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2016 Cayman GT4
2012 Volkswagen Passat 3.6 SEL vs. 2011 Honda Accord EX-L V6, 2012 Hyundai Sonata 2.0
Volkswagen has big plans for the United States. Big, as in 800,000-sales-by-2018 big, which is more than three times what it sold here in 2010. First came the Jetta, price-cut for the American market, universally unloved in the C/D office, and selling like hotcakes to the car-buying public. The new Passat takes the Jetta approach a step further, not just reconstituted for our bland, ketchup-loving palates but specifically built for and in America.
VW set pricing low, at a suggested $20,765 to start, $7180 less than the 2010 Passat. But we’re hardly interested in the Walmart model, with its anemic 2.5-liter inline-five making a meager 170 horsepower. And the Passat TDI, as the only affordable mid-size diesel on the market, is quite literally in a class of one. That leaves the Passat 3.6, fitted with a 280-hp, single-head narrow-vee six-cylinder and a six-speed dual-clutch transmission.
The powertrain is pure VW, the perfect foil for determining whether the rest of the car is true to the brand that brought us the GTI. A Passat 3.6 in SE trim starts at $29,765. Our particular car, a $33,720 as-tested SEL model, includes amenities such as keyless ignition, remote start, leather seats, a 6.5-inch navigation screen, power passenger seat, wood inlays, and extra chrome interior trim.
Whether the Passat is a worthy VW may be something only a die-hard few care about; how it compares with the competition is much more significant. So we invited comparable versions of the two family sedans on the Car and Driver 10Best list: the Honda Accord and the Hyundai Sonata. In EX-L V-6 form with a $2200 navigation option, the $32,600 Accord checks every factory-equipped option box.
The Sonata, introduced last year as a 2011 model, is similarly loaded in 2.0T Limited guise, albeit with the lowest price in the group, at $31,285. Running changes for 2012 Sonatas include a panoramic sunroof; a bigger, seven-inch touch screen; and a 1-mpg bump in EPA highway fuel economy to a best-in-test 34.
If the Passat can hold its own against two of the best in the family-car segment, it stands to reason that Volkswagen’s ambitions could be realistic. There’s only one way to find out.
All three cars in this test presume to be sporty versions of family cars. There’s a *paradox inherent in that, namely braggadocious horsepower coursing through mpg-friendly all-season tires. And much like the Waffle House we encountered on our test drive that wasn’t a Waffle House®, the experi*ence does not live up to expectations. For example: All three cars register nearly identical scores in all performance categories. Skidpad grip (a 0.79-g dead heat) is downright pedestrian, and an average 70-to-0-mph braking distance of 190 feet might actually hit a few pedestrians.
The Sonata, however, offers some sporting promise with its eye-catching styling and a stiff, buttoned-down suspension. Somewhat flinty over highway expansion joints, the Sonata otherwise exhibits excellent body control with the least roll, pitch, and dive of any car here.
The Sonata eschews a heavier V-6 for a turbocharged four-cylinder. The result is the lightest curb weight (100 pounds less than the Accord and 30 fewer than the Passat), similar power, and the highest torque figure—269 pound-feet.
At 3.0 turns lock to lock, the Sonata’s steering is cumbersome, and its on-center feel is inert. Digs are sumptuous, though. It sounds like the makings of a sports sedan. But the Sonata is let down by its steering, which has a dead spot on center and feels disconnected from events related to the front tires. Its lack of responsiveness is amplified by the large steering wheel’s cumbersome three turns lock-to-lock.
The engine is also less than perfect. It pulls strongly at high revs but offers all the aural pleasure of a hair dryer, and it lacks the refinement of the Honda and VW six-cylinders. With an observed 26 mpg—1 fewer than the competition—we didn’t see enough fuel-economy benefit from the engine’s small displacement to make up for its shortcomings.
We are more positive about the interior’s attractive two-tone design and well-planned layout. A small center-console cubby resides ahead of the cup holders. In front of it is a larger catchall bin with easy access to two 12-volt plugs, and there’s a small cabinet above that. If you have stuff, you will find space for it in the Sonata. And the panoramic sunroof ensures that no *corner of the cabin goes unlit.
We also like the infotainment system, with the crisp touch-screen display and easy-to-use voice commands. Blue Link, Hyundai’s subscription-based connectivity system, does everything from calling first responders after an accident to remotely unlocking the doors to alerting parents of curfew-flouting teens. We can report great success using its voice-based, point-of-interest search function.
So there’s a lot of content here. But that barely helps it on the family-sedan front. The Sonata’s styling results in the test’s tightest rear seat and the least rear legroom. Thankfully that rear bench is heated in the two outboard positions. In front, the flat seats are comfortable but lack support, leaving the driver to hold himself in place through corners using the steering wheel. This isn’t fun.
Our enthusiasm for the Sonata remains strong, as does our astonishment at Hyundai’s rapid pace of product development. But the Sonata turbo is not a full-fledged sports sedan and not quite a complete family sedan, either. There remains a slight lack of refinement that suggests there is room for improvement.Continued...
How can it be that the Accord, 10Best champ of 10Best champs, finishes second in a comparison test for the second time? For starters, we generally prefer the four-cylinder Accords, which are more agile and lively because they carry less weight over their front wheels. And the Accord is now in its fourth model year, near the end of its product cycle. We can only hope that Honda makes improvements to the cockpit, whose button-cluttered console cost the Accord points for interior styling. Lower-priced versions of the car come with a more straightforward, more user-friendly cabin. The Honda’s navigation system is showing its age, too, but the multifunction control knob allows for on-road input with less distraction than the touch-screen systems in the Hyundai and the VW.
We don’t remember the driver’s seat being this lumpy in previous, lower-trim Accords, either. The EX-L’s chair comes with extreme lumbar support even in the most relaxed position. The knee-in-the-back feeling was sufficiently painful to interfere with the digestion of one test driver’s biscuits-and-gravy breakfast from our makeshift Waffle House.
The profusion of undifferentiated gray buttons lowered the Accord’s interior score. This perennial 10Bester is getting old. We are reminded, though, that the Accord earns our highest award for a reason. Seat lumps aside, the driving position is ergonomically sound, with a low cowl and good sightlines. The suspension offers the best ride and handling balance, soft in roll but without any wobble. Initial turn-in is lackluster, but the steering loads up nicely. The progressive, fluid nature of the chassis makes us wonder how much better the Accord would handle with aggressive *summer tires. As equipped, the factory Michelins are low on grip but give way in a linear fashion that helps drivers plot a smooth trajectory through corners.
The transmission also functions with class and distinction. Lacking a sixth ratio or manual shift paddles, the Honda’s automatic nevertheless always seems to be in the right gear or one quick, smooth shift away.
Rear-seat passengers will find the Accord the best bet in this trio for long journeys. A comfortable, contoured seat was deemed most accommodating for two, and three can cram in with minimal elbow bumping.
As the miles wore on in our test, the Accord continued to grow on us. But, like the Sonata, the extra price and horsepower of the high-line model don’t come with an appreciable increase in driving enjoyment.
We confess that we’re still a little sensitive about the only–for–North America (okay, and China) Passat. Are we not good enough for the European version? A blander VW strikes us as antithetical to everything we like about the German people’s-car company.
Take the styling. From the rear, the *Passat looks like one of those automotive amalgams you see in car-insurance ads. The bodywork is as cleanly conventional as a Midwestern subdivision. It has all the unmemorable, inoffensive attractiveness of a local news anchor. Then again, it’s possible that VW does have us Americans figured out.
Would you ever have guessed the Passat would be the softest car in a comparison test of family sedans? Believe it. This VW wafts down the road like a classic American land yacht, soaking up bumps the way a pancake soaks up maple syrup.
Yeah, we were surprised, too. The homegrown VW scored high with its roomy, elegant cabin and mission-appropriate ride. What did impress us, though, was the Passat’s interior. The extra brightwork of SEL trim aside, this is what we’ve come to expect from VW, and it is a stark contrast to the Jetta. All the switches work with a solid, satisfying click. The steering-wheel controls and window switches have tasteful metallic trim.
The back side of the B-pillars sport tiny coat hooks. And we were astonished with the clarity of the Fender-badged and -tuned Panasonic sound system. Yet there are examples of cost cutting: The analog clock is IKEA-grade, the glove box feels carelessly finished, and there are no air vents for rear-seat occupants. An off-center steering wheel—as if the additional width from *Passat to Jetta were tacked on without moving the column outboard—stands out as a major ergonomic flaw. The Passat has the least front cabin volume (a trade-off yielding extra rear-seat legroom), but we didn’t notice. The front seat is by far the most comfortable and has the most lateral support. Getting into the Passat is simply relaxing.
Like an overly soft mattress, the cushy suspension is both a blessing and a curse. On back roads, and especially over hill and dale, the Passat bobbles where the Accord and Sonata stay planted. The taut and responsive feel that makes us love the GTI is present in the Passat but buried beneath several layers of padding. Accurate steering is let down by the way the body takes a second to catch up to driver inputs. The brake pedal is also soft, though still linear. The underlying chassis is well balanced, at least up to the limit of the stability-control system, which cannot be turned off. We take such electronic nannying from the Germans to be an insult to our fiercely independent American sensibilities.
We can speculate, given our experience with the five-cylinder, that the 3.6-liter is the better Passat. In the Honda and the Hyundai, we prefer the lighter, cheaper, high-sales-volume powertrains. We’re not sure that will be the case with a Passat lacking the smooth six-cylinder engine and the seamless automatic transmission. As such, the Passat cannot claim an overwhelming victory. Still, at the top of the line at least, Volks*wagen’s effort to Americanize its family sedan is right on target.