New & Used Volkswagen Passat: In Depth
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The VW Passat is the brand's mid-size sedan offering. The U.S. version is produced at a VW Group assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The current Passat is one of the larger entries in a class that also includes the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima. It's sold without the wagon variant that has accompanied German-made Passats in previous generations.
MORE: Read our 2015 VW Passat review for pricing with options, specifications, and fuel economy ratings
In the U.S., the Passat's lineage goes all the way back to the Dasher sedans and hatchbacks of the 1970s and the Quantum models of the 1980s—the latter which were, notably, offered with so-called Syncro all-wheel drive.
While the Passat name had been used elsewhere on those models, it wasn't until the third generation that the U.S.-market version also adopted the same badge. That model's unique front-end styling did without a conventional grille opening, and the rest of the design was characterized by lots of glass and a low hood; the interior made good use of space for passengers, thanks to the tallish proportions. Though the interior quality didn't surpass that of the less expensive Jetta, the Passat had a comfortable ride, in part thanks to its longer wheelbase. At the beginning of this generation, only low-power 2.0-liter four-cylinders were available, but VW added its narrow-angle VR6 and diesel options later in the cycle.
The next complete redesign the Passat got, in 1998, was revolutionary. VW switched its mid-size sedan to the same platform as the Audi A4, and everything from its ride to its driving manners felt much more upscale and sophisticated—either compared to the previous Passat or to other U.S. rivals like the Camry, Accord, and Taurus. Most Passat models from this era included either a 170-horsepower, 1.8-liter (1.8T) turbo four-cylinder or a 190-hp Audi-derived V-6. Between these two engines, there's surprisingly little difference in acceleration (and it makes the Passat feel more nimble), though the V-6 makes it feel like a luxury car. A short-lived Passat W8 model (2003-2004) featured a special 270-hp narrow-angle eight-cylinder engine, but its $40k+ price tag, heft, and thirst just didn't add up to much appeal. Throughout this generation, 4Motion all-wheel drive was available on most of the model line, too.
For 2006, the Passat changed for the better for Americans, becoming a little roomier and more comfortable, though they bypassed some of the sportier driving feel of their predecessors for refinement and more features for the money. Most of these Passats, which weren't significantly changed through 2010, came with an excellent 200-hp, 2.0-liter (2.0T) four-cylinder engine and a six-speed automatic transmission (though a six-speed manual was also on offer). A 280-hp, 3.6-liter VR6 engine was offered from 2006-2008, and was required for 4Motion, but it was never a popular choice because it was so much more expensive.
Across the board, this generation of Passat came with a long list of standard features, including standard side-curtain bags, with rear thorax bags an unusual option. We found this Passat to be one of the quietest cars in this class, with a roomy backseat and nice interior materials. But a requirement for premium fuel might make these models less appealing as used cars.
The new VW Passat
In mid-2011, a new 2012 Volkswagen Passat was unveiled, designed specifically for our market and unique from the model offered in Europe. With a somewhat larger body style and cost-cut, Americanized packaging, the new made-in-the-U.S. Passat gets a massive rear seat and a slight downgrade in refinement. But with a lower base price of around $25k, we've found the new Passat to be particularly attractive—especially considering its 43-mpg highway rating in turbodiesel form. The Passat also has impressive handling and a very comfortable ride.
At launch, the base Passat came with a five-cylinder engine that was dull and not as responsive as base engines in rivals like the Ford Fusion or Hyundai Sonata. A new 170-hp, 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine was introduced in 2014, and for 2015 it became the Passat's base engine when the five-cylinder finally was dropped for good.
Other launch powertrains included the turbodiesel version, which had good power and exceptional fuel economy, as well as a V-6 that is geared to the few buyers who really want more luxury features in a family sedan. We had a 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI for an extended Six-Month Road Test and found it to be an excellent long-distance cruiser—one with real-world highway mileage well into the 40s.
Aside from some powertrain shuffling, the Passat has changed very little over the past several model years. In the current Passat, those coming from former versions of this sedan (or even Honda Accords) will be troubled by the swaths of grainy plastic, and there's more wind and road noise than one might expect. Another change is the very limited number of build combinations. For instance, you can't get a cloth interior with the TDI engine or VR6, and the Bluetooth interface is very basic and lacks voice control. A USB connector is also lacking on the base car -- although VW did add a rearview camera system for 2013. On the 2014 Passat, a Technology Package became more widely available and permits adding the backup camera and touch-screen audio at an affordable price.
In the 2015 model year, VW swapped out the former turbodiesel for a new design that's slightly more efficient in the EPA's highway cycle. The gas 2.5-liter five-cylinder is now completely gone from the lineup, replaced in all entry-level cars with the much more modern 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. A new Passat has been unveiled for Europe, but our version is mostly unrelated and likely will live on for another few years before a new Americanized Passat appears.