THE RESPONSE WAS UNDERWHELMING when Volkswagen unveiled its all-new U.S.-built Passat midsize sedan at the Detroit auto show in January.

Journalists accustomed to expensive German engineering and scintillating design expected to be dazzled by the most important new vehicle to arrive from Wolfsburg since the New Beetle in 1998.

Instead, they got a car that is more vanilla than chocolate. Decadent German strudel it's not. The new Passat is not drop-dead gorgeous, but neither is it devoid of character. And that's exactly where Germany's No.1 auto maker wants to be with the Passat.

Styling aside, VW has done a tremendous job cutting a whopping $7,000 off its base price while delivering a spacious family-friendly sedan that is fuel-efficient, well built and fun to drive. Fears that the new car compromises the Passat's German-ness prove unfounded.

Volkswagen has never been a contender in the high-volume midsize-car segment in the U.S. The Passat nameplate came to the U.S. in 1990. Its best year was 2002 (96,142 deliveries).

That sounds respectable, except that nine other cars dusted the Passat that year in Ward's Upper Middle car segment. The Chevy Impala and Toyota Camry outsold it 2-to-1 and nearly 4-to-1, respectively.

The Passat's luge-like slide over the next several years left the car marginalized. When VW's sleek 4-door CC launched in 2008, it sealed the coffin of the aged Passat. Production of the previous Passat ended last fall.

The mechanical bits of the new Passat work just fine, so most discussions about the car likely will start with styling.

The classic 3-box design carries forward many of the cues of the Phaeton flagship sedan, which left the U.S. in 2006.

Side by side, the Passat and Phaeton have similar 3-bar horizontal grilles and headlamps, but the Passat has a more steeply raked windshield and less chrome.

To draw such a comparison between the two vehicles is positive for the Passat, because the starting price for a Phaeton with a V-8 was about $67,355 before it left the U.S. Meanwhile, VW is promising a base price of about $20,000 for the new Passat.

Making good on that vow will go a long way in boosting the Passat's prospects. For years, VW was wedded to the notion that German engineering is worth a premium. But ironically, at least in the U.S., the “people's car” was too expensive for most people.

The new Passat demonstrates VW's willingness to simplify the design, remove build configurations (from 128 down to 16) and take out some costly options en route to a vehicle whose starting price will massively undercut the $27,195 base sticker of the smaller outgoing car.

Part of the cost difference comes from building the '12 Passat at an all-new assembly plant in Chattanooga, TN, which is less expensive than doing so in Mosel or Emden, Germany.

It's too bad it's taken VW so long to realize buyers in the high-volume midsize segment want value and reliability more than finely tuned suspensions and exhaustive design and engineering.

The most aggressively styled entries in the segment — Mazda6, Subaru Legacy and Dodge Avenger — barely make a blip, while more conservative designs such as the Camry, Chevy Malibu and Impala, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima each sold at least 172,000 units in 2010.

Can you blame VW for wanting a piece of that action? This is not dumbing down German design. This is smartening up the bottom line.

For clues behind Wolfsburg's motivation, look at the Jetta. Its sales have been on a downward trajectory since 2002, when 145,604 were delivered.

A new less-expensive Jetta launched last year and was bashed by critics for being dull. Clearly, those reviews were ignored because the Jetta is on pace for a record year, easily surpassing 150,000 units.

Three excellent engines are available in the new Passat: a 170-hp 2.5L 5-cyl., a 280-hp 3.6L VR6 V-6 and the 140-hp 2.0L TDI Clean Diesel. These DOHC powerplants are not new and appear in the Golf, Jetta and, in the case of the VR6, the CC.

Normally we might rail on an auto maker for using carryover engines in a new high-stakes vehicle, but the strategy makes sense in this case.

VW predicts the 2.5L I-5 will be the most popular engine — and least expensive. Paired with a 6-speed automatic transmission, the 2.5L is surprisingly stout and even sporty when shifting manually. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard.

Power is more than adequate for passing, and the engine never sounds or feels overly taxed by the vehicle's 3,221 lbs. (1,461 kg). This I-5 compares favorably with 4-cyl. engines deployed in other midsize cars.

VW made a concerted effort to reduce mass at every corner. Despite being 4 ins. (10.2 cm) longer than the old Passat, the new model also is 110 lbs. (50 kg) lighter.

The TDI represents the new Passat's sharpest competitive edge, devastating the segment with a city/highway fuel-economy rating of 31/43 mpg (7.5-5.5 L/100 km).

A Ward's 10 Best Engines winner the past three years, the 2.0L TDI is deliciously torquey and supremely smooth, injecting the U.S. midsize car segment with a European sophistication that has been lacking since the previous Passat TDI was discontinued five years ago.

Mated to VW's spectacular 6-speed DSG dual-clutch transmission, which is optional, the Passat is everything a buyer in this segment could ever want: efficient, quiet and thrilling.

Our test drive from Chattanooga to Nashville yields 41.5 mpg (5.6 L/100 km), unheard of in this class.

Pricing for the DSG TDI has yet to be released, but it won't be cheap, especially because the Passat uses a Selective Catalytic Reduction system that requires a urea tank to be replenished in order to meet emissions requirements in all 50 states.

VW recommends replenishing urea at regular service intervals every 10,000 miles (16,093 km), although the range is approximately 15,000 miles (24,140 km). The service is covered under Volkswagen's no-charge 3-year/36,000-mile (57,935-km) carefree maintenance program.

Yes, the TDI adds to the Passat's sticker, but the ability to stop for fuel only once every 800 miles (1,300 km) is worth the price of admission.

The gasoline 2.5L I-5 is no slouch, either. Some journalists preferred its high-end torque over the diesel; we managed 29 mpg (8.1 L/100 km) with the I-5 during our drive.

The suspension geometry carries over from the old Passat: The rear axle is acoustically decoupled from the body and benefits from a 4-link independent setup with telescopic shock absorbers, while the front suspension consists of MacPherson triangular wishbones, coil springs and a stabilizer bar.

During our mostly highway driving, the suspension strikes the proper balance between tightly sprung and comfortably pliable.

The fully hydraulic steering system feels just right, providing more feedback from the road than the best-selling Camry and Accord.

Inside, the Passat is well executed. Legroom and headroom are ample; colors are appealing; materials are soft; and the steering wheel feels substantial.

The smooth seamless instrument panel, similar to that of the new Touareg flagship cross/utility vehicle, creates a soothing, luxurious atmosphere. Suede inserts in the firm, comfortable seats provide a unique touch and additional grip.

Also available is a new 400-watt 9-speaker Fender premium audio system, designed exclusively with Panasonic for VW by the renowned producer of amplifiers and guitars. The system performs as billed, bringing the raw emotion and granular clarity of a live performance inside the cabin.

The new Passat will co-exist with the CC for the foreseeable future. That's a smart strategy for retaining customers who want more purposeful styling.

The best attribute of the all-new Passat, which goes on sale in the U.S. in September, is its ability to satisfy the needs of most American car buyers.

VW predicts the Passat will sell in volumes similar to that of the Jetta. Succeeding will be a monumental achievement for the auto maker.

To go from 12,000 units to more than 150,000 in only two years not only upsets the midsize apple cart, it sends it barrel-rolling down Lookout Mountain and positions VW once and for all with a midsize car for the masses.

'12 Volkswagen Passat

Vehicle type: Front-engine, FWD, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

Engine: 2.5L DOHC inline-5; iron block/aluminum head

Power(SAE net): 170 hp @ 5,700 rpm

Torque: 177 lb.-ft. (240 Nm) @ 4,250 rpm

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 110.4 ins. (280 cm)

Overall length: 191.6 ins. (487 cm)

Curb weight: 3,221 lbs. (1,461 kg)

Base price: About $20,000

Fuel economy: 22/31 (10.6-7.6 L/100 km)

Competition: Toyota Camry; Nissan Altima; Chevy Impala and Malibu

PROS/CONS

+

  • Resembles expensive Phaeton
  • Stupendous 43 mpg TDI hwy rating
  • Interior comfortable, quiet

-

  • Ho-hum sheet metal
  • VR6 power outdated
  • Center stack too much like Jetta