By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The old Beetle was designed as “the people’s car” — for European people. It was very small — and very small engined. The current Passat, on the other hand, was specifically designed for the American people — and is actually made in America (TN).
It’s a bigger car than the European market Passat — and (when ordered with its optionally available diesel engine) comes with a bigger diesel engine (2.0 vs. 1.6 liters).
It’s a car for Americans who want more room (and perhaps more power) in a German-brand car — but without the otherwise inevitable German-brand price tag.
It has other virtues, too — including a more comprehensive engine lineup, and the availability of a manual transmission with two of its three available engines. The previous Passat was automatic-only — and came with just one engine.
WHAT IT IS
The Passat is VW’s medium-large sedan, comparable in size/price and so on with Japanese and American models like the Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry.
It differs from competitor models in several objective and subjective ways. Objectively, it’s the only German brand car in this price range. It’s also the only modestly priced largish sedan you can buy with a diesel engine — and which doesn’t rely on downsized for fuel economy reasons (but turbo’d to make up for it) four-cylinder gas engines.
Subjectively, the Passat is also a bit quieter-looking than its more stylistically exuberant Japanese and home-brand competitors.
Prices start at $20,845 for the base S model with 2.5 liter five-cylinder gas engine and run up to $33,525 for a loaded SEL Premium V-6 with six-speed automated manual transmission.
A diesel-equipped Passat TDI starts at $26,225.
For comparison, a base model Honda Accord sedan starts at $21,680 and tops out at $33,430. The Nissan Altima sedan starts at $21,760 and runs to $30,560. A Ford Fusion starts at $21,900 and crests at $30,200.
And yes — you can get diesel power in the 2014 Chevy Cruze — and for just $24,855 — but the Cruze is a much smaller car than the Passat; it competes more with the Jetta TDI.
VW redid the Passat last year, so the ’13 is a carryover — other than the new-for-13 Wolfsburg Edition (which includes a unique wheel/tire package as well as interior and exterior cosmetic tweaks) and a new rearview camera system.
Audi-esque feel/fit/finish and handling — VW price tag.
Available diesel engine — and 40-plus MPG.
No over-stressed/small-displacement turbocharged four-cylinder engines.
Manual transmission available with base engine.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
So-so acceleration (and gas mileage) with base 2.5 gas engine.
We don’t get 50 MPG-capable Euro-market 1.6 liter diesel engine.
No manual transmission available with V-6 engine.
No TDI (and AWD) wagon version . . . for us.
Some secondary controls (outside mirror adjust buttons) are less than ideally placed.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Passat’s standard 2.5 liter engine is unusual because it’s not a four cylinder engine — unlike the standard engines in every other car in this segment. It’s a five-cylinder — and makes 170 hp and 177 lbs.-ft. of torque. However, despite its additional piston, the 2.5 liter five’s power/torque output isn’t better than several competitors’ fours — and in some cases, it’s less. The Honda Accord’s standard 2.4 liter four, for example, makes 185 hp — and 181 ft.-lbs. of torque. The Nissan Altima’s 2.5 liter four makes 182 hp and 180 ft.-lbs.
So, what’s the upside to the VW five?
The torque it does make is accessible sooner — 3,250 RPM vs. 3,900 RPM for the Accord’s four and 4,000 RPM for the Altima’s (and the Ford Fusion’s base 2.5 liter four — which also only makes 170 hp).
Put another way, the VW engine feels (and probably is) a bit less stressed because it doesn’t need to rev as high to produce its peak torque. This is particularly relevant if you decide to buy the optional automatic transmission. Smaller engines and automatics often don’t mix very well — because smaller engines often don’t make a lot of torque and whatever torque they do make is often made closer to the engine’s redline than idle speed. Since you can’t rev the engine up and release the clutch — as you’d do with a manual transmission — the car feels sluggish coming off the line, until the revs build and the engine starts making torque — which is what matters insofar as getting you moving.
But here’s the big sell as far as the VW’s 2.5 liter engine: Unlike several competitors, VW sells the Passat’s base engine with your choice of either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. The four-cylinder Altima comes only with a continuously variable (CVT) automatic. The base Fusion is also automatic-only. Others in this general class — like the Toyota Camry — are also sold with automatics, take it or leave it. One of the few that’s not is the Accord. You can get a manual transmission with the base four. But if you want an automatic, you get a CVT — a noisier species of transmission than the conventional (hydraulic) automatic like the Passat’s optional box and the automatics offered in other cars.
Now, it’s true that the competition’s automatic-saddled fours are sometimes quicker (the Accord gets to 60 in 7.6 seconds vs. about 8.9 for the manual-equipped 2.5 liter Passat) but being able to do things like feather the clutch for a fast launch — or just being able to change gears when and how you want to — makes driving the car a bit more fun. Also, from a down-the-road expenses point of view, a manual-equipped car will probably cost you less to keep. It may need a new clutch at some point. But barring abuse or a defective design, the transmission itself ought to last the life of the vehicle. Automatics often fail sooner — and when they do, replacement costs (these days) can be eye-popping.
Gas mileage with the 2.5 engine is 22 city, 32 highway (with the manual) and 22 city, 31 highway with the optional automatic. This falls just under the base-engined Fusion — 22 city, 34 highway — and a lot under the new four-cylinder Accord, which rates 27 city, 36 highway. The 2.5 liter Altima does even better: 27 city, 38 highway.
But, VW has an answer to that — the TDI Passat. The 2.0 liter turbocharged diesel — which is also available with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed “direct shift” (DSG) automated manual — slams down an unbeatable 31 city, 43 highway. I’ve driven this car and can report that — for once — the advertised/EPA mileage is below what the car is realistically capable of. I have personally managed 45-47 on the highway. This is exceptional — and it’s possible without the expense/hassle/compromise of a hybrid gas-electric drivetrain.
The TDI Passat also performs, courtesy of the tremendous torque output of the diesel engine (236 lbs.-ft., produced just over idle speed).
And for more performance, VW offers a 280 hp 3.6 liter V-6. So equipped, the Passat is capable of reaching 60 in about 6.3 seconds. That’s about half a second quicker than the top-of-the-line Ford Fusion equipped with its turbo 2.0 engine (240 hp) and just a tick behind the quickest car in this class, the V-6 powered Accord (278 hp) which gets to 60 in 6.1 seconds.
Unfortunately, the Passat’s V-6 is not offered with a manual transmission — just the DSG auto-manual. Probably because of fuel efficiency pressures. With the very efficient DSG automatic, the 3.6 liter engine manages a not-bad 20 city, 28 highway. But with a manual, this number might have been a lot lower. For example, while the automatic-equipped V-6 Accord gets 21 city, 34 highway, the same engine with a manual transmission (in the Accord coupe) drops to 18 city, 28 highway.
VW — like everyone else — has to sweat the MPGs. Not so much because buyers are demanding it but because the government has required it. Two model years from now — 2016 — any car that doesn’t average 35.5 MPG will come with “gas guzzler” fines tacked on to its MSRP.
While it used to be true that a manual offered an efficiency advantage vs. an automatic, today, the reverse is largely true. Modern automatics — especially CVT and DSG-types — are actually more fuel-efficient than manual transmissions.
That’s why most car companies are going over to automatics — and in more and more cases, dropping manuals from the roster entirely.
ON THE ROAD
The Passat personality range is wider than most of its rivals — because most only offer two engine options — the “economy” engine and the “performance” engine. There’s not much in the middle. With Passat, you can go with the base 2.5 engine for economy — and still have some fun with the six-speed manual transmission. Or, get the TDI — and get economy and fun.
Or the V-6 — and just a lot of fun.
The Ford Fusion is one of the Passat’s few rivals that offers three engine options, but the base- engined version (being sold only with an automatic) is about as much fun as leftover hospital food. It gets the job done — nothing extra. And the Fusion — like every other car in this segment — simply hasn’t got anything in its roster that can compare with the TDI-equipped Passat’s exceptional economy, fun-to-drive character and probable service life of 300k-plus with decent treatment (being a diesel).
Though not a threat to Corvettes, you can have a lot of fun with that TDI — which can do a pretty impressive front-wheel-drive burnout, if you want it to. The V-6 Passat, on the other hand, would be more appealing if you could shift for yourself. Granted, the Passat’s competition is also automatic-only but that’s all the more reason for VW to offer a manual with the V-6. With the DSG, the Passat sometimes feels sluggish — there’s a slight but noticeable lag in between what your right foot inputs and when the transmission responds. As far as the base 2.5 engine, it’s a tangible, milder-mannered counterpoint to the peaky power of the smaller/higher-strung fours in the competition. Teamed up with the manual, it also makes the Passat more of a driver’s car — and thus, more like European cars — even if it’s not as quick as the auto-only competition.
VWs used to have the market cornered — at this price point — when it came to “European” ride and handling. Which just meant that the car had a firmer ride relative to American cars and handled with greater precision than the typical Japanese car (again, in this class). But, that’s no longer true — because the American and Japanese cars in this class have all been tuned to the same “European” wavelength. Even the Toyota Camry. Formerly the best ’88 Buick Japan ever made, it is now (the current model) as “European” feeling as anything else in this segment.
So, the main reason to buy a Passat is to get something different drivetrain-wise.
It’s just a crying shame we (apparently) will not get either the wagon — or the “All-track” AWD system. These are for European buyers only.
AT THE CURB
One of the Passat’s particular plusses has long been that it comes off as an almost-Audi — which is not far from the truth, given VW and Audi are like Chevy and Cadillac, part of the same corporate team.
Park the Passat next to an A4 or A6 and you’ll see the kinship in form.
This doesn’t mean the Passat is a de-contented/lower-priced A4 or A6. It does mean they’re related by blood (so to speak) and that the DNA shows.
Another aspect of the Passat’s perennial appeal is its conservatively evolving styling — which keeps older models looking current longer and will probably do the same for this model, too.
But, the big news about the new Passat is that it’s a bigger Passat: 191.6 inches long overall vs. 188.2 previously, and rides on almost four inches more wheelbase (110.4 inches vs. 106.7). This was all done to carve out more interior room, to make the German-brand Passat a bit more appealing to American buyer preferences.
How much more room?
How about an inch more front seat legroom (42.4 inches vs. 41.4) and 1.4 inches more second row legroom (39.1 inches vs. 37.7 inches)? Ok, that’s not earth-shakingly different. Here’s one stat that is: The 2013 Passat has 2.4 inches more shoulder room in back (and 1.2 more up front) than the old Passat — which makes it seem noticeably more spacious. VW adds to the effect by cleverly scalloping the inner door panels, leaving you both the impression and the actuality of more elbow room. And the trunk is slightly larger now, too: 15.9 cubic feet vs. 14.2 before.
Basically, what VW did was make the Passat same-size (U.S.-size) as the others it competes with rather than leave it slightly smaller — and slightly more “Euro,” as it had previously and traditionally been.
Some fault VW for upsizing the Passat but it probably makes sense from a business point-of-view. Though the previous Passat was more like the VWs in Europe, the fact is this is America — and different rules apply. In any case, the current Passat no longer has to make excuses for being a bit smaller outside — and a tighter fit on the inside — than the others in this segment.
One thing I’d really like to see is a “de-contented” TDI Passat — that is, a Passat with just the TDI engine, the manual six-speed and a handful of necessary basic equipment like AC — and all the rest available but optional. This way, VW could offer the superb TDI engine and the superb fuel economy it delivers at a much more economical price. Maybe $23k or so — about the same as a gas-engined SE Passat. This, by the way, is how diesel-powered cars are sold in Europe. Here, they’re sold as higher-trim/higher-priced models, typically loaded up with cost-adding luxury features that are certainly nice to have but which also eat away at the primary reason for buying a diesel-powered car. You know — to save money.
It’d be really nice to have access to the Euro Passat — which is smaller and has that 50-MPG capable version of the TDI engine. But, no dice.
I’d also like VW to re-locate the controls for the outside rearview mirrors to a less awkward-to-get-at place. Right now, they’re positioned at an unnatural angle (for the human wrist) on the door panel — because the current shape of the arm rest doesn’t leave room for the controls. Also, the little toggle button seemed fragile to me — and likely to break off at some point down the road.
And: How about an off switch for the DRLs? They’re not — yet — mandatory. I think it’s silly to drive around in broad daylight with your headlights burning. I’d like to be able to turn my headlights on when necessary — and off when they’re not.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Passat has more competition than ever, but still offers more than most of its competition.
Now about that TDI wagon . . .