First Look: 2012 Volkswagen Passat

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Volkswagen unveils their newly redesigned 2012 Passat. The mid-size sedan, previously known for its superb fit and finish, is still a major player in the family sedan segment. However, VW's strategic decision to make it a mainstream car will disappoint many.

Volkswagen's mission is clear: they want to be the top-selling automaker in the world by 2018. To make this happen, they must dramatically increase their US sales. Up until now, the mid-size Passat has been the proper alternative for those who found the Toyota Camry dull and thought the Honda Accord was past its quirky prime. American automakers didn't appeal due to their previous era of bad quality and badge engineering. The Passat was different and although it was more expensive, its quality was fantastic and offered a choice of wonderful engines.

Before we get to the new car's specifics, it's important to point out VW's American aspirations. The new Passat is currently being manufactured at the automaker's brand-new $1 billion Chattanooga, Tennessee factory. The facility is massive, providing approximately 2,000 jobs and has an annual projected output of 150,000 cars. For 2012, VW made the strategic decision to reconfigure the Passat specifically for the American mid-size sedan buyer. How exactly? To begin with, the wheelbase has grown by 3.7 inches, with an additional inch of front legroom and 1.4 inches for rear seat occupants, making it roomier than both Accord and Camry.

They also cut the price by $7,000 - a 25 percent decrease. According to Volkswagen executives, the 2012 Passat has been "sized for America." Yes, that's marketing speak for "Americans are fat." And just to get an idea of VW's overall time and money investment, this Passat is unique only for the US, with the European car simply being a heavily face-lifted version of the previous generation. There are a total of three familiar engines available. The base is the 2.5-liter five-cylinder with 170hp and 177 lb-ft of torque that's mated to a standard five-speed manual or an optional six-speed auto.

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Notably absent is the excellent 2.0T, which has been substituted with the 3.6-liter VR-6 that produces 280hp and 285 lb-ft and comes with a standard DSG dual-clutch automatic. Each engine returns decent though not class-leading fuel economy. It's strange, however, that VW is adding a V-6 (with no manual option) back into the mix after a three year absence just when competitors are deleting the V-6 option outright (Hyundai Sonata, 2013 Chevy Malibu). VW claims Americans still prefer a V-6 over a four-cylinder, but then again, Americans also went nuts over Rebecca Black and the Macarena.

Fortunately, the 2.0-liter turbo-diesel remains, which delivers 31/43 mpg city/highway. Clearly, those numbers aren't as high as that of the Toyota Prius or Ford Fusion Hybrid, but this engine is much more enjoyable in terms of torque and overall fun factor. It's mated to a choice of either a six-speed manual (there's still hope) or the DSG dual-clutch. Continuing the Americanization routine, the new interior is the very definition of conservative. Not that that's a bad thing, but compared to the Sonata's or the Kia Optima's, the Passat's center stack is really bland.

Fortunately, it's still very well thought-out and build and material quality remain high, although not quite as solid as the outgoing model. For those who think the exterior looks like a stretched duplicate of the smaller Jetta are clearly not alone. Along with their luxury Audi brand, VW isn't putting much effort into differentiating the designs of their models. It's expected to have a common styling theme, but is it too much to ask for at least some creative effort? With a base price of just $20,000, the all-new 2012 Passat is an excellent mid-size sedan for those seeking a value-oriented car.

Fans of the previous generations are likely to be disappointed because the Passat has now become the very thing they wanted to avoid: a plain vanilla Camry. Opting for the TDI trim certainly helps, but the Passat has become a mainstream family sedan. VW stands a good chance of making their aggressive sales goals, but they have sacrificed some of the Passat's uniqueness in the process.

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