If there's one thing that's hobbled the Volkswagen Passat, it's the lack of a decent entry-level engine. Until now, Passat buyers who didn't want the big V6 or the diesel had to make to with Volkswagen's 2.5 liter five-cylinder, a nice enough engine if you don't mind spending a few hundred bucks extra on gasoline each year. (Volkswagen chose this engine for the Passat because it's robust and inexpensive to build, but fuel economy is not its strong suit.)
At last... something new
For 2014, Volkswagen is finally replacing this old lump with a thoroughly modern 1.8 liter four-cylinder. This is a pretty tiny engine for such a big car, but thanks to a turbocharger and direct fuel injection, it develops the same amount of horsepower (170) as the 2.5 and even more torque, or pulling power -- 184 lb-ft vs. 177.
The gains in fuel economy are significant: EPA estimates are 24 MPG city and 34 MPG highway with an automatic transmission, up from 22/31 with the old engine. (A five-speed manual is also offered; it's rated at 24/35, up from 22/32.) And unlike many small turbocharged engines, the Passat's new 1.8 runs on regular fuel, not pricey premium.
On the road with the new 1.8 TSI
How does it drive? Very nicely -- the new engine is smooth, relatively quiet, and nearly vibration-free at idle, all areas where the old 2.5 was lacking. It provides strong off-the-line acceleration and good passing power with none of the bad habits typical of previous-generation engines, particularly turbo lag (that annoying hesitation when you first hit the gas). Using a traditional torque-converter automatic transmission instead of their performance-oriented DSG twin-clutch transmission helps; the conventional tranny lets the engine quickly rev past 1,500 RPM, where it does its best work. I really like this new engine -- its power output is an ideal match for the Passat's size, and its restrained demeanor enhances the Passat's luxurious feel.
Along with the engine, there's another new and notable piece of kit in the 2014 Passat: Car-Net, which is VW's answer to GM's OnStar. As with OnStar, a push of a button gets you a live operator who can do things like send directions to the car's navigation system. Car-Net also includes automatic crash notification, which calls for help and broadcasts the car's location in the event of a crash. As with OnStar, Car-Net is a subscription-based system; after a six-month trial period, it costs $199 per year.
Aside from the engine and Car-Net, the rest of the Passat is largely unchanged, and that's fine with me -- after a year with our own long-term diesel-powered Passat TDI, I came to love its high-quality interior, easy-to-use control layout, limo-like back seat, and massive trunk. Build quality was one of my major concerns, but after 30,000 trouble-free miles, I'm convinced that the Passat factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee is doing things right.
Descent of the other shoe
Now for the bad news: The 1.8 TSI won't replace the 2.5 right away. VW will begin by installing the new engine in the top-of-the-line SEL Premium model, trickling it down to the SEL, SE and S over the course of the 2014 model year. In the interim, the 2.5 will soldier on.
But there is some good news: All 2014 Passats get the Car-Net system as standard, and all but the S get a backup camera (something we really missed in our 2012 long-term Passat). 2014 Passats that don't yet have the new engine will be priced the same as 2013 models, so these new gizmos are essentially free. The 2014 Passat SEL Premium with the new engine is priced at $31,715, an increase of $470 over last year, and I expect we'll see similar increases in other models when the 1.8 liter engine shows up under the hood. The Passat is still pricey compared to its rivals -- best among them, in my opinion, being the Honda Accord for space, the Ford Fusion for style and the Nissan Altima for fuel efficiency and all-round functionality -- but in my mind, it justifies its extra expense.
Were it me buying a Passat, I'd still go for the diesel-powered TDI, because nothing puts a bigger grin on my face than a king-size family sedan that gets 41 MPG and does 750 miles or more on a tank of fuel. But the higher cost of both the diesel engine and its fuel are off-putting to many, and for those folks, the 1.8 TSI is a brilliant solution -- it gives the Passat the acceleration and fuel economy it needs with the refinement that sets it apart from other mid-size sedans. I say good riddance to the 2.5 -- and well done to Volkswagen. -- Aaron Gold
What I liked about the Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI:
- New engine provides a good blend of power and fuel economy
- Big back seat and trunk
- High-quality interior with rugged V-Tex upholstery
What I didn't like about the Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI:
- Fuel economy still isn't best in class
- Once you add options, it's pricier than its rivals
- 2.5 engine will linger on on lower trim levels
Details and specs:
- Price range (including destination): $21,665 - $34,715
- Powertrain: 1.8 liter turbocharged 4-cyl/170 hp, 2.5 liter 5-cylr/170 hp, 2.0 liter turbodiesel 4-cyl/140 hp, or 3.6 liter V6/280 hp, 5- or 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive
- EPA fuel economy estimates: 22 MPG city/32 MPG highway (2.5 manual), 22/31 (2.5 automatic), 24/35 (1.8T manual), 24/34 (1.8T automatic), 20/28 (V6 automatic), 31/43 (TDI manual), 30/40 (TDI automatic)
- Where built: United States
- Best rivals: Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion