The Volkswagen Passat is a four-door midsize sedan designed to compete with the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, and Hyundai Sonata. Volkswagen's goal was to make the Passat the most American of any car VW builds. It was designed for Americans, launched as a 2012 model, and is built at a sparkling new assembly plant at Chattanooga, Tennessee.
A new turbocharged engine is available for the 2014 Passat, bringing the number of engine choices to four: the new 1.8-liter turbocharged, direct-injected four-cylinder, the original 2.5-liter five-cylinder, a 3.6-liter V6, and a 2.0-liter turbo diesel. The five-cylinder is being phased out and replaced by the more efficient 1.8-liter turbo four.
The new 1.8-liter turbocharged gasoline engine makes 170 horsepower (same as the five-cylinder) and 184 pound-feet of torque (an increase of 7 foot-pounds), all delivered at lower rpm than that of the five-cylinder. With manual shift, the turbo Passat gets an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 24/34 mpg City/Highway, 2-3 mpg better than the outgoing five-cylinder.
Passat 2.5L models come with the 170-horspower, 2.5-liter inline-5 mated with either a 5-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic transmission.
The TDI turbocharged diesel, which is unique in the market segment delivers an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 31/43 mpg City/Highway with manual transmission. The Passat TDI can be fitted with VW's slick direct-shift gearbox, or DSG, which is a twin-clutch, 6-speed manual transmission that shifts electronically, sans clutch pedal.
The top-of-the-line Passat 3.6L comes standard with the DSG and a VW-exclusive, 400-watt Fender sound system. Leather, navigation, a sunroof and keyless push button start/stop, along with other semi-luxury features, are available.
We found Passat ride quality comfortable without being soft, well tuned for American interstates. Handling is what most drivers expect from a mainstream, midsize sedan: predictable and forgiving, properly suited for the ins and outs of the daily commute.
Fit and finish has that Teutonic feel, with tight tolerances and quality materials. Nothing flashy, just solid, functional controls and easy-to-read gauges communicating the essential data. The optional wood grain looks better than the real wood in some higher-priced cars. Visibility is good, although there's a bit of blockage out the rear due to the three head restraints.
Also new for the 2014 Volkswagen Passat is a six-month, no-charge trial of VW Car-Net connected services, initially included on the Wolfsburg edition. Security/convenience features include automatic crash notification, roadside assistance, and stolen vehicle location assistance, as well as remote vehicle access and boundary/speed alerts.
Simply put, anybody who liked the looks of the earlier (2010) Passat will appreciate the 2014. VW's designers said they were trying for a timeless look; if that means very little change, they succeeded. Not that's it's unattractive, only that it's not going to turn many heads.
Passat styling is understated, but with enough trademark VW design cues to distinguish it from something imported from Japan or Detroit. Its visual proportions obscure somewhat its interior roominess, where it claims best in class rear-seat leg room.
The motif for the front end is horizontal-ness. The grille features the traditional VW logo centered on a simple array of three chrome-like bars, bracketed by trapezium-shaped headlamp units. A bold bumper splits the fascia atop a full-width lower intake with floating wing-like braces at each end that, depending on model and trim level, house squat foglights or give the look of cooling ducts for the front brakes. Sculptured reliefs in the hood splay rearward from the outer ends of the grille to the A-pillars (front supports for the roof), giving an illusion of width.
The side view is basic European sedan; it could be one of any number of midsize four-doors originating from any one of four or five continental car makers. No logo or other identifiers break up otherwise mostly generic expanses of sheet metal. Wraparound headlamp housings de-emphasize the front overhang. An understated character line crease runs from the trailing edge of the headlamp housings rearward across the doors, slightly above the full-round door handles and ending in the leading edge of the wrap around taillight housing.
Defined blisters outline circular tire wells. On some models, thin chrome striping frames the side windows; about the only feature that stands out is a kinky rear quarter window that serves both to lessen the mass of the C-pillar (the rearmost roof support) and, along with the deep rear side doors, to hint at the 2012's stretched wheelbase (distance between the tires front to rear) of more than three and one half inches longer than the previous Passat.
Rearview is, again, relatively generic, although in this instance more Pacific Rim than Continent, save for the de rigueur VW logo. Taillight housings are two-piece, split between the fenders and trunk lid. License plate tucks up beneath an overhang that crosses the trunk lid between the taillights. The trunk lid reaches the top of the rear bumper, itself a seamless piece that sweeps around the lower rear fascia from the trailing edge of one rear wheelwell to the other. The 3.6L gets twin exhaust tips.
When the feature that gets talked about the most at a new car's launch is rear-seat legroom, it's clear that not much was done to push the envelope in terms of refreshing a car's interior. Such is the case with the current Passat.
The gauge cluster in the instrument panel is delightfully basic, with a large round analog tachometer and speedometer. Each has a small circular gauge embedded in its base, one monitoring coolant temperature, the other fuel status. A commendable addition, especially for drivers running solo, is a digital repeater for the navigation system (when so equipped) in the mini-display screen, which also shows the trip computer data, centered between the two larger gauges.
We found the navigation system slow to operate and difficult to learn to program. We spent 45 minutes trying to figure out how to program an address in New York City. The problem was that the system had been programmed to avoid toll roads, which turned a 30-minute route into Manhattan into a 90-minute journey. If we had only known. Also, you must go into the Memory feature to get rid of old destinations that the system is hanging onto. Once learned, it should work fine, but the driver will still have to put up with its extraordinarily slow operation. After starting the car, the navigation system takes forever to start up.
Programming is lethargic as well. The driver must pause after pressing each letter of an address, then pause longer between each field, and the fields don't always come up in the desired order. Then it takes a long time for the system to plot the route. Also, the screen is small. Navigation systems from Chrysler, GM, Lexus, Acura and others are easier to learn and operate. Also, we were dumbfounded to discover that the big navigation screen did not include a rearview camera function. Volkswagen is not keeping up here.
Front seats, both base and Sport, are comfortable, with the Sport adding a smidgen of appreciated lateral support. The center stack, which houses the audio/navigation and climate control interfaces, stays true to the layout of the previous Passat, with audio/navigation panels above and the trio of large knobs that manage the climate control settings below. Controls for the stereo and the very competent navigation system consist of two smallish knobs at the lower corners, below vertical sets of four buttons on each side of the display. That screen shows the various menus of touch-sensitive buttons, all of which work as efficiently and effectively as any our fingers have manipulated. (We haven't gotten a chance to check out the system in the base model.)
The rear seat is more bench than bucket but still accommodating, with foot wells deep enough that occupants can imagine they're seated in a chair instead of on the floor. What's most remarkable about the rear seat, however, as hinted above, is the leg room. While one inch of the lengthened wheelbase of the 2012 Passat went to the front seat, the rear seat got almost an inch and a half. That increase earned the Passat what VW claimed was a best-in-class rating, bettering the primary competitors (Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata and Toyota Camry) by between just under an inch (Camry) to more than four inches (Sonata). This is especially noteworthy because that added inch to the front seat also brought the Passat nearly even with all except the Sonata, with an inch more leg room than the Passat.
Interior materials on the SE and SEL are above average in feel and quality, with snug tolerances between panels and hard surfaces. The wood grain didn't quite pass as real, but some genuine wood we've seen looked more like wood grain. Visibility is good, better out the front than the back, where the proud head-restraint triplets crowd the view through the rearview mirror.
There are enough cubbyholes and bins to satisfy the average hoarder. There's a map pocket in each door (although not the best design, as the rear-most area under the armrest pinches down to the point that it's accessible only by a child's small hand, in itself not reassuring). The glove box, while basic plastic, is refreshingly spacious. The front center console bin is a bi-level setup, with an upper tray appropriate for cell phones (where they should stay unless the car is parked, even if you have a hands-free system; sorry, but distraction is distraction, no matter the source) and a deeper part that also holds the audio inputs. Each front seatback has a magazine pouch.
The Volkswagen Passat offers quite a choice of engines. It's a crucial choice, because the powertrain has a dramatic effect on the character of the car.
Most popular has been the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine, which is a shame because the 2.5-liter is an anemic performer. It's particularly sluggish in stop-and-go traffic. When it's time to go and you press on the throttle, there's a pause followed by a thunk as it downshifts into the appropriate gear, followed by lethargic acceleration performance. Fuel economy from the 2.5-liter with manual shift is an EPA-estimated 22/32 mpg City/Highway (22/31 mpg with automatic). That falls short of the Hyundai Sonata's 24/35 mpg, though it's better than the Ford Fusion's 29 mpg Highway rating. We don't recommend the Passat 2.5L.
The Passat TDI Clean Diesel engine is better. We found the TDI produced linear power delivery with little of the surge sensation common with a turbocharger. The Passat TDI doesn't feel as responsive as the Volkswagen Golf TDI, however, possibly due to the lighter weight of the Golf. Shifts from the 6-speed automatic, which felt programmed for fuel conservation over quickness, were noticeable but generally smooth.
EPA-estimated fuel economy of 31/43 mpg City/Highway from the TDI Clean Diesel with manual shift handily tops the gasoline-powered competition, by a wide margin. With automatic, the Passat TDI gets an EPA estimate of 30/40 mpg City/Highway. On the highway, at least, Volkswagen Passat TDI bests the Toyota Camry Hybrid, which earns a 43/39 mpg City/Highway estimate on EPA's charts. The 2014 Ford Fusion hybrid betters the Passat TDI, with 47/47 mpg. Before deciding, the price and availability of diesel fuel are worth noting when comparing the Passat TDI to any gasoline engine, or to a hybrid.
The Passat 3.6L we found was the most enjoyable Passat to drive, primarily due to its responsiveness. Its quick response is terrific when using a heavy foot on the gas pedal, but more important it's nice when motoring around town. Gently step on the throttle and the V6 instantly adjusts the speed to precisely what you want. If you want to speed up a little, it does that. If you want to speed up a lot, it does that, also. These are benefits of the six-cylinder's torque. The Direct Shift Gearbox delivered solid shifts, but less promptly than expected in comparison with the Golf version, even in manual-select mode. Expect stops at the gas station to happen at about the same frequency as with other V6-powered cars in this class; Passat 3.6L's V6 is EPA-rated 20/28 mpg City/Highway, about average for the class. The 3.6-liter V6 is a smooth and wonderful engine, and we highly recommend it.
The new 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is replacing the 2.5-liter five-cylinder and that's a good thing. The turbocharged four-cylinder earns thriftier EPA estimates: 24/35 mpg City/ Highway with manual shift, and 24/34 mpg with automatic.
Ride quality in the Passat is smooth, not firm. The suspension doesn't float on mildly heaving Interstates, but the body leans a bit when driving hard through tight corners. This type of suspension is sometimes better on rough roads. Understeer (where the car wants to go straight when the driver wants it to turn) is the predominant characteristic when the Passat is pushed in a curve (as it is with all cars but especially those with front-wheel drive). Between the TDI and the 3.6L, the 3.6L feels less put-upon when driven aggressively. We were told the 3.6L's steering is a bit tauter, closer to what's in the German-market Passat. None of the Passat models beg to experience an energetic blast through an extended set of twisties, however. Clearly, the Passat prefers casual motoring.
Based on our experience, the Honda Accord feels more planted on winding roads, although the Accord filters out less of the mechanical and road/tire noise than the Passat does. The Ford Fusion All-Wheel-Drive is the most balanced in responding to steering inputs and quick changes of direction. The Fusion AWD exacts a price, however, with the worst city/highway numbers of the crew, at 18/26 mpg.
Wind noise: There was a bit of a whistle at speed from somewhere near the outside mirrors on the Passat we drove, but nothing serious. Tire and road noise were minimal and varied little on different qualities and types of pavement. Put up against the competitors, the Volkswagen Passat fits right in, not really standing out in any measure, but not falling short in any, either.
We found the feel of the brakes disappointing. Gone is the prompt, sure-footed, throw-out-the-anchor response to the brake pedal that we're used to getting from a Volkswagen. We never worried about stopping power when driving the Passat, but there was still this softness, not the high quality firmness we've come to know and love, and appreciate, from Volkswagen.
The Volkswagen Passat is a competent midsize sedan. A wide range of powertrains offers buyers a choice between performance and fuel economy. Ride quality is comfortable, tuned for highways. Fit and finish has that Teutonic feel, with tight tolerances and quality materials. Nothing flashy, just solid, functional controls and easy-to-read gauges communicating the essential data.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard reported from Nashville, Tennessee; with Mitch McCullough reporting from New York.