Readers with elephantine memories will recall that when Alex Ritman reviewed the 2010 Jetta on these pages he was surprised by the level of attention that the denizens of San Francisco lavished on the little Vee Dub. Maybe it just stands out in my memory since I was born nearby, but navigating the alternately sunny and, within minutes, foggy roads of Northern California, Ritman was greeted by glad-handing Jetta enthusiasts at every turn.
While the mighty Golf, in its various iterations, enjoys great popularity in Europe and the UK, its popularity in the US is undercut by a long love affair with the sprightly Jetta saloon, the best-selling VW in the United States. Maybe it's that success that inspired Wolfsburg to redesign the venerable Passat for the US market. And while this supposedly Americanised car was designed in Wolfsburg, I travelled to Chattanooga, Tennessee to drive the Passat in the (oddly named) land of its birth.
For some reason the 2012 Passat didn't quite receive the kind of notoriety along my test-drive route that Ritman experienced back in 2010. The various squirrels, deer and raccoons that populate the Tennessee countryside showed no interest in the shining car as it zipped through pastoral landscapes and down Rockwellian main streets. The birds only seemed to notice when they were forced to scatter out of my way and, whileI don't mean to suggest that human beings weren't interested, they were mostly driving tractors or bailing hay so it's hard to know what, if anything, they made of the car.
I, for one, quite like it — but there's something you should know, dear petrol-headed reader: we here in the UAE won't be seeing anything bigger than a 2.5-litre MPI five-cylinder engine in the Passat for some time. OK, so a certain number of you just turned the page and, er, aren't reading this. But despite my own hurt feelings, VW is certainly OK with that, as those of you who stopped listening after the 2.5-litre spec aren't the demographic that this car is aimed at — at least not right now. VW wants to, and well could become, the biggest carmaker in the world, and that's going to take some wily strategy.
In its initial iteration, the new Passat is aimed squarely at the (already ailing?) Camry, hoping to unseat, or at least make uncomfortable, the world's most popular saloon. Actually, this is nothing new — the Accord just keeps getting weirder/more interesting looking, as Hyundai pushes out a message of quality and reliability formerly locked up by Japan. Every major manufacturer wants a bigger slice of the B segment. But what none of the Asian makes can touch is the essential European-ness of the Passat, which has long appealed to certain types of buyers and, despite being built in the US, for the most part (the engine travels up from Mexico by rail) the new Passat still has a slight accent and probably wears lederhosen in certain company.
The car evinces that VW gestalt that is both modern and classic, while still utilitarian and approachable. Sure, it's not as sexy as the CC, which now occupies the upper echelon of the VW saloon range, a place where V6 full-option Passats formerly resided. But for the vast majority of car buyers, leading with their wallet but following with their emotions, the Passat will speak to more than a few of us.
Behind the wheel, my first thought (nearly always when driving a new VW) is of Audi because, while there's definitely a difference, the nicer Vee Dubs are seemingly always that much closer to the trim level of last year's Audis, to the extent that Audi may someday have to start adding precious gems or metals to the dashboard in an effort to keep an edge on their less expensive cousins. Of course there's still a gap, and the new Passat isn't as well appointed as the CC or Touareg, which I find quite superlative in their top-trim levels. And yet, even the leatherette interior offered by the base model Passat is a good deal nicer than the fabric-covered seats of old with their bizarre, yet somewhat appealing patterns.
Under the hot, southern sky I drove the SEL edition, which is only really differentiated from the top-tier Sport edition by slightly more matronly rims and the lack of a couple features. Nonetheless, the SE offers an excellent Fender sound system, as well as a navigation/infotainment system that paired easily with my iPhone, allowing me to bring all my own music and podcasts along for the ride — a feature I have long maintained is a basic expectation for any luxury car and that I'm glad to see here in the not quite luxurious, and now more affordable than ever Passat. Going on a test-drive event is a bit like taking a road trip, so it's always best to have decent entertainment for the ride.
In honour of American excess, the new Passat is longer, compared with previous models, with the wheelbase increased by 3.7in, affording an extra inch of legroom in the front and 1.4in in the rear. This is surely the more utilitarian route VW could have taken, but it bears mentioning that a more fitting tribute to the US would be to make the car… wait for it… wider.
Not that I'm complaining; the newPassat offers more legroom than eitherthe Camry or the Accord, and we long-legged types appreciate it. I did find that I had to adjust the length of the steering column in order to get really comfortable behind the wheel, so it's nice to know you have the option. One word to the wise — you probably want to avoid doing this while driving.
Use of the Fender marque on the sound system is an interesting choice because, while the system sounds great, Fender built its name on a classic range of electric guitars and tube amplifiers known for their piercing tone and often-euphonic distortions — great for lead guitar, but maybe not what you want in a hi-fi system. But what's in a name? The eight-speaker system offers an ample 400 watts, producing clean, detailed sound, helped in no small part by the Passat's commendably low road noise.
To suggest that the 2.5-litre engine isa compromise is, like most compromises, a mix of right and wrong. Sure the Passat's 170bhp and just over nine-second 0-100 spec won't exactly turn heads, but while driving the car you are aware that it lives up rather nicely to the compromise thatI imagine in my head: What's the best middle ground you can reach between the power of a V6 and the efficiency of a four-cylinder engine? Uh, how about five cylinders? And really, for the average driver the new Passat offers an enjoyable amount of torque off the line, and the six-speed transmission is both fast enough and fun enough for those wanting to eke a bit of emotion out of what is, let's face it, a very lovely but rather practical car.
With estimated highway fuel consumption of 7.5 litres-per-100km, the Passat makes good on that other side of the four-cylinder/six-cylinder compromise.
Winding my way through the Tennessee hills, the Passat felt balanced and responsive, offering the kind of planted, agile driving dynamics that were perfected in Europe, even if the rest of the world is catching up. In part, this is the result of the Passat's stability control system that, in testament to VW's faith in the relatively unobtrusive technology, is always on. I do wonder though, if a stability control defeat switch might be handy on ice? The Passat mitigates body roll and grips the road nicely, evincing a nice blend of personality and practicality.
No one is going to buy this car based on performance alone, but then, perhaps that's the point of barring the V6 iteration from the UAE for now; the car has so much more going on for its price point, and that's what VW ostensibly want you to notice. Put another way, Passat owners might have their doors blown off by the occasional tuner — but they'll be exceedingly more comfortable than their overtakers.