It's one of the better-handling vehicles in its class, and the TDI is a clear winner in the 2012 VW Passat lineup, but the base engine's a flair-free has-been.
When its American roll-out is complete, the front-drive Passat will have a trio of powertrains under its belt. Since the 280-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 version arrives later in the model year, Volkswagen could not provide a test car equipped with the biggest engine. The promise: a 0-60 mph time of 6.5 seconds, and a top speed of 130 mph.
Of the Passats we've driven, the clear winner is the turbodiesel 2.0-liter four, even though it's a few ticks slower to 60 mph. The usual diesel specifications sound light on horsepower, but heavy on the torque and high in fuel economy. With 140 hp to dole out while it twists out 236 pound-feet of torque, the TDI edition nearly matches the base car's acceleration while it adds about 10 mpg to gas-mileage numbers. VW promises a 0-60 mph for the TDI at 9.3 seconds with the manual transmission, and 9.1 seconds with the dual-clutch automatic, and estimates a top speed of 118 mph. In a long driving loop of mixed four-lane interstates and limited-access highways, with some country roads stitching them together, the diesel Passat rumbled with the usual low-speed diesel feel, and pulled smartly, with a more energetic feel than the acceleration numbers indicate.
Only dual-clutch TDIs were available for testing, but our opinion of the transmission hasn't changed much over time. The only thing to take away from its split-second shifts, well-spaced gears and suitability for mid-speed sporty driving is the lack of paddles for shifting.
At 43 mpg estimated for the EPA's highway cycle, the TDI's slightly slower straight-line performance seems like a fair trade-off, particularly when it's compared with the lackluster five-cylinder alternative. VW's five-pot feels like it's been around forever, and it's tired. Throttle responses are sluggish, power delivery's flat and unexciting and there's just as much vibration as the diesel provides. With the six-speed automatic transmission, VW says it can accelerate to 60 mpg in 8.7 seconds; a manual could drop it to 8.2 seconds, but probably wouldn't make it feel any more engaging.
Ride and handling are a cut above all the domestic, Japanese and Korean competitors, with the possible exceptions of the Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion. With 17-inch wheels and hydraulic steering, the five-cylinder Passat sounds pedestrian but has the nuanced ride control and body roll that distinguishes it from the still-learning Korean brands. If you drove a Sonata, back to back, you'd feel the Passat's superior balance; it's a little more compliant over small bumps, which really stands out on interstate drives. On the TDI, the steering goes electrohydraulic, which lends fuel-economy benefits and a slightly zippier steering feel. The TDI Passat had the best heft-to-accuracy ratio of its kind, up there with the all-electric steering in the Fusion. The brakes seemed a little numb on the prototypes we tested, but in all, the Passat's eager turn-in and body control are better than cars half a foot shorter in wheelbase.