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Driven: 2014 Volkswagen Passat 1.8T SEL

SAMSUNG CSC 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… SAMSUNG CSC 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. SAMSUNG CSC 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. SAMSUNG CSC 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. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC 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. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC 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. SAMSUNG CSC 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. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC 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.  SAMSUNG CSC 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.

First Drive: 2015 Volkswagen Golf TSI and TDI

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Such a feelin's comin' over me There is wonder in most everything I see Not a cloud in the sky, got the sun in my eyes And I won't be surprised if it's a dream

It’s 9:45 a.m., local time. I’m standing at one of what must be a hundred overlooks in Wildcat Canyon Park, looking down on, well, everything.  If you’ve never been to the Bay area (as I had not until this point), there’s no way for me to describe to you the view before me—one that photography has no hope of doing justice. There’s so much going on, yet it’s all encapsulated in a way. One could easily convince a child that the entire world exists within the geography visible from this vantage point. That goes a long way toward explaining the mindset of the average resident, I think. Twenty-four hours ago, I was boarding a plane in Baltimore. In another 24, I should be landing there again. Neither mind nor body has caught up to the change of venue (not to mention the change in time). No point in trying to adjust now, I suppose. “That car is hot,” remarks my co-driver, breaking my reverie. “Hmm?” “It’s hot. Can you smell it?” Indeed, the Golf smells strongly of friction material. Whether it’s from the brakes or the transmission, I can’t quite tell. But my companion has a point. We’ve only done maybe half a mile of non-abusive, uphill canyon driving to this point. There’s no reason for the car to be in any sort of distress. We both chew on the observation for another minute or two, try in vain to snap a smartphone picture that could do the view justice, and then hop back into the car. The new 1.8L Golf TSI may look like a baby GTI on paper. On the road, it’s a different story. Our tester is a four-door “S” model with the sunroof package and six-speed automatic. You have to upgrade to the “SE” trim for 17-inch alloys or “SEL” for 18-inchers. Consequently, our tester is a bit more prone to lean than some of the others may have been. The ride is still quite composed and the handling sharp enough for a little hustling, but the car likes to push and squeal a bit when the corners get tight.

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On the inside, the 2015 is still 100% Golf. The layout is simple and attractive. The plastics are of reasonable quality and the aluminum (Aluminum? Aluminum-look? Alum-enough, regardless) trim is tasteful and judiciously applied. I have only two gripes here. First off, the knobs and other switchgear are still a bit so-so. The HVAC knobs and such don’t feel particularly robust, for example, and as the former owner of a fourth-generation Passat whose radio knob and center console lid lasted all of a month, such things draw my attention. Secondly, what does it take to get a simple USB port in a Volkswagen product? It’s also worth mentioning as well that VW’s competitors are rapidly catching up. The new Mazda3, for example, is easily the VW’s equal. It feels strange to say it, but that makes it no less true. The VW’s cabin is quieter, but the Mazda’s feedback more granular. A wash on paper, maybe, but that’s the sort of thing that can sway a buying decision, depending on the customer. On the bright side, the 1.8L TSI engine is an excellent companion. The small turbocharger means quick spools for excellent response all over the rev range, and since the engine isn’t spun very high, it pulls nicely pretty much all the way to redline. It’s a great package for a daily driver, and while those of us who prefer naturally aspirated engines may miss the character of the old inline-five, the new turbo mill delivers 20% better highway fuel economy without the ridiculously tall gearing of the most recent 2.5L-equipped cars. It’s hard to argue with gaining 6 mpg, especially if you’re in marketing.

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After lunch, we grab a TDI for the drive back to the hotel. The route will take us across the Bay from Richmond to San Rafael, then south on 101, crossing the Golden Gate on the way back into town. Unlike the TSI, the TDI is just a new shell around the same driving experience. The new, two-liter engine is up 10 horsepower from the previous generation. Volkswagen claims it offers a one-mile-per-gallon improvement in both city and mixed driving, but the towering streets of downtown San Francisco are hardly the venue to substantiate that. The TDI is incredibly quiet, punchy and well-suited to highway slogs, and it’s the car to get if you’re the type to travel long distances at constant speeds. It’s no surprise to anybody that the new Golf lineup is stuffed with excellent vehicles; these cars have never suffered from negative critical reception. Where they typically suffer is in value proposition, and to their credit, Volkswagen has made an effort to rectify that.

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Most significantly, the TDI now starts at $21,995. That’s a nice drop from its previous starting MSRP, but at the expense of options. You’ll have to jump up to the $25,495 TDI “SE” if you want a car equipped comparably to the entry-level MkVI. This is a strategy VW has seen success with in the Jetta lineup, and I expect it will do equally well here. On the TSI side, there are no dramatic price shifts, but some options have been re-bundled to make the lower-level trims a better value compared to their outgoing equivalents. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it should help bring more eyes to the showroom, which is exactly what Volkswagen needs if they’re going to reverse the past year’s sales trends. The Golf’s a winner; that should be no surprise. Whether it’s enough to keep VW’s sales numbers afloat while they work to plug the holes in their lineup still remains to be seen.

Driven: 2014 VW Tiguan SE

SAMSUNG CSC VW’s first major foray into the US’s highly competitive (and highly important) small SUV marketplace was with the Tiguan back in 2008. The SE model pictured here is now six model years old, but largely unchanged. Has the Tiguan blossomed for the brand, or been left to wither on the vine? SAMSUNG CSC The fact that the Tiguan sells in largely the same format as it did when first introduced says more about the basic goodness of this “GTI on stilts” than any negligence on VW’s part. In fact, the car still feels fresh and competitive in 2014. Much of that is down to the level of construction and fit and finish in the cabin – a VW hallmark, but worth noting just the same. Despite having all the color variety of a coal bin, the Tiguan’s interior is airy and impeccably screwed together, feeling like something Audi could have sold to an unwitting customer who didn’t notice the VW badge on the grille. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC That solidity extends to the chassis and powertrain matchup; the 2.0 TSI engine from the GTI is pinned for duty here, matched up to a traditional 6-speed automatic instead of that car’s DSG gearbox. Throttle tip-in and midrange response are both well-judged, though the Tiguan’s extra few pounds do somewhat diminish the playfulness of this engine when installed in the GTI. Nevertheless, the 2.0T never feels out of breath and totes the Tiguan around with more than enough vigor. The 6-speed auto is smooth but tends to seek out the highest gear and stay there unless you’re really prodding the throttle, but that helped net an encouraging 25.3 miles per gallon overall out of the cute-ute during its time with me. At least you can call on the turbo four’s torque to pull you around slower traffic without necessitating a downshift, a feat few naturally aspirated competitors can accomplish. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Handling isn’t quite GTI tight, but it’s nip-and-tuck: the Tiguan is extremely agile for a compact SUV. The ride-and-handling tradeoff is well-judged; larger impacts are more heard than felt and all the rough edges are polished off the smaller divots in the road surface. SAMSUNG CSC The Tiguan’s really only been dinged in the past for its lack of cargo space compared with competitors, though honestly, the size and shape of the cargo bay, especially with the back seats folded flat, provides a meaningful argument in the Tiguan’s favor over other practical family mates like the GTI 5-door or Jetta Sportwagen. It’s also handier to park and a fair bit more nimble than its larger competition. To accommodate larger parcels, the front passenger seat folds flat – a trick not always included in this class. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC The Tiguan proves good things from Germany usually come in small packages, and with a redesign looming on the horizon, let’s hope VW doesn’t engineer any of that GTI DNA and build quality out of the current Tiguan’s successor. SAMSUNG CSC   2014 Volkswagen Tiguan SE Base price: $28,205 Price as tested: $28,205 Options on test car: None Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission – 200 horsepower, 207 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 25.3 mpg VW provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.  

Promises To Keep: Adventures In Mk2 Ownership

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Every once in a great while, one comes across a writer with a truly unique voice. Cherise LaPine Grueninger is one of those writers. Unfortunately, she and I spent the first few years of our acquaintance sparring over various issues related to auto enthusiasm in general and the VW hobby in particular. I'm pleased to state that we have now resolved these issues, almost entirely through a rather craven capitulation on my part, and that as a result Cherise will now be contributing to S:S:L on a recurring basis. Please make her welcome in this, her first column, as she details her love affair with a second-generation VW Golf --- jb
Story by Cherise LaPine Grueninger
I come from VWvortex, where "speed" and "sport" fall by the wayside in pursuit of "life," and maintaining the illusion of such. As a contributor to said site, I was dazzled by the privileges granted to the motoring media. Press cars are fabulous and I've driven my share, through generosity, negotiation and subterfuge. A long-termer is even better—it's always there when it's needed, insurance is covered by the manufacturer, and just when it's worn out its welcome, it's spirited away and something new comes along as a replacement. It's no wonder that some autojournos allow the reflected glory of a freebie-laden lifestyle to plump their vanity more than a little bit. I'm vain as well, though not beyond my means—I've been a slave to second-generation Jettas and Golfs for ten years, always interested in the relationship that develops between a car and its owner, a relationship that's impossible when cars are whisked in and out so frequently they're nearly indistinguishable. So for the past few years, I wrote most of VWvortex's features, a wholly unglamorous role that afforded me the luxury and pleasure of exploring these dynamics in depth. And thus, I consider myself proficient at the "life" component of our shared affliction of car love—that is, owning a particular car. The type of ownership that requires maintenance and insurance. True ownership is an emotional investment as much as a financial one; a fleeting sense of pride is its sought-after payoff. I didn't scout out perfect photogenic cars, but sought owners who would give me a worthwhile story. My subjects often showed a bit of reluctance. If a VW captured my attention, chances are its owner had mixed feelings about his or her investment; often they asked me if the sacrifices were worthwhile. It seemed an absurd question—as a result of these car projects, mother/daughter and father/son relationships were developed, Internet fame was achieved, and lifelong goals were fulfilled. Yet my own relationship with my car deteriorated, because my quest to investigate those other relationships drained me. I simply did not have the time, the strength or the money to continue my project. Driven by a need to justify the incomplete state of my own car, I was able to convince myself it was some form of martyrdom on behalf of the greater good of the VW community ---that, and I was contractually obligated to make appearances with a new addition to my household's fleet. Modifying your car with other peoples' money is loads of fun, even more so than flogging press cars, but this privilege was short-lived. It wasn't always this way; like most of the people I've met, I had grand delusions of owning a full-fledged, fully-restored show car. When I lived in New England, I had a dedicated (and decrepit) winter car and actually managed to avoid exposing my GTI to snow and salt; when I reached 25, I decided to take on a car payment for the first time. Both of these illicit lovers are gone and sorely missed, and the GTI has taken a much more realistic role in my life. It was nearly seven years ago that we found each other. Heartbroken over the premature death of my beloved '92 Jetta, I spent weeks looking for a suitable spiritual successor, found in a Montana Green 1991 8v. I saw the color and simply had to have one, and had the foresight to know that I'd never be respected as a car chick unless I learned to drive a manual. I located the perfect car, happily overpaid on eBay, and my course was set. Content with a low budget build, I found my stride one upgrade at a time. The "OEM-plus" method, where a car is modified by adding parts designed for higher-end versions of that same car and/or different model lines, lends itself especially well to slow progress; everything works together, but nothing is out of place alone. I'd go to shows and pull into the lineup, proud and eager to discuss my latest escapade or newest modification, only to be blown away by the big-money projects. I learned quickly to be content with my achievements and play to my strengths, and instead of competing at show after show, I poured my energy into writing. Perhaps the best way to explain my GTI's significance is to illustrate its role in wholly unexpected situations. This car has contributed to the demise of a relationship, found me a husband, and inspired multiple stalkers to trail me home. I don't know if I would have landed at Speed:Sport:Life on my own, but luckily the GTI attracted one final stalker, who happened to be one of this site's editors, and the rest is now history. Though my professional relationship with Jack has been short, our acquaintanceship has long since been tinged with liberal doses of mutual admiration, mutual disdain, mutual get-the-hell-over-yourself. It wasn't until recently that our interests aligned and we had an opportunity to meet. He asked if I would bring my GTI to a TrackDaze event at Autobahn Country Club—after all, he had a soft spot for the MKII, of course. What harm could come of it, really? I knew I'd be subject to the notorious once-over in which he appraises cars, clothing and chicks. If I could handle it, the car certainly could. We've helped each other through much worse. It didn't matter, anyway; if I wanted to go, I didn't have a choice. It's my only fuckin' car, I thought. "Of course," I said. "It's my only car." The day arrived, and like I'd done thousands of times before, I pulled through the gate, evaluated my surroundings, and parked strategically. My girl must have passed the test. That afternoon, Jack suggested I come out, in the GTI of course, for track time this fall. I guess you missed the part when I said it's my only fuckin' car. I smiled coyly and declined politely. "Thanks, but I promised my car I'd never do that to her." Never underestimate the power of playing hard-to-get. In the spectrum of project-car parents, one would probably find me close to the side marked "overprotective". The emotional cost of replacement is far more significant than the actual financial data would show, not to mention the fact that most of the OEM and OEM-plus parts I've acquired are simply irreplaceable. It's tough enough to find regular parts for an eighteen-year-old car. Yet I drive on the sprawling mess of Chicago's tollways and interstates every day. A closed course might be safer --- I've heard the lectures, thanks --- but I don't get to work on a closed course. Don't get me wrong; I've thoroughly enjoyed my minimal time on the track, I understand its value, and I'd love to learn to race… and I will, someday. My life is full of "somedays," and as a woman who loves cars, those "somedays" fall within a strange hierarchy of priorities. I'll own my dream Corrado, a 1994 Canadian-spec Ice Grey Violet SLC with the same purple and teal striped gray cloth Recaros I managed to source for my GTI; that is, when I have access to covered storage. It's so far in the future that I'm sure no one will remember the Corrado SLC except me. But that's okay, because by then I'll be over the idea of owning another VW; given better resources, my attention will shift toward serving and servicing a carefully-chosen, come-hither Lotus the way only a Lotus deserves. In my dream scenario, with more glamour in my personal fleet, the GTI can finally become a true garage queen. And I'm annoyed with myself, constantly, for aspiring to own more irreplaceable cars. Therein lies most of the strife of my adult life—almost every decision is made in context of the GTI's well-being. Were it not for pure emotion, she'd be long since gone, perhaps sold to my ex-boyfriend, who for years generously and without (much) complaint helped me limp her along on a tight budget. Another potential buyer wanted me to remove the utterly unobtanium "Digifiz" cluster so she would pass inspection, and take off the super-rare OEM wheels because he thought they were ugly. I stayed awake nights, weighing my options, trembling over the idea of a mercy killing: drive her into Lake Michigan so I can say a clean goodbye, collect an insurance check and buy something much more practical, like a Miata. My 20-year-old econobox exacerbates my vanity, but not without reason. We complement each other, we suit each other, we deserve each other. We bask together in the infrequent yet intoxicating attention she earns. Find me another MKII Golf about which the same could be said. There aren't many left. I've looked. My dear, darling GTI is my partner in crime as we chase down life, or something like it. Someday I might be brave enough to street-park her in Chicago, in pursuit of something pretty or interesting; someday, my life might be balanced enough that the benefits will outweigh the risks. I'm not afraid to make promises, though, which I keep. She will never see a track.