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2012 Volkswagen Passat SEL review: 2012 Volkswagen Passat SEL

2012 Volkswagen Passat SEL

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
5 min read

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2012 Volkswagen Passat SEL

2012 Volkswagen Passat SEL

2012 Volkswagen Passat SEL

The Good

The Fender audio system in the <b>2012 Volkswagen Passat</b> should set it above the crowd for music lovers. The navigation, stereo, and phone interfaces are uncomplicated and easy to use.

The Bad

The navigation system has a separate map view for traffic data, and does not give text-to-speech turn-by-turn directions. Cabin tech is mostly relegated to higher, more expensive trim levels.

The Bottom Line

The 2012 Volkswagen Passat is mostly a very average car, suitable for its segment, but offers a stand-out audio system and exterior styling that sets it apart from the competition.

The entire midsize sedan segment caters to economy- and safety-minded suburban families. These cars need to get one or two adults to work on weekdays, make shopping runs on the weekend, and carry the family to grandma's house. And considering the high demand in the segment, midsize sedans meet much of America's needs.

These requirements are a perfect formula for boring cars that shy from expressive design or envelope-pushing technology. But the 2012 Volkswagen Passat manages to step over the line slightly. It still meets the needs of the modern American family, but does it with a little more style than is absolutely necessary.

Volkswagen is promulgating a new design language on its latest models, first seen on the 2011 Jetta. On the Passat, this design language begins to stand out, employing a pronounced geometry around the car. The beltline runs down the car with a sharply protruding angle, which highlights the squared-off windshield and back glass. It is a nice change from the lightly curved midsize sedan designs of Toyota, Nissan, and Honda.

Sound by Fender
At its upper trim levels, the Passat pushes almost into the premium sedan segment, with refined cabin materials that feel good to the touch. Most impressive is the Fender audio system, standard on the SEL trim Passat, which we find is the best system available in the segment.

Yes, Fender, the company famous for its guitars. Volkswagen partnered with Fender, getting it to design an audio system. Using nine Panasonic speakers in the cabin, this system produces excellent depth and detail. We were blown away by its ability to expose all the tones produced by plucking a single guitar string.

The little Fender logos on the Passat's dashboard signify an impressive audio system.

Drumbeats were studio-perfect, sharp or soft depending on how they were played and recorded. The system didn't leave out the sustain from piano keys, and made vocals warm and clear. The only problem with the system was the staging, which placed music too low, down below the dashboard.

Volkswagen makes a good number of audio sources available to feed this system in the new Passat. Along with Bluetooth streaming audio, Volkswagen includes what it calls the Media Device Interface (MDI), technology that's trickled down from Audi that includes a proprietary port with adapter cables for iPod, USB drives, and other digital audio sources.

The iPod interface offers the usual ability to select music by artist, album, genre, and song. The Bluetooth audio interface is, as is typical in most cars, devoid of much control or feedback. You have to select music from the paired device. Other sources include satellite and HD Radio.

These audio interfaces play out on a touch screen, part of the Passat's RNS-510 navigation system. Volkswagen does a good job of keeping its interface uncluttered, but the touch screen shows a little lag. There were moments where we were about to double-tap a button because it didn't seem to have registered on the first touch. A Volkswagen representative assures us that any lag in the touchscreen has been addressed in a new software update to the infotainment system.

The navigation screen looks good, but won't show traffic data in this 3D view.

The navigation system uses colorful, easy-to-read maps with good route guidance graphics. But it has a couple of oddities. For example, it offers three views: 2D, 3D, and traffic. The traffic view overlays incidents and traffic flow data on the map, but only shows in 2D format. The car will not show traffic when the map is in its 3D view.

Zoom levels also show a large gap between the closest and the next step out. The closest zoom is listed as 75 feet, while the next out is 700 feet. An intermediary level would be nice. The voice prompts also lack text-to-speech, so the system cannot read out street names.

But it showed a good ability to stick to the roads as we lost the GPS signal while driving through dense woods. Instead of letting the position of the car wander over the map when it lost signal, the system appeared to lock the location to the road it had been tracking, and used the speed of the car to maintain an estimate of position.

Five cylinders, six speeds
The Passat's engine specifications read a little oddly compared with other cars in this segment, but its driving character is perfectly in line. With its six-speed automatic transmission, the 2012 Passat makes it easy to jump in and go with as little fuss as possible.

It does offer slightly more driving engagement than the competition, with steering that responds just a little more sharply to wheel input. That tuning comes thanks to the Passat's European roots, as cars there tend to be made more responsive to cope with narrow, medieval streets and the occasional cathedral in the roadway.

The Passat comes with a 6-speed automatic that lets you choose gears manually.

Driven over city and mountain roads, the Passat proved easily maneuverable, even at speed. Volkswagen sticks with a hydraulic power steering system, rather than the electric systems being adopted by other automakers. As a front-wheel-drive car, it does not exactly drive sportily, but it still felt quite stable when stressed in the turns.

Making only 170 horsepower and a 177 pound-feet of torque, the 2.5-liter engine won't tear the tread off the front tires. And it is a five-cylinder, an oddity compared with all the four-cylinder engines with similar displacement and power from competitors.

To keep the Passat affordable, Volkswagen does not exploit direct injection or turbocharging, both technologies it uses in other cars. Variable valve timing is all this coach gets. And while those technologies might have given it better fuel economy or more power, its mundane engine fits in well with the segment.

Its EPA-rated fuel economy comes in at 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway, and we found no difficulty hitting the middle of that range through our driving course. Although these numbers are not spectacular, they're competitive in the segment.

In sum
With the 2012 Passat, Volkswagen came up with a competitive midsize sedan that doesn't, however, distinguish itself from the herd. Buyers test-driving multiple cars in this segment might feel comforted by the mundane specifications and technologies of the Passat, which might be Volkswagen's strategy.

At its higher trim levels, the Passat costs substantially more than its base, but that is the only way to get navigation and the excellent Fender audio system. But these higher trim levels don't mean better engine technology. At the almost 30 grand of our test car, it will have to compete against hybrids and cars with direct injection. Still, buyers looking beyond the comforts of the segment might consider the Passat TDI, or the VR6 version.

Tech specs
Model2012 Volkswagen Passat
Power train2.5-liter, 5-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy22 mpg city / 31 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy26.5 mpg
NavigationOptional flash-memory-based with traffic
Bluetooth phone supportStandard, with contact list download
Disc playerMP3-compatible single-CD player
MP3 player supportiPod integration
Other digital audioBluetooth audio, USB drive, Mini-USB, auxiliary audio input, satellite radio, HD radio
Audio systemFender 9-speaker system
Driver aidsNone
Base price$28,395
Price as tested$29,165
2012 Volkswagen Passat SEL

2012 Volkswagen Passat SEL

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 6Performance tech 6Design 7


Available Engine GasBody style Sedan