Volkswagen sales in the US rose above 400,000 this year for the first time since the original Beetle’s reign in the 1970s. That was a time when VW was the No. 1 seller of imported cars in the US. A more recent sales point of reference is 2007, when VW sold just 240,000 cars here.
In 2008, VW, the world’s No. 3 automaker, embarked on a 10-year plan to get US sales to 800,000, a goal that actually reaches one million after VW’s Audi brand gets rolled into the total. Trouble is, in a country where SUVs dominate, VW doesn’t have a mid-size SUV model. Its compact SUV, the Tiguan, isn’t popular, and its upscale Touareg not only is pricey ($50,000-plus) but also its outstanding diesel version appeals to a limited, though growing, market segment.
It is one of life’s quirks that this review of the mid-size Volkswagen Passat TDI sedan comes just as Michael Horn, 51, a VW executive since 1990, will be taking over as chief of the company’s US operations. So, welcome aboard, Mr. Horn. Good luck with getting VW’s prototype mid-size SUV into the market.
Meanwhile, rest assured that you have a great mid-size sedan, an updated version of the vehicle that your predecessor, CEO Jonathan Browning, pushed to get into production.
Today’s test car is a 2014 Passat TDI SE. It’s the only European entry in the mid-size, mid-price family sedan market that competes with the likes of the Chevrolet Malibu, Dodge Charger, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Mazda6, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry.
The Passat stands out with its diesel option. The Passat TDI, with 6-speed manual transmission, is rated at 31 miles per gallon in city driving and 43 on the highway. In a week of mixed driving, including a snowy commute from Newburyport through Boston to Middleborough, we averaged 42.9 miles per gallon and could have gotten that number above 45 with more judicious driving techniques. It makes the EPA figure of 35 mpg in combined city/highway driving seem conservative.
For example, hypermiling MPG champ Wayne Gerdes and co-driver Bob Winger set a Guinness World Record for “lowest fuel consumption—all 48 US states for a non-hybrid car” in a TDI Passat last summer by averaging 77.99 mpg during an 8,122-mile trip that crisscrossed the country. That number topped both the previous Guinness record (67.9 mpg) and even the record for hybrids of 64.6 mpg.
The Passat is available in four models, each designated by its engine—a 2.5 liter, an all-new 1.8-liter turbo, the TDI, and V-6. Those are further divided into four trim levels: S, Wolfsburg, SE, and SEL.
Our SE, with the 2.0-liter I-4 diesel, 6-speed manual transmission, and front-wheel-drive, was well-equipped at $27,215 (including $820 destination charge). There were no additional options. The diesel engine produces 140 horsepower and a surprising 236 lb.-ft. of torque.
The interior was nicely appointed with VW’s leatherette seating. A straight (as opposed to cockpit-like) dashboard and outstanding legroom give the spacious interior an open and clean look.
Controls and gauges are a break from prior VWs in that they’re pretty much intuitive and familiar to a US driver. A rearview camera is standard on the SE and SEL trim levels. Rear-seat passengers have plenty of legroom and there’s a pass-through from the trunk that’s accessed by folding either (or both) of the 60/40 rear seats from the trunk.
The Passat’s front exterior has a narrow grille with three horizontal blades that segue into the headlights (think of them as squinting if you want a human analogy). From the headlights a thin body trim line extends the length of the car to meet the taillights.
By contrast, a distinct ridge runs from wheel arch to wheel arch along the car’s door sill line, continuing the horizontal design theme.
On the road, the Passat was quiet and competent. Steering was precise and predictable. If I were in the market for a mid-size family sedan, this would be high on my “must consider” list.
2014 Volkswagen Passat TDI SE
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $27,115/$27,115. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 31 city, 43 highway, 35 combined. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 42.9. Drivetrain: 2.0-liter I-4 diesel engine, 6-speed manual transmission, front-wheel-drive. Body: 5-passenger sedan.
Horsepower: 140. Torque: 236 lb.-ft. Overall length: 191.6 in. Wheelbase: 110.4 in. Height: 58.5 in. Width: 72.2 in. Curb weight: 3,393 pounds.
Fuel economy, interior room, overall refinement.
Some drivers might have trouble adapting to the diesel’s acceleration tendencies—good power at low rpms but there’s not a long power curve in each gear.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A solid contender in a tough market segment.
Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Kia Optima, Mazda6, Toyota Camry.