When Volkswagen introduced the current North American market, US-built Passat in 2011, it was a move seen as either heresy or necessity, depending on which side of the VW enthusiast fence you sat on. After all, if the company wasn’t going to trade on its “Continental manufacturing for the mainstream” appeal, what was the point? At least, that was the counterargument to VW’s claim that a midsize sedan designed specifically for the North American market would finally allow them to compete on price, size and content with competitors from Asia and the US. Despite being three model years in, we haven’t yet covered the “NMS” Passat on these pages. No time like the present…
While it may be known internally as the NMS (new midsize sedan), H.M.S. might have been a more appropriate designation – this thing is a yacht. Rear seat legroom, even behind a tall driver, is enough for any budding taxi or livery fleet to bank their success on; ditto the trunk. If merit was based purely on rear seat accommodations, the Passat would surely be a homerun. Of course, it’s not quite that easy, as VW has discovered – the Passat has been relegated to the bottom half of the segment sales charts since introduction. As I would come to find out during my week with the car, that probably has more to do with the stalwarts in this class and the competence of those challengers than any major shortcomings on the Passat’s part.
Still, it must be said – one problem the Passat faces in this larger-than-life marketplace is its styling: it’s conservative almost to a fault. While I find it to be quite classy and unassuming (which is what some would expect in a German car), its competitors sport more visual flash and still manage to put butts in the seats. It’s especially restrained on lower trim levels, where 16-inch alloys or even wheel covers stand in for our SEL’s tasty 18-inch split-five alloys. Still, while the styling may not light hearts afire, the paint quality and shutlines are better than average for the class.
The interior continues the theme of restraint, with Coal Bin Black™ being the color theme of the day, aside from a few wood trim flourishes on the dash and doors. For this lover of mid-90s Japanese autos, the large side windows and low cowl/short dash combination bring back the airy greenhouse feeling of some of my favorites – 1990-93 Accord, I’m looking in your direction. So even though the materials used are dark, the interior still feels bright and spacious, and assembly quality is typically VW/Audi tight.
Out on the road, the Passat drives like a big, laid back cruiser – far from the buttoned-down home market feel of its German-made B7 predecessor. Large undulations are felt in two complete up-and-down motions rather than just one, and while a smooth ride is fine, more damper control would be nice. Cornering attitude actually remains quite flat, which is unexpected given the soft ride quality, and the steering is light in effort but accurate and trustworthy.
Replacing the previous 2.5-liter naturally aspirated 5-cylinder power unit is a standard 1.8-liter turbocharged and direct-injected four cylinder from the EA888 family, which pumps out 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet. While not much stronger on paper, real-world grunt over the old five-cylinder is palpable, and the real reason it’s here – for improved fuel economy – is immediately apparent in the EPA ratings. Ratings of 24 city and 34 highway trounce the old engine’s 22/31, and with the torque peak now occurring at just 1,500 rpm instead of 4,250, the six-speed auto can upshift early on a wave of torque while still providing adequate forward progress. It’s more than a little reminiscent of the TDI/6-speed DSG combo also available in the Passat, right down to the clattery engine note – though at idle, virtually no engine noise or vibration enters the cabin. Mileage-wise, I was only able to eke out a 27.6 MPG average in mixed conditions, which makes me wonder whether an engine start-stop system might be a worthwhile mid-cycle addition to improve around-town mileage. Highway mileage registered in the low 30s.
With a monster 18.5 gallon tank and honest 30+ MPG highway capability, the Passat is truly a mile crusher – 550-mile ranges are well within reach on road trips. The rest of the car certainly won’t beat you up, either. The seats are comfortable, the Fender-branded stereo is strong (though touchscreen inputs sometimes lag before registering), and all controls feel properly judged and weighted. It’s a nice place to spend time, and it’s quiet – really quiet. Unless you’re on rough pavement, that is – our tester’s 18-inch, 235-section tires and an utter lack of wind noise probably conspired to amplify perceived road noise more than a decibel meter could confirm, but there was enough of a sound difference between smooth and pitted pavement for me to notice. Is it a deal-breaker? No. But if you’re shopping the Passat, you may want to try a trim level with 16- or 17-inch wheels back to back with the SEL to see if there’s an improvement.
Overall, then, the Passat is a bit of a mixed success. Is it a nice car? Absolutely. And it certainly feels built to hold up in the long run and remain cheap to operate, something its complex forebears couldn’t always say. But does it retain that “Germanic” feel that drew so many now-loyalists to the VW nameplate in the first place? It looks German, but in every other aspect, this is a car built to (perceived) American tastes of roominess and ride quality – whether or not those are current mid-size shoppers’ actual values is still up in the air.
2014 Volkswagen Passat 1.8T SEL Premium
Base price: $31,715
Price as tested: $31,715
Options on test car: None
Powertrain: 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive – 170 horsepower, 184 lbs-ft torque
S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 27.6 mpg
VW provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.