When Volkswagen introduced this latest, just-for-us, plus-sized version of its Passat family sedan, it did a curious thing when the company decided to replace the previous year's 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with a more pedestrian 2.5-liter five-cylinder that actually put out 30 fewer horsepower and returned worse fuel economy.
"We were selling Audis at VW prices. Now, we are selling VWs at VW prices," remarked one German executive at the initial media launch for the 2012 Volkswagen Passat, or so the story goes. It was his euphemism for saying that American people buy cheap junk by the pound, and we'd be just as willing to use such a philosophy when shopping for family sedans instead of the nearly entry-lux model still for sale abroad.
Except the gargantuan new U.S. Passat wasn't junk. It was quite good, in fact, even with the rougher engine. Now, finally, it has the entry-level engine it deserves for 2014, and it's all the better for it.
Model and PriceWe know it's trite to tell you to go for the model we drove if you're in the market, a loaded up 2014 Passat SEL 1.8T at $31,715, including $820 for destination and handling, but trust us. We've driven other lesser variants of this Passat generation before, and we can speak from experience.
Okay, so all of the engines VW sells the Passat with are excellent now, whether it's the 170-horsepower engine we have in this car, the 3.6-liter V-6 with 280 horsepower, or the 140-horsepower, 2.0-liter TDI. But what we're really focusing on is the car's equipment level—well, almost. The new turbo engine is only available in the SEL Premium model right now and will eventually trickle to the rest of the lineup. More basic models come with the 2.5-liter lump still and cheap-feeling vinyl seats. Cloth isn't even an option.
Our car had heated leather/suede seats, an earth-shaking Fender audio system, automatic headlights, a navigation system with touchscreen display, and 18-inch wheels. If you're not going for the nice seats, you might as well find a cheaper midsizer.
Safety and Key FeaturesOkay, so maybe that Tennessee-built German engineering has some other merits. With six standard airbags and tank-like construction, the Volkswagen Passat scored an impressive Top Safety Pick+ rating with the IIHS, earning an Acceptable rating in the new narrow front offset crash test. It won over the government, too, with a five-star overall rating.
After having two near-incidents with absent-minded drivers during holiday season, we came to appreciate the 2014 Volkswagen Passat's strong brakes and responsive handling—with a suspension that never cowered to the aggressive driving we put it through in order to avoid other drivers drifting into our lane. It also helps that the VW's big windows, comfortable, ergonomic steering wheel, and responsiveness made driving more fun than a chore and provided us with plenty of ability to keep our eyes on the road.
Family Friendliness and UtilityFor all intents and purposes, the VW Passat is massive. Its rear leg room is limo-like. I know someone who traded in an Audi A8 on one and isn't disappointed. Its trunk is equally gargantuan. It's 15.9 cubic feet of cargo capacity doesn't seem like that great of a number, but it runs deep into the car. We have no doubt in its ability to swallow big-screen TVs whole.
The Passat also has two very-easy-to-access points for LATCH child seat anchors, which are easy to install thanks to the car's upright roofline. Compared to its rivals, the 2014 Passat suffers primarily in one respect: A large transmission tunnel that runs the length of the car and cuts into rear middle-seat leg room. Ordinarily, such a tunnel is reserved in cars that have optional all-wheel drive, but the U.S. Passat doesn't. We have to wonder what VW is or was planning for this floorpan that it's simply not doing.
Comfort and QualityHere, we found the Volkswagen Passat a mixed bag. While yours truly found the driver's seat to be comfortable and supportive, associate editor Megan Stewart reported back that she couldn't find a comfortable seating position and the forward-mounted headrest had a tendency to push right against the back of her head.
Compared to some other vehicles in its class, Volkswagen also makes more copious use of hard, shiny, and often cheap-feeling plastics, highlighted by the abundance of wood cut from the finest plastic trees you'll ever see. It’s everywhere. At least in older Passat models, the wood appeared real, and there was also an option for aluminum dash inserts to liven up its appearance.
Other complaints: The nav screen is small, often difficult to read upon first glance, and it's Windows 95-caliber laggy. When Chrysler's Uconnect, HondaLink, and GM's MyLink all have this beaten in spades, among other new infotainment units, you know it's time for VW to head back to the drawing board.
How it DrivesThe old 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine already behaved much like a turbocharged engine, bringing on a swell of torque when the engine built up proper speed. To be honest, the just-as-powerful 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder in our car felt much the same in delivery. The differences in it were refinement and fuel economy.
The new engine is much quieter and much smoother than the outgoing engine. The six-speed automatic transmission's shifts are nearly imperceptible unless you're looking down at the tachometer. And altogether in colder weather and a good chunk of city driving, we saw 27.2 mpg, or about 1 mpg better than we did in our last 2.5-liter tester through rougher conditions. We found road behavior to be among the best in its class, with crisp handling and fantastic ride control. But, if we're honest, road noise and wind noise at highway speeds leave plenty to be desired.
SummaryIf you shied away from the VW Passat because of its lackluster base engine and the fact that its TDI engine was a bit on the expensive side to attain, this car might just be for you. Its interior is a nice place to be, at least when loaded up with all of the comforts and conveniences you'd expect. And it's right on the money versus its competitive set, which hasn't always been the case for German cars.
Sure, the Passat isn't a real German car anymore; it's an American family sedan made by a Deutsche company. But it behaves like a proper German car, with taut handling and no-nonsense functionality. If that's what your heart desires, there's no longer an excuse not to get it.
Spec BoxPrice-as-tested: $31,715
EPA City: 24 mpg
EPA Highway: 34 mpg
EPA Combined: 28 mpg
Child Seat Fitment, Second Row: Excellent
Estimated Combined Range: 518 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Poor (2013 SEL Premium 2.5L)