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Bigger and Better

The 2012 Volkswagen Passat

Regular readers of this space know I’m not especially fond of model updates which proclaim “Longer! Lower! Wider!” But today I’m making an exception. There will be no rants about the size of VW’s new Passat. Yes, it’s bigger, but in this case it makes total sense. The new Passat is so different from the previous model I’m surprised they didn’t give it a new name.

VW is on a mission to become the world’s largest automobile manufacturer, surpassing both Toyota (the current number one) and General Motors. The fact that that might happen this year comes with an asterisk or two: the tsunami in Japan, which put a real damper on Toyota’s output, coupled with recent flooding in Thailand, which has also closed a large assembly plant. Expect Toyota to return to number one status next year, but expect VW to continue closing the gap.

One of the aces up their sleeve is this new Passat. It’s unique to the North American market, as the previous model Passat will still be sold in the rest of the world. But here in America, it’s now poised to compete with the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord in both size, features, and price. I don’t see why it shouldn’t succeed. If it doesn’t catch them, it’ll certainly close the gap somewhat.

And here’s why: First, the styling, although not overly exciting, is spot-on for its intended market. Most family sedans don’t have the “Hey look at me!” styling of, say, the Chrysler 300. The new Passat is quietly handsome. Second, the advantage of VW’s renowned interior quality. Read any automotive magazine comparison test which includes a VW and you’ll see the raves on the fit and finish of just about every VW on the market. Third, price. Doing a comparison (on Honda’s website) of a similarly equipped Toyota Camry LE, Honda Accord LX, and the Passat S, the VW comes in at $20,890. The Camry and Accord are $24,615 and $22,950 respectively. Finally, the availability of a diesel engine. Yes, diesel fuel costs a bit more, but with EPA averages of 30/40 city/highway miles per gallon, for a car this size it’s a big plus. Intruding into hybrid territory even.

Besides all that, one other thing really impressed me about the Passat: the back seat. While growing up my parents had many large American cars with huge back seats. The Passat has brought that back. With the front seat pushed back to fit my six-foot frame, I climbed into the back and my knees were nowhere near the front seat, nor did I have to bury my feet under there. Head room was also good front and rear (although the test car’s sunroof does intrude a bit there). My test car was the 2.0L TDI SEL in a gorgeous black with beige leather. The diesel is VW’s new Clean Diesel technology; childhood memories of your eccentric neighbor’s Mercedes-Benz diesel, which you could hear coming a block away and whose rear bumper and trunk were covered in a layer of black soot, are just that—a memory. If it weren’t for the passing-by of so many filling stations you’d never know you were driving a diesel. The TDI also comes with VW’s six-speed DSG automatic, a double-clutch transmission which, as John Schmitt of Schmitt’s Volkswagen explained to me, is really like a manual transmission which shifts itself. It’s very smooth and responsive, and aids in increasing fuel economy.

All 2012 Passats are built in VW’s brand-new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Pricing for the Passat S with a five-speed manual transmission starts at $19,995. The test car TDI with DSG and sunroof starts at $27,895. A lot of bang for your buck.

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Read more of Jim Corbran's You Auto Know every other week in Artvoice, and more frequently on Artvoice Daily.

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