If you're familiar with the Sesame Street ditty, "One of these things is not like the others," then try to guess if it's the Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu, Volkswagen Passat or Honda Accord that's out of place in this automotive quartet. If you picked the VW, give yourself a gold star.
At about $28,000, the Passat, which disappeared after the 2010 model year, ranked as the most expensive midsize sedan in this group (plus others in the same category) by as much as $8,000. For that kind of scratch you could have covered the cost of fueling up any of the other top-selling competitors for three to four years, on average.
Although seemingly down and out, rumors of the Passat's demise have proven inaccurate. Volkswagen announced at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit that its midsize four-door will return as a built-in-America (Chattanooga, Tenn., to be precise) model for 2012 and will paste a base sticker price of about $20,000 on the window.
VW might be substantially reducing the MSRP, but it certainly won't be shrinking the package. Compared to the previous Passat, the new model is 3.5 inches longer overall and the distance between its front and rear wheels has been stretched by 3.7 inches, which should means appreciable gains in passenger room. The car's more generous dimensions are in line with models belonging to the rest of the segment and should provide the kind of space that North American sedan buyers have come to expect.
Also expected in this class is styling that leans in the conservative direction and the new Passat's anonymous design will fit right in here. A trio of thin horizontal bars along with an oversized VW logo are flanked by a pair of plain-looking headlamp pods. The rest of the car maintains a balanced, yet understated look that appears to have been copied from VW's compact Jetta four-door. Overall, it would seem that the automaker's cost-cutting efforts meant that fancy projector-style front and rear lights ringed by LED displays failed to make the grade.
Fortunately, the interior styling, inspired by Volkswagen's new-look Touareg tall wagon, is clean, uncluttered and devoid of the trendy dashboard swoops and swirls that can be found on other brands. In short, the Passat's cabin is a first-class act.
For the 2012 model, the Passat's previously standard 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged powerplant has been replaced with with nonturbocharged 170-horsepower 2.5-liter five-cylinder unit. This change no doubt contributes to the smaller base price.
A 280-horsepower 3.6-liter V-6 is optional, as is Volkswagen's hybrid-challenging 140-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo-diesel that will give the Passat a claimed rating of 43 mpg on the highway, along with a range of up to 800 miles. This engine might become a popular upgrade for Passat buyers with its promise of excellent performance combined pump-passing fuel savings.
The base 2.5 offers a five-speed manual transmission, or optional six-speed automatic. The V-6 and the turbo-diesel operate with a six-speed "dual-clutch" (automated manual) gearbox with faster shifting and less drag than a traditional automatic.
The Passat's starting-point SE model is fitted with automatic climate control, cruise control and Bluetooth short-range wireless connectivity. Also standard is Hill Climb Assist that helps keep manual-gearbox models from rolling backward down a hill while taking your right foot off the brake to depress the accelerator.
The extensive list of options (some of which come standard on better-equipped SE and SEL sedans) include a leather- and walnut-trimmed interior, 17- or 18-inch alloy wheels (17-inch steelies are standard), push-button start, fog lights and a premium Fender-brand audio system.
Commenting on the new Passat, Volkswagen Group of America CEO Jonathan Browning said that his company "aims to become a leading player in the [North American] market." It's clear that the well-equipped and reasonably priced Passat will need to find a significant following if this goal is to be realized.
Knocking $8,000 off the price and also drastically reducing the price of the smaller Jetta is certainly one way to do it, while keeping the value quotient intact. The Passat might not appear to be a class leader, but at least it's now in the thick of the hunt.