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Test Drive: 2012 Volkswagen Passat

After all of these years Volkswagen has finally gotten around to building a People’s Car…for big people.

Big cheap people.

The 2012 Passat was designed with Americans specifically in mind and is built at an all-new and much ballyhooed factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s the first US-made VW since the company shut down its Rabbit farm in Westmoreland, Penn., back in 1988 when it realized we didn’t really like driving around in microscopic cars all that much.

While the Passat nameplate has found some success here over the years among fans of VW’s premium European engineering and ride quality, its relatively high price and small size has kept it from competing with the likes of local favorites such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord on the sales charts. The new one was designed to eat their lunch, and looks like it could consume them, too.

Although it was known as the New Midsize Sedan while it was being developed, the Passat is large enough to embarrass many full size cars on both price and interior volume, let alone its more direct competition. VW can be rightfully accused of stereotyping the American consumer when it created this bulk purchase worthy of a warehouse store. Any red, white and blueblood will find it hard not to get excited over such a huge car that, with a starting price of $20,765, is just two bills more than a Beetle.

For that you get a Passat equipped with a 5-speed manual transmission and a 170 hp 5-cylinder engine good for 32 mpg. Of course, being the loafs that we are most U.S. shoppers will opt for the 6-speed automatic, which promises to be the best-selling model in a range that also includes a $26,765 diesel version with an EPA rating of 43 mpg and a powerful 280 hp V6 model that kills the whole value proposition at $29,765.

All come with essentially the same, easy to produce plain wrapper styling that is meant to keep costs down and not shake things up, while the roomy but simple interior also focuses on function rather than fashion. In essence, the Passat hails from the T-square school of design that brought the world the classic three-box 1977 Chevrolet Caprice, which happened to be the best-selling car that year.

VW followed the same bargain+boredom formula with the 2011 Jetta and turned it into a top 20 selling car. The Passat is off to a similarly promising start.

Even if you’re not the roomy car type, it’s impossible to get into this car without experiencing a painful bout of eye-popping at how spacious it is. Large windows help enhance the effect, but with the driver’s seat properly adjusted for my 6-foot 1-inch tall frame, I can still fit in the back with plenty of daylight in front of my knees. Although I enjoy a spirited drive as much as the next person who gets paid to take spirited drives, I value nothing more than legroom of this stature.

A true five-passenger ride, the Passat is so wide that the middle mount in the rear doesn’t even qualify as a hump, is 10-gallon hat friendly and requires a skilled spelunker to fully exploit the cargo carrying capability of its bottomless trunk. Dollar for dollar, buying one of these may be the best land grab since the Louisiana Purchase.

As for what you do with all of that space, don’t expect to get too creative. All the basics are on offer, including heated front seats, navigation and a sunroof, but the only unique feature available is a rather nice 400-watt Fender audio system, as if VW hadn’t already kowtowed sufficiently to local tastes.

(Note to Wolfsburg, Gibson is the one from Tennessee.)

On the road, the Passat does good impression of a Detroit-bred cruiser, too, with just enough float to make a Midwesterner feel at home, but not so much that it can’t still handle a good Alpine two-lane. You can take the German out of Germany…

As if by design, while on a very typical American family outing to the zoo (Space Farms in New Jersey, which has an excellent car museum, but was not in any way the reason I chose it) I forgot to reset the navigation system preferences and was directed off of the highway, where the Passat was acquitting itself quite nicely, and onto a shorter, but very twisty route through the countryside where it could show off. On roads barely wider than the Passat, and with more asphalt patches than not, it plowed right over them like they were painted on and never skipped a beat.

The Passat is not a creative car, but it is texbook – one written in English with a picture of George Washington and the 1980 Olympic hockey team flying the Space Shuttle to the Moon on the cover.

VW, you've got us pegged. Thank you.

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2012 Volkswagen Passat SE w/Sunroof and Navigation

Base Price: $27,565

Type: 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

Engine: 2.5L inline-5-cylinder

Power 170 hp, 177 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 22 city/31 hwy