2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SEL review: Hitting the premium bargain spot

2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SEL

2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SEL

It’s an uncommon practice in the realm of automotive marketing, but where most automakers require buyers of premium models to pop for the bigger engine, VW offers its top trim line and all its goodies with the base engine. To wit: the 2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SEL Premium.

The 2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SEL Premium test vehicle is, as its name suggests, a premium vehicle but powered the base 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine, and that’s the car we test drove. It’s part of a full Passat lineup that starts at the base Passat S at $20,845 through the standard Passat SE priced at $23,945, and the Passat SE with Sunroof—which includes an automatic transmission and other equipment—at $25,845.

2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SEL

2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SEL (click to enlarge)

The 2012 Passat 2.5 SEL includes a touchscreen navigation with SiriusXM Traffic and rearview camera, Fender premium audio, dual zone electronic climate control, “Autumn Nut Burl interior trim” which we’re told is “engineered wood”, a fold-down rear seat with armrest and trunk passthrough. It’s priced at $28,925.

Finally, the top five-cylinder is the SEL Premium, with a $30425 price tag. It adds Leather seating surfaces with Dinamica inserts, proximity key with pushbutton start (plus remote start), eight-way power driver and front passenger seats, heated outside mirrors and halogen fog lights  with cornering illumination. The latter isn’t quite adaptive (steering) headlamps but it does make sharp low-speed turn a little less leaping into the dark.

2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SEL steering wheel

Interior trim for the 2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SEL included “engineered” wood and leather seats with a suede-like insert. (click to enlarge image)

The other choices for the Passat include the diesel-powered Passat, the  2012 Passat TDI SE, priced from $26,225 to $32,915 for the TDI SEL Premium, and the Passat V6, in trim from SE, at $29,235 to SEL Premium at $33,525.

The advantage of each lies in the relatively low entrance price and regular fuel for the 2.5-liter Passat, the high mileage capability of the Passat TDI, and the smooth power of the Passat with the 280-horse 3.6-liter V-6 engine. The disadvantages are, for the 2.5-liter Passat, relatively modest acceleration with its 170-horse five-cylinder engine, for the TDI a higher price point, and for the V6, lower fuel mileage and a thirst for premium fuel, and of course a yet higher price.

The 2.5-liter five doesn’t leave the Passat dreadfully slow, but it is the carmaker’s least powerful engine in its (next to) biggest automobile, even if it is a moderately svelte 3,221 lbs. Add several passengers and a bag or two, however, and has the five-cylinder working hard and the six-speed automatic in our test car seeking out a lower gear.

2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SEL back seat

Like the front seats, the roomy back seat of the 2012 Volkswagen Passat 2.5 SEL has leather with suede inserts. (click to enlarge image)

At least the engine is quiet and smooth in relaxed driving, though hit the hammer and the classic five-cylinder two-tone engine sounds come through. There’s something about the engine/transmission combo, however, that causes surging when starting off, and stomp on the gas and…not a lot happens.

The Passat, however, comes with strut-type front suspension and multi-link rear, and even with the smaller engine, we’ll call handling “superb” with no qualifiers. Steering is precise—hydraulic power assist instead of the electric assist of the TDI and V6—and well weighted, the car stays flat in corners and the ride is well-damped. It gets our Sports Sedan Seal of Approval.

Exterior styling is best described as reserved, not as flashy as for example the critically-acclaimed Hyundai Sonata. The grille is squared off with headlights angled back, but the lines are, well, linear. However the taillights, though fairly ordinary in daylight, are quite distinctive at night.

Interior design matches that of the exterior. It doesn’t break any new ground but at least on the SEL trim level, surfaces have a quality feel and dashtop, door windowsills, and arm rests are all soft-touch and the center armrest padded. The center armrest however doesn’t open to reveal a storage bin. But there are several trays, cupholders that work and the car actually has a cigar lighter…though no ashtray. We suspect dealers will have something for the nicotine-addicted.