- Expansive rear seat
- Excellent turbodiesel fuel economy
- Minimalist styling that should endure
- Styling can be plain to some
- Still some grainy plastic trim
- Road and wind noise are noticeable
The 2015 Volkswagen Passat provides a refreshing alternative to the usual mid-sizers, offering a huge interior and the segment's only diesel engine option.
The 2015 Volkswagen Passat is VW's shot into the very center of the competitive mid-size sedan market. After four years, the U.S.-built Passat still offers lots of interior space in a conservatively styled car aimed at such established sedan strongholds as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Ford Fusion.
The difference between winners and also-rans in this hotly contested segment generally hinges on a handful of factors: space, safety, price. Starting in 2012, the Passat was expanded beyond its slim, tailored European sporty-sedan packaging into a new larger size, turning it into a far more "American" car that emerges into the mainstream.
For 2015, the Passat acquires a handful of changes that won't be visible on the surface. There are two brand-new engines that replace older and less fuel-efficient units, and an optional technology package that adds an upgraded audio and infotainment system to the rear-vision camera that's now been made standard on all trim levels (except the base Passat S). Those engines are a new and more efficient 2.0-liter TDI diesel, making the diesel Passat even more fuel efficient, and a smaller but turbocharged 1.8-liter gasoline four-cylinder. And there'll be more changes to come for the 2016 model year, including some freshened styling.
The familiar design of the Passat will reassure VW fans. The look of today's model is pure VW, although a tame rendition as a result of its general bigness and an obvious decision not to rock the boat. But the styling goes far in slimming down the Passat's bulk, particularly in its slim grille. Inside it's Volkswagen at its most cleanly rendered, with a layout of controls that's almost stark compared to the chaos of lines and surfaces found in some of its competition.
There are some parts of the interior with less appealing finishes than German-made VW sedans from the past, but they're at least on par with base versions of other popular family sedans. The interior's only real quirk is a steering wheel that's slightly off-center compared to the driver's seat. This is an artifact of a smaller architecture being stretched in width to create the commodious Americanized Passat, and it's one drivers can quickly learn to live with.
The Passat has clearly now entered the "family sedan" category, and it did that the old-fashioned way: The rear seat is huge. It's bigger than the bench in a Hyundai Azera or a Toyota Avalon, and it can be entered and exited with the the kind of ease we're used to getting in extended-wheelbase luxury cars. The trunk capacity also vast.
For 2015, the Passat's base engine becomes a likable new 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. Introduced on certain models for 2014, the 1.8T now takes over completely for an old naturally aspirated base 2.5-liter. The new engine has the same power output (170 hp) and slightly more torque than the ancient 2.5-liter, but the turbo four's peak torque shows up earlier and stays longer--while it revs much more sweetly. It's our backup choice for those who aren't interested in VW's slower but gold-star-efficient turbodiesel, also entirely new for 2015.
The Passat TDI's eager off-the-line torque comes with fuel-economy ratings of 35 mpg combined if you get the manual gearbox--itself an unusual option in a mid-size sedan--or 34 mpg if you get the optional dual-clutch automatic for easier city driveability. Highway ratings for the two models are 44 and 42 mpg respectively, and they're only surpassed in the mid-size segment by hybrid-electric sedans. Finally, there's also a gasoline 3.6-liter V-6 option with 280 horsepower and a more muscular attitude, but it seems opulent and indulgent in such a restrained, value-conscious car.
The Passat's road manners are as close to the VW standard as they can be, given the long wheelbase and overall stretched proportions. Minor differences in feel among models are due to differing tire sizes. Still, the Passat is a large car, so it's not nimble in the strictest sense of the word--it just carries its size well. All models have a very comfortable suspension that soaks up highway miles, cushy but not floaty with a perfect balance that allows it to handle well when you get into tighter turns.
The Passat has also earned excellent safety scores, both from the NHTSA and the IIHS, and it offers a rearview camera on some models. It remains shy of some infotainment and luxury features, either altogether or specifically on some models and combinations. Want a base Passat TDI with cloth seats, satellite radio, and a USB port? It doesn't exist. The Passat S doesn't have rear-seat air vents. Leather is more widely available now, though the synthetic stuff on most models does a convincing job. With so many available trim levels, you have to make some compromises to get most of the options you want.
We're sold on the packaging, but when it comes to a specific Passat, the TDI is the hands-down winner. For about $26,000 base, you'll get a sedan with about 700 miles of driving range on a tank of fuel, limousine-like rear-seat room, and a dash of Volkswagen handling brio. If those attributes top your shopping list for a new family sedan, the Passat rules--even though there may be better values, better lookers, and better straight-line performers out there.