Test Drive: Psst, check out the new Passat

Test Drive: Psst, check out the new Passat

February 15th, 2014 by Mark Kennedy in Business Diary

This 2014 VW Passat SEL Premium features a new, fuel-efficient 1.8-liter turbocharged engine.

Photo by Mark Kennedy/Times Free Press.

FAST FACTS

Model: 2014 Passat SEL Premium

* Exterior color: Reflex Silver Metallic

* Interior color: Titan Black

* Engine: 1.8-liter turbo

* Horsepower: 170

* Transmission: six-speed automatic

* Fuel economy: 34 mpg highway, 24 mpg city

* Dealer: Village Volkswagen of Chattanooga

* Price (as tested): $32,275

Lost in the hubbub over the union vote this week at the Volkswagen assembly plant is an important fact: Workers there continue to churn out some of the most solid, practical sedans made in North America.

Much has been made of a dip in Passat sales in 2013 -- down 6.3 percent from 2012. This can be written off as an inevitable middesign-cycle slump. The American-made Passat got a jump on redesigned Honda Accords and Ford Fusions when it was launched here in early 2012.

Initial sales numbers of the Passat were no doubt boosted by a near unanimous endorsement from the automotive press -- Motor Trend named it Car of the Year for 2012. Now, with the honeymoon over, it will be up to VW to keep the sedan competitive through continuous improvements, both cosmetic and mechanical.

Today, we'll report on our test drive of a 2014 Passat SEL provided by Village Volkswagen of Chattanooga, which gets a new 1.8-liter, turbo-charged, four-cylinder engine -- an important mechanical tweak that boosts fuel economy and torque.

The new four-cylinder turbo, which also becomes the bread-and-butter motor in the VW Jetta, will eventually replace VW's unconventional inline five-cylinder engine in most Passats. (The excellent TDI [turbo-diesel] model -- which accounts for about a third of Passat sales overall, and about half of local sales -- carries on as the hybrid-fighting, MPG champ of the lineup.)

To review, Passat buyers have a virtual cafeteria line of engine options these days, a 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder, a 2.5-liter five-cylinder, a 3.6-liter V-6 and the 2.0-liter turbo-diesel. Base prices range from $21,640 to $34,320. Our Silver SEL tester has an MSRP of $32,275.

STYLING AND COMFORT

Not much has changed visually on the Passat since its introduction two years ago. It still has the same clean, conservative lines. Don't expect any major sheet-metal alterations for another couple of years, at least.

However, a new Passat Sport trim is in the pipeline which will inject a little more excitement into the model. The Passat Sport, due in dealerships later this year, will feature a blacked-out roof (in some color combinations), a new rear deck-lid spoiler, carbon fiber accents, two-tone seat coverings and bigger, 19-inch alloy wheels. Adding a Sport trim is a common mid-cycle strategy to add marketing momentum to a model. Expect the new package to turn heads, especially among younger male buyers.

Meanwhile, the longstanding virtues of the Passat continue to be high-quality materials; an open, airy cabin with a commodious back seat; and top-quality fit and finish which give the car a premium European vibe.

Our SEL test car features a black, leather interior which fits the car's sporty aspirations. The SEL also adds generous use of wood trim to add panache. The SEL trim line also gets a premium Fender audio system that can turn the cabin into a concert hall.

Sitting at the wheel of a Passat, little design details jump out -- the narrow dash makes the cabin feel roomier; the thumb supports at 10-and-2 on the steering wheel invite spirited, hands-on-the-wheel driving; the generous rear-seat knee room seem to beckon lanky teenagers.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

As mentioned, the real news for 2014 is the new 1.8-liter turbocharged engine. Interestingly, the Passat of 10 years ago offered a 1.8-liter turbo four, but it was rated at only 150 horsepower, compared to 170 hp today.

On a mid-day test drive on Highway 153, the 1.8-liter Passat SEL felt much more eager to sprint than Passats equipped with the previous five-cylinder engine. Turbo-lag -- the slight hesitation common in turbocharged engines -- is nearly non-existent in the Passat. The 1.8-liter makes 184 pound-feet of torque, seven more than last year's five-cylinder model.

The Passat has a planted, solid feel that simply leap-frogs most of the mid-size sedans on the road today. Handling is taut, steering is accurate and the car exhibits only modest body lean in hard cornering.

The lighter engine also helps boost fuel economy to 34 mpg highway, 24 mpg city -- not as good as the diesel (40 mpg highway), obviously, but getting close once you discount for the higher cost of diesel fuel.

BOTTOM LINE

The new engine and Sport trim are indications that VW is paying close attention to its important, mid-size sedan. Hometown bias aside, the Passat is a fine car with class-leading features. Look for the 2014 Passat's added fuel economy and design energy to increase foot traffic at VW dealerships this spring.

Contact Mark Kennedy a mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twittter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter at MARK KENNEDY TFP.