Road Test: 2012 VW Passat Sport is a real hit-and-miss affair

The UAE's version of the new VW Passat is affordable and attractive, both inside and out. But the road reviews aren't as stellar.

The new Passat Sport looks the part, both inside and out, but is badly let down by an asthmatic and old-fashioned engine. Antonie Robertson / The National
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If you've ever seen a top-10 list of perpetually best-selling cars, you'll have seen Volkswagen's Passat in there somewhere. Since 1973, the Passat (named after a wind, just like the Scirocco and Golf) has sold like few other cars, with more than 15 million of them rolling off VW's various production lines. And now there's a new one. Or is there? The Passat is a confusing Volkswagen.

The model we get here in the UAE is the same as that on sale in America. Which means it's different to the one on sale in Europe - not just in appearance, but in physical make-up, too. The European car looks similar but not the same, and the engines are totally different. In Europe, you can order a Passat in one of dozens of flavours. Here, and in the US, you get just one. And there's a good reason for that: cost.

VW is evidently fed up with losing sales to its competitors from the Orient. Hyundai, Honda, Toyota, et al; they produce excellent - if dull - cars that offer value for money and, while Volkswagen is still seen as the "value" end of the market in Germany, it still produces products that could be described as premium or prestigious in the eyes of many. With the old adage that you get what you pay for ringing in its ears, Volkswagen has gone against type and brought a Passat to market that offers way less than the model that Mrs H ran as a company car when we lived in the UK.

A quick check of the price list reveals that this does represent rather a lot of badge for the money. The start price is a lowly Dh90,999 but, like I said, there's only one flavour and it's a 2.5L, five-cylinder with 170hp - an acquired taste. The Sport version I'm testing retails at Dh116,518 and it didn't take long for me to work out that there's nothing whatsoever sporting about it. It looks nice - really nice, in fact - and there's very little, apart from its handsome front end, to differentiate between it and the latest Audi A4. Even in white it looks marvelous, but those 18-inch "Bristol" alloy wheels no doubt help its appearance. It looks more expensive than it is, and that has to be a good thing, right?

Inside the Passat, the feeling of quality design continues. The dashboard design is more ordinary than the previous generation's, however, and there are far fewer toys and gadgets to play with. But there's just enough. The seats are part leather, part Alcantara and are both comfortable and supportive, the fronts being electrically operated. The Fender-Panasonic stereo system is superb, there's an auxiliary jack socket as well as an iPod connector inside the centre cubbyhole and the navigation system, while not the flashiest, certainly gets the job done.

The look is restrained, elegant and tasteful. Even the fake burr walnut wood trim that caps the doors, dashboard and surrounds the centre console is so convincing that I find myself wondering how long it will be before the likes of Bentley and Rolls-Royce follow suit. The car is also longer than the outgoing model, affording generous amounts of legroom for both front and rear passengers. In fact, I initially find so little to criticise that I'm tempted to give the Passat Sport an immediate thumbs-up. What a bargain! And then, as soon I drive the thing, it all begins to unravel.

The problem with VW's cost-cutting exercise is that, like the new Jetta, the Passat looks really good but fails to deliver when you get it on the open road. I remember Audi using five-cylinder engines in some of its cars a few years back and they sounded great and performed with plenty of muscle. This thing, though, is severely underpowered and fights a losing battle against the Passat's 1,461kg mass. VW claims a 0-to-100kph time of nine seconds - I tried to achieve that but the poor car felt and sounded like I was thrashing the life out of it. Feeling sorry for the thing, I mentally promised to take things easier from then on.

There's none of the lowdown torque provided by the European diesel-engined Passats, there's none of the punch provided by the petrol units sold in that market, either. Just lumbering, characterless performance that's so far removed from the word sport that's in its moniker that I feel like complaining to the trading standards authorities.

No, in the search for higher sales volumes, VW has turned the US and Middle East versions of the Passat into a four-wheeled contradiction. It's cheap, yes. It's seemingly well built and it looks more impressive than any of its Japanese or American rivals. But until it loses that old fashioned lump from under the bonnet, you should seriously consider looking elsewhere. And that's a real shame.