There's no question that Volkswagen is thinking big. The German automaker says it wants to sell 800,000 cars in the United States by 2018. To that end, it has opened a large plant in Tennessee. That brings us to the midsize Passat, of which someone asked Lyra: "They still make that?" Yes, and VW is churning out the sedans in Chattanooga.
Appearance: VW has completely redesigned the Passat for 2012, bumping up the size, but not the starting price. In terms of style, the Passat doesn't stray far from Midsize Sedan 101 — it's handsome yet somewhat bland, much like one of its main competitors, the Honda Accord. There are a few chiseled lines in the hood and body, and chrome trim, to add some visual interest. The front design is an improvement — VW dropped the accent underneath the horizontal grille. We liked the upswept headlamps and wraparound fog lights. Lyra thought the taillights were a little small for a car of this size.
Performance: It's clear that VW is targeting the U.S. market because the Passat finds the sweet spot for the consumer who wants a comfortable ride and plenty of choices for powerplant and trims. To Peter, the Passat punches above its weight when it comes to ride. The soft suspension contributes to a big-car feel that is solid and planted on the road and responds well to steering commands. Then there's the choice of three engines in the Passat lineup: a base 2.5-liter 5-cylinder, 2.0-liter turbo diesel or the stout 3.6-liter, 280-horsepower V-6 that was in our tester. (The smaller engines also can be paired with a manual transmission.) The six-speed DSG automatic is a good match for the V-6's rapid acceleration, shifting quickly and precisely. There also are Tiptronic and Sport modes for a more energetic drive.
Interior: There is a lot of head- and legroom in the quiet cabin, especially in the expansive backseat, which can accommodate three adults without them feeling claustrophobic. The leather-trimmed seats, which feature suedelike inserts, are comfortable and well-padded, although Peter wishes the driver's side was adjustable in more than six ways. The rear seats also are deep and slightly reclined, a touch we really appreciate. One area where you can see the cost savings is in some controls and surfaces, which don't have an upscale feel. Still, the layout is simple and intuitive. Our tester had the new Fender audio system. Maybe we didn't really put it to the test, but we didn't detect anything Hendrixian about the sound. Going on a trip? The trunk is huge for a midsize car, with 15.9 cubic feet of cargo space and 60/40 seatbacks that fold down for hauling long items. Some nits: The voice-recognition system didn't work well for Lyra, and the ignition button is flat on the console next to the shifter instead of on the dash.
Our 3 favorites
Solid: VW has had some reliability issues in the past, but the Passat feels solid and the doors close with a thud. Time will tell.
Ride: It's built for comfort, not sportiness.
Interior: I like the Teutonic approach.
Mature look: Simple yet elegant with clean lines.
Space: Lots of it in the cabin and trunk.
Free is good: No-cost scheduled maintenance, covered for three years or 36,000 miles.
The bottom line: The thing that surprised us most about the Volkswagen Passat was its big-car ride. For those bemoaning the demise of large sedans, here's a worthy substitute. It's a roomy and comfortable family sedan.