2012 Volkswagen Passat SE TDI HD Video Review

Family sedan competition is white hot these days.  It’s no longer just a two car race, Camry and Accord have seen some true competition from Altima, Fusion, Malibu, Optima, Sonata and other mid-sized sedans.  Now there’s an all-new Passat.  How does a person choose?

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VW certainly makes a strong case for buyers to go for their sedan.  The Passat we get in the US is a special larger version than the one sold in the mother country.  Not enough?  They’ve also dropped the price and maintenance is free for the first three years (or 36,000 miles).  It’s now assembled here too, in a brand new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

But perhaps the strongest reasons is one of the three engines available- A 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine (aka TDI).  It makes 140 hp, which doesn’t sound very powerful, but I’ll address that shortly.

First let me assure buyers that modern diesels don’t spew out smoke and stench.  They are clean enough to be sold in all 50 states.  Diesel fuel is easy to find too.

2012 Volkswagen Passat 3.6SE

This engine requires AdBlue, a urea formula that scrubs the exhaust clean.  Apparently it’s similar to what your child would call “number one” but no you can’t, well… you know into the tank to save the $30 a gallon.    Here’s a link to a video that explains how it works.

Only 140 Horsepower?

Doesn’t seem like much for a big family sedan, huh?  That’s where our friend torque comes in and the TDI has a lot of it.  The two other engines, a 2.5-liter five-cylinder and VW’s 3.6-liter VR6 (any guesses to the cylinder count?) that pumps out 280 horsepower and drinks premium fuel.  Lets compare numbers.

TDI = 140 HP @ 4,000 RPM, torque 236 l-ft @ 1750 RPM

2.5-liter = 170 hp @ 5700 RPM, torque 177 lb-ft @ 4250 RPM

VR6 = 280 hp @ 6200 RPM, torque 258 lb-ft @ 2500

Notice that the TDI develops its horsepower earlier in the powerband and that the substantial torque is fully available practically right off the line?  That’s what gives diesels their beefy satisfying feeling.  So the TDI has a big advantage in that regard over the five-cylinder (and much better fuel economy than the six).  It’s surprising that Americans haven’t fully embraced diesel engines since there’s lots of oomph on hills and when passing on two-lane roads.  Hustling to 60 miles an hour in about 8.6 seconds, power certainly feels more substantial than 140 horses.

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Guilt Free Power

Not only is the TDI enjoyable to drive, it lets owners pass by gas stations more often.  The EPA rates Passat TDI at 31 city 43 highway.  Without trying too hard I saw 33/50.  As you see in the video, driving complexly normal without babying the gas pedal when pulling away from stop signs gets a guy 30 MPG.  Impressive.  The guy who delivered the press car to me claimed he drove it from San Francisco to Seattle on one tank.

You’ll hear the distinctive diesel grumble, especially at idle but think of it as the soundtrack to saving money.  Passat’s ride quality is set toward comfortable with good capable cornering.  Neither a performance sedan or a waterbed, this German has developed a thick American accent.  Before you sneer, don’t forget that the US brands have become quite good when it comes to ride quality and that this is a family sedan, not a Panamera.

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The quick shifting DSG 6-speed dual-clutch automatic aggressively looks for the highest gear possible, maybe too high occasionally.  At 30 MPH the tach reads 1,500 and occasionally it sounds as if the engine is bogging down a little.  Consider it the sound of savings.  Shifts are very quick and sure, I really like this gearbox and yes it gets a manual mode.  TDI can be ordered with a six-speed manual transmission too.  Note that 2.5-liter engines get a five-speed manual and the automatic is not a dual-clutch box.  VR6 is not available with a manual.

Spread Out

Passat’s roomy cabin has a restrained modern appearance, in this case there’s loads of aluminum-like trim.  There’s also wood-like trim.  Materials look good, and pieces like the door handles and soft instrument panel top feel good too.  Heated seats are broad, minimally bolstered and covered in easy to care for synthetic leather (really, it’s great stuff).  Turn a knob for the climate control system (dual zone BTW) and the big screen graphic appears to show what you’re doing.

2012 Volkswagen Passat 3.6SE

Tunes sound good through the Fender, yes Fender branded audio system.  The optional nav system is easy to understand though the screen requires a very deliberate touch and some of the knob control lags behind the display.  Normally a screen this large and crisp gets a back up camera.  That’s missing here.

If you buy your cars based on cubbyholes this one should be on your list.  There’s storage all over, plus all of the cupholders can handle my big coffee mug Godzilla without a problem.  How American is that?  Phones and iPods are supported though check the special interface cable before leaving the dealership, my example didn’t seat well at all.

2012 Volkswagen Passat 3.6SE

The back seat has loads of legroom, VW claims there’s four and a half inches more of it than in a Hyundai Sonata.  Again, the cushion is on the flat side which makes the center position more usable.  And again, lots of storage, which is great for families.  No power port or climate vents though.  Dogs won’t like the fact that the windows only roll down about two-thirds of the way down.

Bringing Up The Rear

Trunks are measured in cubic feet but do you put cubic feet in a trunk?  Probably not.  In the end, it’s the big stuff that counts which is why I do the TP trunk test test.  Passat’s trunk is large yet average in class at seven bundles of Kirkland’s best.  Watch the hinge arms though, they can squish things when you close the lid.  Worth noting, drop the split seatbacks and the pass-though is very large and useful.

2012 Volkswagen Passat 3.6SE

The folks at VW are kind enough give buyers a spare tire, these days a simple repair kit is becoming common.  The AdBlue tank is filled here, which is necessary for the emissions system.  Looks easy enough to do on your own.  Understand that once you run out you get a limited number of starts before the system effectively says “sorry, we warned you” and will refuse to start.

Style to Spare or Style is Spare?

Passat is not a flashy looking car, it appears the designers had a contest to see who could use the fewest lines. The ones that got used are arranged in a tasteful way.  Some might see this sedan as plain, I find it modern and clean with a dose of anonymity.  In some ways it looks like a supersized Jetta, the C pillar reminds me a bit of Chevy Impala.

A bit of trivia for your next party- The name Passat comes from either the name of a four-masted steel ship that sailed back in 1911 OR a kind of trade wind.  I’m guessing the ship was named after the wind so that’s where my money is.

A base five-cylinder Passat has an MSRP of just $20,765 (with destination) gets standard dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth, and steering wheel audio controls along with a five-speed manual.  Price of entry for the Passat TDI is $26,765 with the six-speed manual transmission.  Add 2 grand for the automatic.  The TDI costs about $2,300 more than the 2.5 and $750 less than the VR6.

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Yes, diesel fuel costs more and there’s AdBlue fluid to pay for but what drivers are getting is a choice.  The way I see it, hybrids shine in stop and go city driving, diesels excel on the open road. Just as important to some, the diesel dynamic is satisfying to drive..  Study your driving habits and choose which one works for you.  TDI is a powerful argument that Volkswagen has aimed diesels and the Passat straight at Americans.

FULL GALLERY BELOW.  ALL STILL PHOTOS PROVIDED BY VOLKSWAGEN. CAR PICTURED IS 3.6 VR6 MODEL.

20 Comments

  1. hoyej6 says:

    I like the review. I have this car on my short list. More room than the other TDIs. I have a120 mile daily commute which is almost all highway. I like the mileage of hybrids but the highway does not seem oriented to them and my last two cars went over 200K. Is the SEL interior much nicer, if I have to spend 2 hours a day win the car I want all the options? How is highway noise level?

    • TV says:

      I remember it as relatively quiet. Highway mileage was excellent. I have only seen the one model so that’s a decision you’ll have to make. Sorry!

  2. juanba_racing says:

    My father owns a VW passat. The vr6 of the previews edition. Beautiful car, good interior, nice leather seats, reliable mechanics, good amounto of power, and excelent transmision with the 6-speed automatic DSG (love the manual paddle shifters on the steering wheel!) what a woderful tramy that is. Not the top of the line car in the segment, a bit behind the BMW 5 series or the AUDI’s A6, but though a great car anyway, and much cheaper too! fully loaded, only 48 grands paid cash

    Talking about the TDI, here in Argentina the diesel fuel it’s quite cheaper than gasoline (less than 3 dollars per galon) and also high quality, it meets european standard regulations.
    Diesel cars are more and more popular every day, and the high range they have both city and highway, make them a good buy on economic yet practical transportation, regardless the model you’re buying.. Strangely, diesel cars only represents less than 20% of the automotive park fleet. Come to think about it, it’s win-win all the way around. But you know, seems like the powerful petrol engines are here to stay, and we argentines feel like having a nice big engine under the hood with lots of HP, can’t be removed from one day to another. In my case, just like americans, the sound of a huge internal combustion motor, or even a little but turbochared one, it’s at my top favorits, inmediatly after a football match (or soccer for you) and a sunday evening with a good “asado” (kinda BBQ, but argentine style)

    Excelent review on a very good car, and now even cheaper!!! Never excepted less of the peoples car….

  3. K G says:

    VWs drive pretty nicely. I saw the base Passat at a local car show. My wife liked it a lot. Having low light vision issues, I need a bright, contrasty IP/dash. VWs are very dark, and monochrome; exactly opposite of what I need. I took out a Jetta, and the thin, red backlit controls were impossible for my eyes to focus on. Once learned that would not be an issue.

    At $19k for the base Passat, I think it’s a great deal. Also think the base price on the Jetta or the lease deal (sign and drive) is/was pretty good, too.

    I just will have an IMPOSSIBLE time getting my butt out of my near 50mpg Prius (first year 2001) and into anything else. Still good deals on used Prii at Autotrader.com and such. My first year has no squeaks or rattles and is a trooper.

    The VW with TDI and double clutch gearbox is a very odd combination (for many USAmericans) to drive. Very low revs, and slam-shifting makes for an experience almost as unique as the Smart car’s “trunk monkey shifting” feeling. So, I can see where Fiesta owners complained about Ford’s dual clutch feel, because it’s so radically different than the torque converter smooth slipping/shifting we were brought up on.

  4. hallr7 says:

    I still think VW has a ways to go before they can get me to buy one, but so far this car is making a good argument. I’m a younger driver and the Optima is more my style right now but i’m not sure if the VW here has better value in the long run. Love the gas millage, Hybrids have always been an issue with me, as much as I want one, I hate the idea of how the huge batteries are not any better for the environment then just driving the gas version. Diesel seems to be the way to go for now. And on that note, can you grab the Tesla S for a review, I would like to see your take on it.

  5. raschmidt says:

    This Passat looks all right now, but it’s extremely boring to look at. Like you said, reminds me alot of an Impala….yaaaaaaawwwwn. I think VW is planning to hit the Accord and Camry hard with this, though it looks horribly dated (I felt the same way about the Jetta) compared to the (New) Fusion, Optima, Sonata, and even a bit dated compared to all of the Japanese offerings.

    I thought after the Sonata and Optima came out, family sedans would start to get daring and they’d all try out some new designs. Turns out I don’t know much about the midsize sedan market.

  6. vwmatt33 says:

    I will pay or a hat!!

    • TV says:

      As a few people around here can tell you I’ve had trouble getting the free ones out, let alone trying figure out someway to pay for them. A suggestion? Keep posting regularly… Welcome to the site!

  7. vwmatt33 says:

    I drove this TDI before I got my CC. I loved the low end torque! I’ve never cared for hybrids and believe diesels are far superior! I wish the USA would get on the diesel bandwagon! Tom, great job again!

  8. Ken says:

    I will take a TDI VW anyday anywhere over a hybrid.

  9. JF says:

    Great review Tom, as always. Very practical! I was curious, did you contact VW to know if we’ll get a wagon version? Keep up the good work.

    • TV says:

      I do not believe there will be a wagon for us in the land of the free. Too bad, I can see it looking pretty good.

  10. intotheoh says:

    Only the Passat requires adblue due to the additional weight being tugged around.

    Easily the best family sedan available right now…but I see a ford fusion on the horizon.

    • intotheoh says:

      also I believe the adblue is filled for free for the first three years…i believe

      • TV says:

        Considering all maintenance is paid for for the first three years (or 36K miles) I assume that is true as well. Another thing to check…

  11. kay3460 says:

    Does the Golf TDI require adblue? There are two things that keep me away from considering diesel engines: one is the weight balance (hybrids have better weight distribution) and the second is adblue/urea formula – it seems like a hassle in the long run. This is not even considering diesel prices nowadays.

    BTW: what happen to the hat? I’m still eagerly awaiting for my boutique hat – the evil twin better not have misplaced it!

    • motorstreet says:

      The Golf TDI does not have adblue. I have the adblue system in my Touareg TDI. It is not a hassle at all, because it only needs to be refilled every about 10,000 miles. Diesel prices in my area are lower than premium and only about $.15 per gallon higher than 87. I save over $1000 a year in fuel costs with my Golf TDI compared to a GTI and I save about $2000 a year in my Touareg TDI compared to the Land Rover it replaced.

    • TV says:

      The last time I did a Jetta it did not require AdBlue, I’ll have to check if that has changed for 2012. I’m trying to get an answer from VW about how much it uses, will put it in the written review when I find out. It’s very easy to fill, hardly a hassle if you enjoy the driving dynamic of the engine.

      Sorry, I have dropped the ball on hats. Life has become a little complicated, will send them next week when I dig out. My apologies.

  12. ridgview says:

    Enjoyed the VW Passat TDI video. Tom, your performance on these videos are “spot on and well produced”. I love the “Evil Twin” gag the best. Your use of Toilet tissue as a standard for trunk/cargo space is something I think the average joe can get a real world feel as to its’ utility. Keep it up and look froward to all your videos from my podcast.

  13. motorstreet says:

    Great review! I prefer the manual transmission in the VW TDI’s, but it sounds like the DSG works well with the TDI engine. Your fuel economy was very similar to what I get, but I have seen over 55mpg on highway trips. I have driven a Jetta 2.5 and I think my Golf TDI feels much stronger and more powerful than the 2.5.