By Eric Peters
Last year, VW nixed the so-so-fuel-efficient (but simple and inexpensive) 2.5 liter in-line five that used to be the Passat’s standard engine in favor of aslightly more fuel-efficient (but more expensive and complicated) four cylinder turbocharged engine.
This year, Uncle’s nixed the extremely fuel-efficient TDI diesel engine that used to be optionally available in the Passat. It’s off the roster for now and possibly forever – or at least, until Uncle gives VW permission to sell diesel engines in the United States again.
Which may never happen.
It’s still a great car, though.
For one thing, it’s a big (nearly full-sized) car with a smaller (mid-sized) car’s price tag. For another, it’s very closely related to a high-end luxury car – and it shows.
For one more thing, VW still offers a big V6 in the thing – a type of engine that’s becoming scarce in this segment (again, because Uncle).
It’s just a got-damned shame about that diesel engine… .
WHAT IT IS
The Passat is VW’s large sedan, comparable in terms of interior spaciousness with models like the Toyota Avalon and Chevy Impala. It’s also the only car in this class with German prestige-brand DNA … through its corporate kinship with Audi.
It’s basically an Audi A6 sans some bells and whistles… .
Just don’t say anything, ok?
Prices start at $22,440 for the base S trim with the now-standard 1.8 liter turbocharged four and a six speed automatic. A top-of-the-line SEL with VW’s 3.6 liter Vs and a six-speed automated manual (DSG) transmission stickers for $36,835.
Possible cross-shops include other large FWD sedans like the Toyota Avalon, which only comes with a V6 and starts at $32,650 – and the Chevy Impala, which offers a four and a six, and has a base price (with the four) of $27,095.
You can get an R-Line version of the Passat now. It comes standard with a 19-inch wheel/tire package, leather-wrapped sport steering wheel and various other trim upgrades.
All Passats lose the VW Dongle – the awkward, VW-specific hook-up for devices such as iPods – and get a standard USB interface.
There’s no manual transmission option anymore and the TDI diesel is on the back bench indefinitely.
You can order collision avoidance with automatic braking, a blind spot monitor and land departure warning. If you’re someone who needs that sort of “help” with your driving.
Fortunately, it’s all optional.
For the moment.
A less flashy – and much less pricey A6 on the DL. With more interior space.
A steal compared with the Avalon (which also has less space inside).
Base-engined (four cylinder) Passat smokes base-engined Impala (and costs less, too).
Base-engined (four cylinder) Passat also capable of almost 40 MPG on the highway (much better than either the four-cylinder Impala or the V6-only Avalon).
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
No more simple five-cylinder without a turbo.
No more manual transmission.
No more diesel (for now).
V6 is only available in the most expensive SEL trim.
Potential depreciation hit as a result of the tar-and-feathering of VW over the diesel “cheating” scandal.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Passat differs from its two chief rivals in this class in that its standard engine is a four cylinder engine but not a weak engine.
It’s VW’s excellent 1.8 liter four, direct-injected and turbocharged. It doesn’t come across as ferocious on paper – it’s rated as developing 170 hp, less than the Impala’s standard 196 hp, 2.5 liter four (and much less than the Toyota Avalon’s standard 268 hp 3.5 liter V6) but nonetheless, it manages to get the Passat to 60 in about 7.6 seconds – while also delivering 25 city, 38 highway.
This is much better on both counts than the four cylinder version of the Impala, which isn’t particularly fuel efficient (22 city, 31 highway) and not nearly as quick (0-60 takes about 8 seconds).
While the Avalon – which again comes standard with a 268 hp V6 – is much quicker 6.4 seconds to 60) it’s also much more expensive ($32,650 to start vs. $22,400 for the Passat 1.8) and – as you’d expect – uses more fuel (21 city, 31 highway).
So, the 1.8-equipped Passat is something of a wild card in this class. Power and economy and affordability, too.
The only downside – if you care about such things – is that VW no longer sells a manual transmission with the Passat. It’s been taken off the roster – along with the formerly standard in-line five cylinder engine. Also – possibly – higher down-the-road repair/maintenance costs due to the added hardware (turbo, the plumbing associated with it., etc.)
A six-speed automatic with Sport mode comes standard with the 1.8 liter engine.
To go heads up with the V6 Avalon and Impala, you’ll want the available 3.6 liter V6, which makes 280 hp and is paired with a six-speed automated manual (DSG) transmission that’s more efficient and quicker-shifting than a conventional automatic.
So equipped, the Passat morphs into one of the quickest cars in its class (zero to 60 in about 6.3-6.4 seconds, dead even with the V6 Avalon and V6 Impala) while still maintaining class-competitive gas mileage numbers (20 city, 28 highway, slightly better than the V6 Impala’s 18 city, 28 highway) and slightly worse than the Avalon’s class-best 21 city, 31 highway).
The downside is the V6 is only available in the top-of-the-line SEL trim, which starts at $36,845 – more expensive (though not hugely so) than both the V6 Avalon and the V6-equipped Impala.
It’s a shame that VW doesn’t offer the V6 as an a la carte upgrade for less-expensive Passat trims, especially the performance-themed R-Line version (which gets the suspension and wheel and tire upgrades, just not more gumption under the hood).
Also a shame is the back-benching of the formerly available TDI diesel engine option – which gave the Passat something no other car in the class offered. It’s very possible the TDI engine will never return due to the political fallout attending the scandal.
VW has done a terrible job explaining the story to the public – leaving the media free to smear the superb TDI engines as “dirty.”
They’re not. But perception is everything.
This has hurt VW – and it hurts us, too. Because now we can’t get a 40 MPG-capable Passat that can go 600 miles in between fill-ups.
ON THE ROAD
You won’t be disappointed by the 1.8 liter Passat’s ability to get going.
The turbo engine’s maximum torque (184 ft.-lbs.) is made at just 1,500 RPM – and it’s maintained throughout the power band – so it’s at your disposal whenever you need it. As a counterpoint, the four cylinder Impala’s torque peak (187 ft.-lbs.) isn’t achieved until you spin the engine to 4,400 RPM. What that means, real-world driving-wise, is that you have to floor the Impala’s gas pedal (and keep it floored) to wring anything approximating acceleration out of it – whereas light pressure on the Passat’s accelerator results in immediate forward thrust.
It also means it’s not necessary to upgrade to the much more expensive V6 SEL to get a Passat that performs well. The Impala’s a very nice big lug of a car, but in four cylinder form, it’s under-engined. The Avalon’s also very nice – and its not under-engined – but it is expensive.
The 1.8 Passat is neither of those things.
In addition to its generous spread of torque, it also has a fun over-rev feature that adds to the spiciness of the experience. Put pedal to the metal and the engine will spin about 600 RPM into the red zone of the tach (about 6,500 RPM) before the transmission shifts up to the next gear. Don’t worry – it’s ok – the engine is built to handle this or VW would not have programmed it to spin that high.
It’s just a doggone shame VW doesn’t offer this quick-punching turbocharged four with a six-speed manual transmission. Which is the case (like the departed diesel) because Uncle – whose fuel efficiency fatwas are systematically eliminating manual transmissions (which are slightly less fuel-efficient than automatics) from the new car marketplace.
If you like to corner, spring for the R-Line. You’ll get bumped up not one, not two but three sizes, wheel-wise, from the base car’s 16-inch rims to 19s, shoed with sport tires that sharpen the car’s already excellent reflexes and without killing the ride quality. This is a point worth harping on for a moment. It is often the case that going with 19 or 20-inch wheels results in a car that feels like a Harley hardtail on anything but glass-smooth pavement, of which there’s not much in these days of crumbling infrastructure.
VW (being Audi’s budget arm) knows how to dial in suspensions for handling without killing the car’s ride.
A big part of that equation is getting a handle on the car’s weight. It’s hard to make a tank like the Impala – which weighs in at almost 3,700 pounds for the four cylinder model – agile and smooth. The Passat 1.8 weighs just 3,263 pounds – vs. 3,662 pounds for the four cylinder Impala, a difference of almost 400 pounds.
Ask a chassis engineer about dealing with that. About tying it all down.
Even the Avalon is a fatty compared with the VW – which is surprising for a Toyota.
Both of them – the Impala and the Avalon – are great highway cars and exceptionally comfortable cruising-around-town cars. But don’t try to keep up with a Passat in the curves.
Another tangible metric of the VW’s superior maneuverability is its much tighter turning circle – 36.4 feet vs. the Impala’s 40 feet and the Avalon’s 38.8 feet.
Now, it’s true the Impala and the Avalon are both a bit larger on the outside. But that’s no excuse given they are both less roomy on the inside.
Let’s have a look at that now.
AT THE CURB
Here’s another way the Passat’s different:
It’s not quite full-size on the outside, being 191.9 inches long overall vs. 195.3 for the Avalon and a truly Shamu-like 201.3 inches long overall vs. the Impala. But check the interior specs.
The VW has 42.4 inches of front seat legroom and 39.1 inches for the backseaters – slightly more room in both rows than the Avalon (42.1 inches and 39.2 inches, respectively) and nearly as much room as the much larger-on-the-outside Impala (45.8 inches of legroom up front and 39.8 in the second row).
Yes, ok – the Impala does have a couple inches more legroom up front – but anything more than 42 inches is of relevance to the NBA statured only. I’m 6ft 3 – and need to slide the Passat’s (and the Impala’s) driver seat forward to get my feet comfortably close to the pedals.
It’s the back seat number that’s functionally more relevant – and the Passat’s is virtually the same as the Impala’s.
And – tall people take note – the VW hasseveral inches more headroom for the driver and front seat passenger than the Impala: 42.4 inches vs. 39.9 inches. The Avalon has even less room for your head – 38.5 inches.
Keep in mind that Germans are large people – and the Passat was designed by such people.
Headroom in the second row is more generous as well, though not to such an obvious degree: 37.8 inches vs. 37.4 in the Impala and 37.9 in the Avalon.
The one measure where the VW’s smaller package manifests is trunk space. It has a mid-sized car’s 15.9 cubic footer. The Impala boasts a Goodfellas-style 18.8 cube trunk.
On the other hand, the Avalon’s trunk is only 16 cubic feet – an unnoticeable difference vs. the Passat’s. And the Passat’s trunk has a useful pass-through that makes it feasible to carry a pair of skis (or some 2x4s) inside the car with the trunk closed.
Visually, the Passat is less striking than the sleek – and imposing (due to its exterior size) Impala. It shares with its Audi cousins a kind of understated but still upscale ambiance, especially inside – where the materials and trim used in even the base S version are all above-par. This classiness is particularly striking given the $22k-ish base price of the Passat – which is thousands of dollars less than least expensive versions of either the Avalon or the Impala. They had damned well better be nice given what you’re expected to pay for one. But you don’t expect the Passat to be as nice as it is given what you’re asked to pay for it.
Note that even the base ($22k) Passat S comes with dual zone climate control, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, power windows and locks, a nice six-speaker stereo and an LCD touchscreen.
The much more expensive-to-start Impala does not come standard with climate control – just plain old AC . The Avalon is better-equipped as it sits (heated leather seats, an eight-speaker stereo and a larger LCD touchscreen) but then it ought to be better equipped as-it-sits given it costs about $10k more to start.
If you order the R-Line Passat, you will get most of the things that come in the more expensive Avalon and Impala (including leather trim) and (for a little more) heated leather seats and still pay a lot less than you would for either the Impala or the Avalon. And you’ll get the 19-inch wheel/tire package, too.
VW has added a bunch of electronic stuff – for those who want such stuff. This includes collision mitigation with automatic braking, a blind spot monitor rear cross-traffic alert and lane departure warning. Luckily – for those who do not want such stuff and prefer not to pay extra for it – it’s optional and so (for now) avoidable.
This is just me ranting here, but an attentive driver doesn’t need the above stuff – which adds both expense and distraction as the buzzers beep and lights light.
Adaptive cruise control is available – but it’s a not-obnoxious technology (unlike the above). Same goes for the available foot-swipe trunk opener and the new Car-Net smartphone integration that includes Android Auto, CarPlay and MirrorLink.
Best of all, the weird (and uniquely) VW little dongle thingie that the Passat used to come with, that you had to use to connect your iPod or phone with, has been thrown in the woods in favor of a standard USB port.
Worst of all, the TDI engine is unavailable – and not just in the Passat.
VW has had to bend knee to Uncle and isn’t selling any TDI engines in any of its current cars, including the Beetle and Golf and Jetta as well as the Passat.
This may change as the year rolls on, but as of mid-March, if you want a diesel-powered VW, you’re only options are to buy a used diesel VW… or go to Europe, where they’re still available new.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Despite Uncle’s interferences, the Passat remains not just the value choice among large sedans, it’s also the performance and economy choice.
Eric Peters is the automotive columnist for the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. Visit his website at ericpetersautos.com.
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