The NMA Foundation presents Eric Peter’s Car Review, a weekly Saturday feature on the NMA blog.
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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 a slightly 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 (and other VWs).
It’s still a great car, though.
For one thing, it’s big. Nearly full-sized inside — with a mid-sized car’s price tag.
For another, it’s very closely related to a high-end luxury car — the Audi A6.
For one more thing, it’s still available with a V6. This is a type of engine that’s becoming scarce as Uncle imposes ever-stricter fuel-efficiency fatwas.
The six doesn’t suck that much fuel, either: 20 city, 28 on the highway — vs. 23 city, 34 highway for the otherwise standard turbocharged four.
Not a big whoop.
But expect the VW six to go away soon — for the same reason other manufacturers (Mazda, for example, which no longer offers a six in the Mazda6) have been doing away with them.
WHAT IT IS
The Passat is VW’s biggest sedan.
It’s got a smaller footprint than full-size sedans like the Chevy Impala and Toyota Avalon — but nearly as much room inside — and for a lot less money, too.
It’s also the only car in this class with German prestige-car kinship.
It’s basically a lower-profile Audi A6.
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 V6 and a six-speed automated manual (DSG) transmission stickers for $33,995.
The least expensive version of the Avalon starts at $33,250; $27,300 for the cheapest (and four cylinder-powered) Impala.
A V6 Impala Premier — comparably equipped to the top-of-the-line VW Passat SEL — stickers for $35,645.
More like what’s gone.
No more TDI. No more manual transmission option.
Both because Uncle.
The TDI being politically incorrect — the manual being slightly less fuel-efficient than the automatics VW now uses exclusively in order to maximize its “fleet average” mileage numbers.
On the upside, all Passats lose the awkward, VW-specific dongle hook-up thing for devices such as iPods — and get a standard USB interface in its place.
You can also get an Audi-esque R-Line version of the Passat now. It comes standard with a 19-inch wheel/tire package, leather-wrapped sport steering wheel and other high-end trim upgrades.
On the saaaaaaaaafety front, a collision avoidance system with automatic braking, a blind spot monitor and land departure warning are available, too. Thankfully, these are optional.
Limo-like back seat. Mid-size car parkability.
$10k less to start than an Avalon.
Base-engined (four cylinder) Passat is much quicker than base-engined/four-cylinder Impala.
Costs thousands less, too.
Base-engined (four cylinder) Passat is 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.
V6 is only available in the most expensive SEL trim.
DSG automatic (V6 models) is very expensive to repair/replace. Be hipped.
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 isn’t 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 7.5 seconds — while also delivering 25 city, 34 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 as quick (0-60 takes about 8 seconds) because it’s heavier.
While the Avalon — which comes standard with a 268 hp V6 — is quicker (6.4 seconds to 60) it’s also much more expensive 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.
The only downside, 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.
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.
So equipped, the Passat morphs into one of the quickest cars in its class (zero to 60 in about 6.3-6.4 seconds, 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).
Unfortunately, the hunky V6 is only available in the higher-cost trims, which takes away from the Passat’s otherwise huge advantage as the value proposition in this class.
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).
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 appears the TDI engine will never return due to the political fallout attending the scandal.
This is VW’s fault. The company caved in completely, never explaining to the public that while it was true the “affected” cars were jiggered with to “cheat” Uncle’s emissions test, the actual emissions were literally fractional and caused harm to no one. Uncle’s tests, meanwhile, have imposed thousands of dollars in per costs, billions in cost on the industry and cost untold thousands of people their jobs.
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 — which is 75 percent of redline. Real-world driving-wise, 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.
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 it is not under-engined — but it is expensive.
The 1.8 Passat is neither of those things.
It’s not necessary to upgrade to the more expensive V6 to get a Passat that performs well.
In addition to its generous spread of torque, the 1.8 liter engine 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 – its ok — the engine is built to handle this or VW would not have programmed it to spin that high.
It’s just a 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.
Especially the family car marketplace. Good luck finding one.
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. That’s 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
The Passat is 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 in its second row — 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).
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 much larger on the outside Impala’s.
Also — the VW has several 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 (two bodies) 18.8 cube trunk.
On the other hand, the Avalon’s trunk is only 16 cubic feet — an unnoticeable difference vs. the Passat’s.
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 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.
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 — it has manual 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 someone more interested in driving than texting 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 thingy 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.
They are gone for good.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Despite taking some serious hits, the Passat is still one of the most appealing — and affordable — family cars in the under $30k bracket. You get more car for your money — literally.
But the death — the murder — of the TDI engine is nothing less than tragic.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos