Seven or eight years ago, we had a Volkswagen Phaeton at the office. There were a couple of tenants in the building where we were who were “financial advisors,” but these two guys were not the yellow-tie, heavily greased hair and suspenders types. These two, both in their late 50s or early 60s, had made it the hard way, it seemed. So one day when the Phaeton was parked out back, both of them came out and asked if they could take a look at it. So they spent a few minutes checking it out both inside and out. And one of them whistled in a way that signifies “Gee whiz.” Both were impressed. But they went on to say that they had a hard time figuring that the car was a Volkswagen. They climbed into their Cadillac DTSes and drove off.
The problem was not in the car but in the perception of what a “Volkswagen” is. And a Volkswagen, so far as a considerable number of American are concerned—to say nothing of those elsewhere in the world, where cars tend not to be Super-Sized—is something that is small, and possibly quirky (in an engaging way).
The 2012 Volkswagen Passat is not the Phaeton.
But it is Phaeton-like from the standpoint that it is not what one would expect (1) as a “Volkswagen” or (2) if they were at all familiar with Passats of yore.
For one thing, while many people might imagine that Volkswagens are all built in Wolfsburg or some other German burg—they’re not, not by a long shot—there is one thing that is considerably different about the 2012 Passat: It is built at a state-of-the-art, Platinum LEED-certified plant, in a decidedly non-German sounding locale: Chattanooga, Tennessee. As of last week they’ve produced 100,000 of the midsize sedans in the factory.
Volkswagen unabashedly admits that “The 2012 Passat is unique in the Volkswagen family in that it was designed and specifically tailored for American tastes and American lifestyles”—yes, we do like our midsize sedans, and have a penchant for carrying people and stuff for purposes of our lifestyles—“So the cabin of the all-new Passat delivers space, and plenty of it.” It has seating for five, 102-cubic-feet of passenger volume, and a capacious 15.9-cubic-foot trunk. Part of our lifestyle is, presumably, making runs for provisions at Costco. When announcing that it was the Motor Trend Car of the Year for 2012, then-editor Angus Mackenzie remarked, “Chassis, steering, ride, and handling all are tastiest within this segment.” The gustatory adjective seems somewhat appropriate in this car for “American tastes.” European Passat owners, however, would probably imagine that anabolic steroids were involved somewhere in the development program.
This is not to suggest that this is some sort of enormous car that could get appropriate product placement in The Biggest Loser. Not at all.
But it is to make the point that it is an atypical Volkswagen, one that might be overlooked by midsize consumers who figure that Volkswagen products (well, maybe not the Touareg, but then as they can’t pronounce the name of the SUV, many overlook it: fewer than 8,000 were sold in the U.S. in 2011) are comparatively small. The Passat is not small. It is regular.
Let me point out at this juncture, from the point of view of design, one of my favorite sedans out there right now that ordinary mortals can afford to buy is the Volkswagen CC. From a design point of view, the Volkswagen Passat is not one of my favorite cars for the simple reason that it looks too much like a generic midsize car. While this will probably prevent me from ever again entering Germany or Chattanooga, I’ve got to say that there is something of the last generation Hyundai Sonata. Yes, it is crisper and more geometric in shape and form, but up against, say, the current-generation Ford Fusion, it is, well, more like that Sonata. Entschuldigen Sie, bitte.
But let me try to recover by agreeing with the afore-quoted Mr. Mackenzie and say that I agree that the chassis, steering, ride, and handling are all well executed, although I sometimes found the 170-hp 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine to be a bit reluctant when accelerating hard, as in merging onto a freeway or even going onto a major surface street from a side street. (“Wait a minute!” you’re thinking. “An in-line five cylinder engine? And you said this car wasn’t quirky?” Well, yes, that is a bit outside the norm of midsize sedans; you usually get to choose from four or six, and the Passat is available with both, a 3.6-liter 280-hp six and a 2.0-liter 140-hp turbocharged diesel four.) But the beauty of the engine is that it provides EPA estimated fuel consumption of 22/31 mpg city/highway, and the car easily exceeded that for me, particularly in highway driving.
From an interior point of view, the materials are pretty much what one has come to expect from the German manufacturers; they have a way with graining and with achieving a substantial feel to things like even the turn signal stalk that others could still go to school on.
One of the most famous ads of the second half of the 20th century was created for Volkswagen by agency Doyle Dane Bernbach.
With the Passat, the advice would be different.
Engine: 2.5-liter inline five
Material: Cast iron block and aluminum head
Horsepower: 170 @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: 177 lb-ft @ 4,250 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 110.4 in.
Length: 191.6 in.
Width: 72.2 in.
Height: 58.5 in.
Curb weight: 3,221 lb.
EPA: 22/31 mpg city/hwy