Test Drive: 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI

Volkswagen's largest sedan gets a major makeover: roomy, frugal, and smooth-performing, especially with Clean Diesel power

Update: 2013 Passat TDI

by James M. Flammang

2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI SEL

Just about everyone can recognize a Volkswagen Beetle. Most of us are aware of the popular Jetta, and perhaps the Golf and its sporty GTI offshoot. Despite being part of the VW lineup since 1990, however, the Passat - VW's largest sedan model - hasn't received as much attention. Actually, the Passat dates back further yet, to its Dasher ancestor that arrived in the mid-1970s.

Even so, Passats have racked up respectable sales totals in the American market all along. Therefore, Volkswagen has high hopes for the newly-designed 2012 model.

Officially a midsize but sizable in appearance, the 2012 Passat has been specifically designed for the North American market. While providing "premium features uniquely offered in the U.S.," the 2012 Passat "maintains the dynamic character that is expected of a Volkswagen," according to the company.

Built on a 110.4-inch wheelbase, the 2012 Passat is 191.7 inches long overall. That compares to a 106.7-inch wheelbase and 188.2-inch length for the previous model.

Placed on sale in summer 2011, Passats are offered with a choice of three engines and three transmissions. With the TDI edition, Volkswagen claims the only "clean diesel" option in this market segment. Topping the lineup in fuel economy, the Passat TDI gets an estimated "best-in-class" 43 mpg on the highway, with a range of 795 miles.

Volkswagen marketers tell about a dealer who drove a TDI Passat from Seattle to San Francisco - 799 miles - and had one-eighth of a tank of fuel left at the end, having enjoyed fuel economy averaging in the mid-50s.

Class-leading rear-seat legroom is another benefit of the Passat, which is built at Volkswagen's new factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Prior Passats hailed from Germany.

The 2.5L model with manual shift and 170 horsepower comes in eight equipment levels, with standard automatic dual-zone climate control and Bluetooth connectivity, as well as steering-wheel audio controls. SE models add such extras as 17-inch alloy wheels, an eight-way power driver's seat, heated front seats, touchscreen Premium VIII radio, and six-speed manual transmission. Volkswagen's automatic six-speed DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) transmission, with dual-clutch operation, is optional.

Volkswagen offers three versions of the 3.6L VR6 edition, with a 280-horsepower engine and the six-speed DSG transmission. Standard VR6 features include 18-inch alloy wheels, comfort sport seats, a sunroof, and Fender Premium Audio System.

Getting the most notice is the Passat TDI "clean diesel," which comes in two levels. The SE edition has 17-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats, touchscreen Premium VIII radio, and a six-speed manual transmission. The DSG transmission is optional. Moving up to an SEL Premium TDI model adds leather seating surfaces, keyless access and remote start, navigation, a driver's seat memory, woodgrain interior decor, eight-way power passenger seat, and interior chrome accents.

Passat TDI delivers smooth, easy, and economical driving experience, along with plenty of interior space

Though substantial in size, the 2012 Passat is an especially easy - and satisfying - car to drive. Particularly in TDI form, it's also a pleasantly frugal automobile, flaunting a highway fuel-economy estimate that even beats the company's smaller Jetta TDI sedan - though only by 1 mpg.

Not only does the Clean Diesel engine perform admirably, yielding smooth and enthusiastic acceleration from both startup and for passing/merging, it does so with no telltale evidence of diesel power. Gone is the residual engine clatter that's signaled the presence of most modern-day diesels. Odors are extinct, too. Apart from a slight buzziness that can be heard while accelerating, occupants discern nothing that demonstrates that a diesel engine is in charge.

Ride comfort is hard to beat, and the easy-steering Passat handles with a satisfying feel and a serious sense of purpose. Virtually nothing seems to shake the Passat away from its intended course, whether on a straight expressway or making its way through curves and corners.

With the TDI edition, at least, flaws are difficult to unearth and relegated to relatively minor details.

Passat prices start at $19,995 (plus a $770 destination charge) for the 2.5L S model with five-speed manual shift. The Passat TDI SE stickers for $25,995, and the 3.6L SE goes for $28,995. Topping the line are the TDI SEL Premium at $32,195 and the 3.6L SEL Premium for $32,950.

2013 Update: Only a few details changed for the 2013 model year. SE and SEL models get new air vents for rear passenger, a reworked console, and modified cupholders. Driving Impressions are unchanged: the 2013 Passat remains roomy, smooth-riding, and economical with the TDI diesel engine and manual shift. We averaged close to 35 mpg in ordinary suburban driving.

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Text and photos by James M. Flammang