2013 Volkswagen Passat
VW corporate leadership evidently has never read Sun Tzu's "The Art of War", otherwise they'd never attack the walled city that is the US mid-size sedan market.
The US mid-sized sedan segment is fiercely competitive and dominated by well entrenched and competent vehicles, including the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima – not to mention the scarily successful Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima.
Since the stylish 1998 B5 model, VW’s Passat has always been a pretty decent mid-sized sedan – but it never earned meaningful market share. Part of the problem was quality related (troublesome multi-link front suspension, fragile trim and sludged up 1.8 Turbo engines) but another issue was VW Corporate’s obvious disdain for the the priorities of US family sedan buyers. We want cup holders, storage nooks and lots of them. VW responded with some really feeble concessions, such as folding cup holders that generally broke off in a stiff breeze.
To get in the mid-sized game, VW faced formidable obstacles, enough to give the heartiest and most competitive executive a serious bout of explosive diarrhea. If I were VOA President Jonathan Browning, I’d have pulled the covers over my head, called in sick for the next fiscal year and prayed that corporate just forgot about the entire mid-size strategy.
No such luck, VW waded in with elbows flying. I respect their craziness or their big balls. Perhaps both.
The 2013 Passat is the tangible output of their effort, and it’s very impressive on many fronts. VW designed the new Passat specifically for the US market, and endowed it with things we Americans really like; lots of cup holders, a supple ride, huge interior and trunk room, competitive pricing and generic styling that rivals the late Oldsmobile 88 for inoffensive anonymity.
VW and the state of Tennessee also spent hundreds of millions on a state-of-the-art, Leeds Platinum certified manufacturing plant in Chattanooga. The plant staff will certainly work hard to exorcise memories of the excremental quality of the 1977-88 Rabbits built in New Stanton, Pennsylvania.
The 170 horsepower 2.5 five cylinder gas SE, equipped with a six speed automatic transmission is a pretty leisurely performer in most circumstances. The 2.5 is smooth throughout the rev range, but lacks low speed torque. It’s also loud under acceleration, with a unique 5 cylinder moan. It may sound like ½ of a Viper V10, but is about 1/37th as exciting.
With the shifter in Drive mode, the Passat steps off the line without much urge, and the transmission is programmed to head for sixth gear before you’ve reached the end of the driveway. Shift quality is very good and very smooth. Kickdowns are reluctant – and generally fruitless at all but generating increased engine RPM and noise. The accelerator pedal has an electric kickdown plunger switch and when you engage it, it feels and sounds like there's a large June Bug trapped underneath the pedal.
Put the shifter in Sport mode however, and a significant and pleasant transformation takes place. In Sport, the Passat steps off the line much faster – and holds gears for far longer before upshifting. The Sport mode works very well, in fact, it is the best iteration of a Sport mode automatic I’ve yet driven. In exchange for livelier performance, you should expect a fuel economy penalty when using the Sport mode.
In 450 miles of driving, we achieved about 29 MPG in mixed driving, and got as high as 34 MPG on a highway stretch. The 2.5 SE runs on regular fuel.
Everything changes for the better in the 2.0 turbo diesel with a six speed manual transmission. The TDI is a torque monster – with 236 foot/lbs. generated widely throughout the rev band. This torque imparts the Passat with unexpected friskiness. This is aided by excellent clutch feel and a silky 6 speed shifter that rivals the GTI's for accuracy and feel.
The TDI steps off eagerly and pulls hard through the gears. On the highway, the TDI has wonderful tip-in throttle response that makes passing effortless, even without downshifting. For a diesel the Passat has a very high 5,000 RPM redline and revs eagerly. Aside from a bit of muted clatter at startup, there are very few clues that this is a fuel burner.
The TDI is rated at 43 MPG, though some owners claim as high as 51 MPG. With an 18 gallon fuel tank, this works out to a range of over 800 miles per tank. That’s impressive.
The Passat has a front strut, rear multi-link suspension. It generates a very supple ride, with little impact harshness over rough pavement. The steering is over boosted for my tastes, particularly at speed – but it is fairly accurate with good straight line stability.
Over rough roads there is a little bounciness to the suspension, but in most conditions the Passat is well planted. It turns in well, and demonstrates excellent grip, particularly given the 225/55/17 all season Hankook tires.
Oddly, the TDI model seemed a little stiffer and the suspension reflexes felt more overtly sporty.
Stability and traction controls are fairly seemless and unobtrusive - but cannot be overridden by the driver.
Braking performance was a little lackluster. The Passat’s brakes grip well with limited fade, but the problem is poor pedal feel. The travel is long, and upon release, there is a slight delay before the pedal returns to the top of its travel.
One of the principal design objectives for the 2013 Passat was lower cost – and the interior was a significant target of these cost reductions. Unlike our 1999 B5 Passat, which used rich, leather like plastics on the door panels and dash – the 2013 downgraded to traditional hard and soft touch plastics. Also, the climate control knobs in the ’99 Passat feel sturdier and easier to read than the tiny, flimsy feeling controls in the 2013 Passat. All the same, the interior still demonstrates excellent design, generally superb ergonomics and good fit/finish.
Like the earlier Passat models, the interior design is basic, intuitive and clean. I didn’t much care for the brushed aluminum dash trim – which looks dated and scratch prone. The SEL model replaces the aluminum trim with a more upscale burled wood trim.
The rest of the dash evidences clean gimmick free styling that is a VW hallmark and will hold up well stylistically over the years.
The heated seats are a perforated leatherette material, which looks good but feels like a bonded leather couch. They are comfortable, but lack adequate lateral support on the seat bottoms and backs. In hard cornering, I needed to use my knees on the door panel or console for support.
Rear seat and interior space is outstanding, with more-than-ample leg, shoulder and headroom. The rear seats have a 60/40 folding back (operated inconveniently from the trunk.) This compares favorably to the Fusion’s full fold and the Accord’s no-fold rear seating.
Unlike the rakish coupe-like roofline on Fusion and Optima – the Passat’s somewhat dowdy roof shape doesn’t compromise rear headroom or the size of the greenhouse. This also pays a dividend in exterior visibility.
The touch screen Sirius satellite radio operates simply and the sound quality is very good. Bluetooth works great – with excellent sound quality and intuitive operation. Oddly, the SE model does not have a USB port, you must step up to SEL trim levels to get one. This is a bummer, even most econo-boxes now provide USB as a standard feature.
The trunk is deep and wide, though the opening is a little short.
Unlike the very stylish B5 model Passat , the 2013 Passat breaks no new ground stylistically. It is rather bland and anonymous. By no stretch is the 2013 Passat ugly – it’s just a little dull.
Exterior fit and finish and paint quality is excellent, though the lightweight hood flutters noticeably at highway speeds.
As demonstrated in the test scores below, the 2013 Passat is a excellent overall car, and scores well in both driver and family oriented metrics. Of the sedans we've driven this year, the Passat rates favorable against our class favorite Honda Accord and Ford Fusion. It is far better than the Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima and the Subaru Legacy.
Our pick of the Passat models would be a TDI six speed, as it combines stellar economy and family practicality with exemplary driving dynamics.
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