. If there are any problems at all on the line, canned music plays progressively faster and louder until the problem is corrected, according to plant workers.
The fascia of the Passat has the trademark VW badge imbedded in an understated chrome grille that integrates smoothly with the headlights.
VW designer Alex Earle said the Passat was designed with strong horizontal lines to satisfy American tastes for larger cars. The corners were intentionally not tapered to convey mass, he said. (VW will continue to sell a smaller Passat in Europe.)
"[The United States] is vast and big," Earle said. "Proportions are different here."
One of the advantages of conservative styling is that it ages well. For buy-and-hold Passat owners, this is insurance against the car going stale in a few years.
When the national press visited the Chattanooga VW plant last week, company officials were grilled about quality, specifically VW's less than spectacular history with long-term durability.
One reporter asked if VW would press suppliers for reliable parts such as power-window and windshield-wiper motors.
Company officials say that having suppliers close by and strict quality-control procedures will take care of those issues. Fischer said he and other top managers take nightly test drives of freshly minted Passats to make sure quality standards are in place.
A much-quoted Consumer Reports study from 2008 data showed that a typical 8-year-old Volkswagen had three times as many problems as a typical 8-year-old Toyota. In fairness, those numbers were collected before Toyota's most recent spate of recalls.
Interestingly, VW is offering free maintenance for the first three years or 36,000 miles on the new Passat as a sales incentive. (This excludes wear parts such as tires.) Hyundai and Kia, on the other hand, have extended powertrain warranties to 100,000 miles to bolster customer confidence in their brands.
Volkswagen has reason for confidence that the Chattanooga-made Passat can command a bigger slice of the midsize market. Aggressive pricing should put Passat in the conversation among many Toyota Camry and Honda Accord customers and give existing VW Jetta drivers a logical move-up vehicle.