Volkswagen Passat 1.8T — Making a compelling case

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

For a spacious mid-sized family sedan with European feel and style it would be difficult to find a better product than the Volkswagen Passat. And usually when discussing the Passat, we recommend the company's outstanding diesel engine, which has been updated with 10 more horsepower for 2015. But these days we have reassessed that recommendation.

Aside from the higher cost of diesel fuel compared to the current low cost of unleaded regular gasoline, the diesel engine adds $2,110 to the purchase price of the Passat SEL Premium. But there’s a viable alternative with Volkswagen's relatively new and award-winning 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, which was added to the Passat lineup for 2014. Few engines in the mid-sized segment are more energetic and at the same time as fuel efficient.

The 1.8-liter turbocharged 4 is rated at a rather modest 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, but it's capable of completing a 0-to-60 run in under 8 seconds mated to a six-speed automatic, ranking with the top four-bangers in the segment. Fuel economy is EPA-rated at 24 mpg city, 36 highway and 28 combined. Yes, that falls short of the TDI (diesel) that is rated at 30/42/35, and yes we still very much like the diesel for its range and durability, but the economic case is not as compelling as it has been.

Before driving the Passat, we were a bit apprehensive because we've experienced the 1.8-liter engine in the smaller Jetta sedan. We were pleased with its performance in the Jetta, but we questioned if it would work as well in a bigger car. Our concerns were unfounded, perhaps because the Passat weighs in only a couple hundred pounds more.

We liked the way the 1.8-liter engine performed at any speed with fast-responding turbo to throttle inputs across a wide range of the rpm band regardless of the gear. Turbo lag is not part of this engine’s makeup. It exhibited urgency merging onto four-lane highways and proved effective in passing slow moving vehicles in that pesky 45-to-50 mph range.

And we liked the Passat's road manners on our usual winding asphalt "test track." We found the electric power steering linear and precise, and the suspension, while offering a pleasing ride, allowed us to hustle the sedan though the twists and turns without drama displaying balanced German driving and handling traits.

The SEL Premium 1.8T goes out the door for $32,295 including destination charge. That price brings enough standard equipment to make option purchases unnecessary. Included are 18-inch wheels, sunroof, keyless ignition and entry, comfortable 8-way  power front seats with memory, leather upholstery with simulated suede seat inserts, wood grain trim, dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing wipers, navigation, upgraded audio with HD radio, and a rearview camera. That's the way our SEL test car was outfitted.

For budget-minded folks, the Passat can be purchased with the 1-8 liter engine in base S trim with automatic transmission for $23,020. At the top of the food chain is the SEL Premium V6 going out the door for $36,480.

From behind the wheel, the driver is rewarded with straight-forward controls. Radio and climate control knobs remind us of a simpler time, although the radio — operated through the touch screen — is a bit befuddling; pre-sets rarely match the band selected. Materials seem to be of good quality and fit and finish is first class.

The instrument panel is available with chrome-trimmed gauges surrounding a digital multifunction display. A high-end chrome look is also applied to the air vents in the cockpit, and to the surrounds of the radio, navigation system, and the climate control panels. The rotary light switch and parking brake handle button are also treated in chrome.

In addition to its European quality and feel, the Passat has become known for its almost unbelievable interior spaciousness. It's hard to fathom a mid-sized sedan stretching out just 191 inches with so much rear-seat stretch-out room. And trunk space has not been compromised with nearly 16 cubic feet available.

Standard safety features include antilock brakes, traction and stability control, a full complement of airbags, and in the top three trims — SE, Sport and SEL — a rearview camera. Available is VW's On-Star-like connectivity system called Car-Net. The telematics system includes automatic crash notification, roadside assistance, remote vehicle access, stolen vehicle location and geo-fencing, which allows parents to set speed restrictions for teenage drivers.

The Passat is conservatively handsome, the dashboard layout is simple and intuitive, the cabin spacious and quiet, performance of the 1.8 is acceptable for a mid-sized sedan, and gas mileage is above average. It makes a compelling argument in the popular mid-sized sedan segment.

Base price: $23,020; as driven, $32,295
Engine: 1.8-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 170 @ 4,800 rpm
Torque: 184 foot-pounds @ 1,500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 110.4 inches
Length: 191.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,230 pounds
Turning circle: 36.4 feet
Luggage capacity:15.9 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 36 highway, 24 city, 28 combined
0-60: 7.5 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry

The Good
• Excellent passenger space
• Fuel-efficient engine
• Quiet, comfortable ride

The Bad
• Radio difficult to operate through touchscreen

The Ugly
• Excellent diesel engine losing cost effectiveness