Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Volkswagen Passat SE and SEL Premium V6

When we pulled into the VW dealer, Anthony had a face on. Not that much different than the time he tried that awful, trendy, sour frozen yogurt. But that's another story. He simply couldn't imagine us in a VW, even though I came within a heartbeat of buying one the last time we did this dance.

I admire VW's new look. The Jetta was America's first introduction to the new style. Buttoned-down and conservative, it holds its head high even in base trim. The Passat follows that theme in the next size up.

VW has done a great job of using space wisely. Sitting in the back seat behind all 75" of Anthony, and even accounting for his more-than-slightly reclined driving position, I still had six or seven inches of space between my knees and his seatback. The Passat is huge inside.

We had a chance to drive two different trims, a 5-speed SE and an automatic SEL Premium V6.

At 170 hp, the SE was refined and capable, but not even close to exciting. German engineering always shines through, however, making the car feel really connected. Its solid feel and flat cornering impressed us. Controls are simple and logically placed and the cabin materials all had a quality look and feel, despite what I've read in the auto trades – and in contrast to the Kia. Shifting gears was a great experience - slickly and solidly pushing through the notches brought great joy even to Anthony's face.

Hopping into a black, top-line SEL Premium V6 gave us a more exhilarating experience. At 280 hp, it's more powerful than the Kia and Buick. Power was strong and readily available, especially when mashing the pedal on the highway. The SEL was much quieter than the SE - probably a result of added sound deadening materials. The cabin was far more upscale than the SE, featuring wood grain on the dash, footwell lighting (because it's important to see your shoes while driving at night), navigation, and a sound system tuned by Fender. Speaking of the nav, VW has a redundant display in the center of the gauge cluster that tells you what street you're on. Love. That.

After marinating a bit, I began to think that maybe this version is a little TOO conservative. The dash on the Passat is reminiscent of old (and current) Beetle dashes - a relatively flat expanse the width of the interior. This is in stark contrast to the wrap-around cockpits of the Buick and Kia. And the exterior is indeed the most elegant Passat to date, but it's almost yawn inspiring. I wished the wheels were bigger and that there were some additional contours to the bodywork.

VW has great hopes for their lineup. They currently sell about 250,000 vehicles a year in the U.S. By 2018, they want to up that number to 800,000. They plan on achieving their goal through aggressive pricing. The SE was about $24,000. The SEL was about $31,000. Seems they have their pricing right.

The Passat is a strong contender in our search. Especially since Anthony is now convinced that a VW could earn a place in our driveway - or at the drive-thru of our favorite oldskool frozen yogurt place.

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