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.
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 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.