By FRANK A. AUKOFER Scripps Howard News - If there's anything that gets the American car buyer's antennae twitching, it's bigger and cheaper.
That describes Volkswagen's 2012 Passat, built in the U.S. in a new plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.
The existing Passat, which competes in the mid-size class against such formidable foreigners as the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry, was always more European: smaller, more oriented toward handling than ride and more expensive.
As such, it managed sales of just 12,497 in 2010, compared to 311,381 for the Accord, 327,804 for the Camry and 229,263 for the Altima. The domestic Chevrolet Malibu snagged 198,770, and the Ford Fusion's sales totaled 219,219.
With the new factory, which can build 150,000 cars a year and later up to 250,000, Volkswagen obviously has its eye on six-digit sales for the new Passat. Moreover, because it is built in the U.S., Volkswagen can maintain cut-rate prices by avoiding international currency fluctuations.
Down to just two versions for the 2010 model year as the 2012 was being developed, Volkswagen simply skipped 2011.
The 2010 is 15 feet 8 inches long with 97 cubic feet of passenger space and a trunk of 14 cubic feet. Contrast that with the new car, which is four inches longer and has 102 cubic feet of passenger space and 15 cubic feet of trunk volume.
That's obviously more in line with the competition and nearly full size. It shows in the outboard back seats, which look as if they could easily accommodate a couple of NBA basketball players. As usual in most cars, the center-rear position is compromised by a center floor hump and less padding.
The cheaper part comes when you compare prices. The 2010 Passat models each had a starting price of $27,195 with a long list of options. For 2012, seven models start at $20,765, with no individual options.
Mimicking a pioneering Honda practice, there are just 15 ways to order the seven versions, down from 128 in 2008. For example, if you specify the base S model, you get cloth upholstery, a five-speed manual gearbox and steel wheels with plastic covers. Add $2,695 for the S with the appearance package and you get the six-speed, twin-clutch automatic transmission and alloy wheels.
All Passat models get full safety equipment along with dual automatic climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, and power windows and locks.
There are three engines: the base 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter five-cylinder, a 140-horsepower, 2-liter four-cylinder turbo diesel and a 280-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6. A five-speed manual gearbox is available on the S and SE models; all others get the twin-clutch automatic.
The base gasoline four and the turbo diesel deliver similar performance in ordinary driving, although the diesel, with its higher torque rating (236 vs. 177 foot-pounds), feels stronger in some circumstances. Neither will win many drag races but both are up to daily tasks. The diesel has outstanding fuel economy of 31/43 miles to the gallon on the EPA's city/highway cycle.
VW officials point out that those numbers exceed those of any competitors' mid-size gasoline/electric hybrids. The diesel also starts instantly and runs so quietly that most people would be hard-pressed to distinguish it from the gasser.
Compared model to model, the oil burner costs $2,300 more than the five-cylinder gasoline engine and $755 more than the six-cylinder.
Driven for this review was the mid-level SE Navi model with the 170-horsepower engine, an EPA rating of 22/31 miles to the gallon and a price tag of $27,565, along with the top-of-the line diesel SEL Premium, which had a sticker of $32,965. Both had the twin-clutch automatic, which could be operated manually with the shift lever. But there were no steering-column paddle shifters.
Twin-clutch transmissions these days are state-of-the art. They operate like two separate manual gearboxes, each with a computer-controlled clutch that automatically operates the clutches. Up and down shifts snap off smoothly and instantly.
Both cars displayed fine road manners with nicely weighted steering, good cornering capability with little body lean and a suspension system that delivered a comfortable ride. The Passat is a front-wheel drive car, so it exhibits some modest under-steer, which means it tends to push forward on curves.
The SEL diesel had a classy interior with leather upholstery, wood-grain trim and sport front seats with bolsters on the seatbacks to hold the torso in place. It also came with a navigation system, a Fender premium audio system, satellite radio, power driver's seat with memory settings, and keyless ignition with remote starting.
The SE with the four-banger and the six-speed automatic came with vinyl leatherette upholstery so nice that it was difficult to distinguish it from the leather on the SEL.
Instruments and controls are logically located and mostly intuitive. The navigation system, however, had a tendency under some circumstances to forget its route.