By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist Photo courtesy of CARICOS
When you’re the only game in town, you’ve pretty much got the market cornered.
But it helps when what you’re selling is also what people want.
People want Passats.
It’s a very popular car, in part because it’s the only German car in its class — and in this price range. The rest are (cue the italics and the umlaut) uber expensive due to their prestige branding.
Well, and the fact that anything with an Audi, BMW or Mercedes badge will also tend to be loaded with amenities and features — though sometimes, you’d be surprised what you don’t get unless you pay extra. Many BMWs, for instance, do not come standard with either seat heaters or satellite radio.
Neither does the Passat.
But then, it starts just over $21k(vs. twice-plus that for the prestige-badged jobs just mentioned).
And it’s a full-size sedan, or nearly so — roomier inside than an Audi A6, BMW 5 or Benz E.
And if you want a diesel engine?
Forget about it!
Well, unless you’re ready to pay $50k-plus for it (the least expensive of the three above being the Benz E250 BluTEC, which starts at $54,300.
The A6 TDI starts at $59,500.
A BMW 535d starts at $57,100.
And you’ll still pay extra for the seat heaters and the satellite radio.
Meanwhile, you can slide out the door in a new Passat TDI for just over $27k.
Add seat heaters if you like and still be out the door for under $30k.
In German, there’s a word for this.
WHAT IT IS
The Passat is VW’s largest sedan — very close in terms of exterior dimensions to premium-badged large sedans like the Audi A6 (which is its corporate cousin), the BMW 5 and the Benz E sedan.
Interestingly, it turns out that the Passat is roomier inside than all three.
And not by a little bit.
Like its German uber-sedan kin, you can also get a diesel engine in the VW.
But unlike its diesel powered Germanic brethren, you can get it for $27,095 to start.
No other (non-German) large sedan currently on the market offers a diesel engine at all — which leaves the Passat TDI in a class (and at a price point) all to itself.
VW has muscled up the power of the available TDI diesel engine (subject of this review). Claimed output is up to 150 hp vs. 140 last year. Performance is improved — and fuel efficiency is slightly better now than before.
The ’15 Passat TDI rates a very impressive 30 MPG in city driving and 44 on the highway with the standard six-speed manual transmission (another uniqueness, incidentally; good luck finding a diesel engine paired with a manual transmission in any other car that’s not a VW).
Exceptional mileage (expect higher than the EPA’s numbers), range and value.
Standard six-speed manual (available six-speed automated manual) vs. automatic-only A6 TDI, Benz E250 and BMW 535d.
First class second row accommodations vs. coach class in the E250, Benz E and corporate cousin A6 TDI.
Though not “prestige” badged, same cut-above German feel/fit and finish.
At a Japanese (or American) price point.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Thanks to Uncle, diesel fuel costs a lot more than regular unleaded, which undermines the economic case for diesel power to some extent at least.
Thanks to Uncle, VW (and every other automaker trying to sell diesels) has had to fit the Passat TDI with urea injection to maintain “50 state” emissions compliance. This means you’ll have to periodically top-off the tank with Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF). It’s not a big deal — or expense.
But it is a small hassle — and an additional small expense.
No 4-Motion AWD Passat TDIs… for us here in America.
Standard 17 inch wheels are not the hot ticket for maximum mileage. And the low aspect ratio (thin sidewall) tires that come with them are more vulnerable to damage from potholes and rocks in the road (more below).
UNDER THE HOOD
The ’15 Passat TDI has a 2.0 liter turbocharged, direct injected (hence “TDI”) diesel four cylinder engine -same displacement as the ’14 Passat’s 2.0 liter TDI engine.
Except that the ’15 TDI 2.0 is stronger by 10 hp — up to 150 hp now (torque output remains the same: 236 ft.-lbs. at 1,750 RPM). It has also been extensively redesigned and will form the basis of all future U.S.-spec. VW diesel engines. It features a turbocharger that’s physically integrated with the intake manifold rather than bolted on as an afterthought — as has historically been the practice. This new way sharpens up throttle response and (VW says) helps to lower the mill’s emissions -a huge big deal nowadays, especially for diesel engines. The block is cast iron (rather than aluminum) for sturdiness and has two gear driven counter-rotating balance shafts to deliver gas burner-smooth idle quality.
Interestingly — happily — the power boost does not come at the expense of MPGs. It turns out the more powerful ’15 TDI is more fuel-efficient: 30 city, 44 highway with the standard six-speed manual vs. 31 city, 43 MPG last year with the same combo. With the optional “direct shift” — DSG — six-speed automated manual, the number declines a little (vs. the six-speed you-shift-it-manual) to 30 city, 42 highway — still an uptick over the ’14 Passat TDI DSG’s 30 city, 40 highway.
The above is slightly unusual — for modern cars — in that it’s now actually more common for a given car with a manual transmission to deliver slightly lower fuel economy stats than the same car with an automatic transmission. So why the reverse here? It may be because the VW’s DSG automatic has only six forward gears — as opposed to seven or eight, as is becoming fairly common (the BMW 335d, as a for-instance, comes standard with an eight speed automatic; the Benz E250 with a seven-speed).
Regardless, the Passat TDI’s mileage is exceptionally good, regardless of the transmission you choose. I never averaged less than 43.6 MPG, incidentally. And my “high” was close to 50 MPG. This is typical. Ask someone who owns a Passat or any VW diesel.
They routinely outperform their EPA “best case” numbers.
This is really important to know in a grander scheme of things way.
Meaning, don’t be reluctant to buy the TDI because it looks like the diesel’s over-the-road advantage in economy (by the EPA numbers) is not too far removed from the economy of the gas-engined Passat’s (24 city, 36 highway with the automatic) while the up-front cost to buy the TDI is high enough that — you may think — you’ll never reach break even, or it’ll take a long time.
Trust me. It won’t. Reread the average numbers again. Even if you hammer the TDI, it’s almost impossible to get less than 40 MPG — average — out of it.
The gas engine, on the other hand, will — based on my personal experience driving several VWs so equipped — typically give you a bit less than the advertised mileage unless you drive it Granny Style. The mileage is still very good — for a gas burner — but it can’t touch what the TDI oil burner will give you.
Oh, and by the way — compare the mileage of the Passat TDI — the advertised mileage — with the advertised mileage of the $50k-and-up Audi, BMW and Benz diesels we’ve been talking about.
The A6 TDI — this is the 2016 model — only manages 25 city, 38 highway. A fairly weak 26 city, 38 highway for the BMW 5 diesel. The Benz does better: 28 city, 42 highway.
But none match the VW’s numbers.
All U.S.-spec. Passats are front-wheel-drive only.
ON THE ROAD
Hybrids get most of the press because they’re considered sexier somehow. I don’t get it, myself.
Why would you want to buy two engines (well, one engine plus an electric motor… plus a battery pack) to not go as far on a gallon of gas?
I don’t mean just MPGs, either — though there’s that. The Ford Fusion, hybrid, for example, rates 44 city, 41 highway — but it real-world averages mid-30s if you drive faster than 50 MPH about half the time. This is reflected by another number — the maximum miles you can travel on the highway on a full tank: 567 miles.
The Passat TDI is capable of going nearly 820 miles.
That’s one long-legged mack daddy. You can literally drive from say my neck of The Woods outside Roanoke, Virginia up to DC — — about 220 miles, one way — — turn around, come back… and not have to stop once for fuel.
But it’s about more than the range and economy of operation. Unlike hybrids, the TDI is — wait for it — quiet. Yes, yes, the hybrid makes no noise when the gas engine’s off and it’s creeping along on the batteries. But they run dry — get electric ED — real quick (typically, after maybe a mile of creeping along at stop-and-go speeds) and then (noticeable transition) on comes the gas engine. Which is a small, underpowered unit that wails its sorrows when taxed with other than languid acceleration. Most hybrids — the Ford Fusion hybrid, for example — have (effectively) one-speed continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmissions that are great for mileage, not so much for your ears. They rev the little gas engine to redline (or close to it) and hold it there — because the upper reaches of the RPM band are where gas engines make their power. And the undersized gas engines in hybrids don’t make much power.
Diesels make gobs of power — and they make it down low. In the Passat’s case, 236 ft.-lbs. at just off idle speed (1,750 RPM) which means maximum take-off thrust is available immediately — no waiting. And no thrashing. Just a nudge of the accelerator results in forceful thrust. If you push it down harder, you’ll squeal the tires. The manual makes it all the more fun but the DSG auto-box works well, too — because automatics work well with torquey engines — and the TDI is plenty that.
It’s also nice to be able to rack it up to 80 and have the engine basically yawning — turning a mere 2,100 or so revs at that speed in top gear.
And you’ll still be getting 40-something MPG.
Forget about that in a hybrid.
Their mileage droops like most men’s enthusiasm at the thought of a naked and fast-approaching Hillary Clinton. If you think you’re gonna get 41 (or 40 anything) on the highway out of a hybrid while driving 80… well, god bless you.
There is a serenity about the Passat. It’s unusually silent (yes, even with a diesel engine under the hood), confidently accelerates without the revvy drama of a gasser) and all around relaxes you. Drive one and then go try something like an Audi A6 TDI (they’re blood kin) and see what I mean. Then see what the difference in price is.
AT THE CURB
Speaking of the A6… the Passat is roomier inside.
More legroom in both rows (a lot more legroom in the second row). 42.4 inches for the driver and front seat passenger — 39.1 inches for the backseat passengers. The A6 — which is slightly longer overall (193.9 inches vs. 191.6 for the Passat) has 41.3 inches up front and 37.4 in the second row.
But the real shocker comes when you take a look at what you get — er, don’t get — in “mid-sized” sedans like the BMW 5 and Mercedes E.
How’s 35.3 and 35.8 inches (respectively) strike you?
The disparity arises from the fact that the Passat is closer — physically closer — to being a full-sized car.
On the inside, at least.
Did you know that the Passat has more backseat legroom than an Audi A8?
Well, now you do.
Some will say the comparison’s not apt because, after all, the A8 (and A6 and the BMW 5 and Benz E) are all “luxury” sedans and in a different class. Well, sure. In terms of price. But they’re all sedans — and the Passat’s got more room inside than they do.
A huge trunk, too — 15.9 cubic feet.
A BMW 5’s trunk is tiny: 14 cubic feet. So’s the A6’s: 14.1 cubes.
There are closer-in-price (and “prestige”) sedans like the Toyota Avalon and the Chevy Impala that have similarly comfortable — and spacious — cabins (and trunks).
Ah, but they don’t offer diesel power (and economy and long legs) do they?
It must also be mentioned that the Avalon costs about $5k more to buy: $32,285 vs. $27,095 for the base Passat TDI. But hey, you do get 1/10th of an inch more backseat legroom (39.2 inches) in the Toyota for your $5k extra.
And 21 city, 31 highway, too.
VW equips the TDI Passat generously (it comes with the same roster of standard equipment as the gas-engined SE and top-of-the-line SEL trims) but not ostentatiously. Seventeen inch wheels/tires (more on that below), heated outside mirrors, a nicer gauge package and an upgraded eight-speaker stereo are all included, along with the base S trim’s standard tilt/telescoping wheel, cruise control and most power accessories.
SEL TDIs add leather seats with handsome suede/Alcantara inserts, auto climate control and HD audio with a music storage hard drive.
The Passat can be looked at as a budget-priced Audi — which it is. All VWs are unique in this respect, being DNA kin to Audis and also being the only German-made cars that aren’t also high-end/high-priced cars.
It hasn’t got the monied luminosity of an Audi — or BMW or Benz. Meaning, you won’t feel or look like a member of the Top Hat Club.
But the Passat can be parked without worry on public streets.
And once you’re inside, you get two-thirds the Top Hat Club experience. And the other third — the profusion of typically over-the-top electronic gewgaws that are common in the prestige branded stuff — well, that’s stuff many people (me among them) happily do without. There’s no mouse input in the Passat; no “haptic” fingerslide/microwave oven-style touchpads.
But you can order those really excellent three-stage seat heaters (seat heaters in German cars always get hot, not merely warm) and while satellite radio and GPS are not standard, they are available — and you can kit your Passat TDI with both and still slide in under $30k.
One incongruity is the fitment of 17-inch wheels (18s, if you go with the SEL), which increase rolling resistance via additional unsprung mass. Big wheels might be sensible for the Passat Sport and Wolfsburg Editions. But for the TDI, the base S trim’s 16-inch wheels seem a better match. Not only would replacement tires be cheaper, but the ride quality would be softer and — big item — probably, fuel economy would be even better.
Also, the low aspect ratio (thin sidewall) tires that come with 17, 18 inch (and larger) rims are more vulnerable to damage from potholes — and rocks in the road — because they have less give built in. I encountered a small rockslide while driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway, ran over two fist-sized rocks and lost two of my test car Passat TDI’s not-cheap ContiPro tires.
I’d be willing to bet that had the car been riding on 16s (better yet, 15s) the tires — with more forgiving sidewalls — would have survived this encounter.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Sometimes, when you only have one choice, it’s not the best choice.
Here’s one that’s both.
This car kills.