Volkswagen's Passat has its excellent turbodiesel powertrain to its credit, and very good urban and highway handling.
When it comes to its base powertrain, there's work to be done--and we're already hearing a turbo four will replace today's base engine, a 2.5-liter in-line five-cylinder. The current powertrain is flair-free, and doesn't hit the fuel-economy bests earned by other four-cylinder competitors. Throttle response is sluggish, power delivery's flat and unexciting and there's just as much vibration as in the turbodiesel. With the six-speed automatic transmission, VW says the in-line five can accelerate to 60 mpg in 8.7 seconds; a manual could drop it to 8.2 seconds, but probably wouldn't make it feel any more engaging. Highway fuel economy of 34 mpg lags the best in class by as much as 4 mpg.
The turbodiesel 2.0-liter four is the clear winner in the Passat lineup, even though it's somewhat slower to 60 mph than the five-cylinder. The diesel sounds light on horsepower on paper, but it's heavy on torque and strong in fuel economy. Horsepower totals just 140, but the powerplant turns in 236 pound-feet of torque, ample enough to accelerate to 60 mph in an estimated 9.3 seconds with the manual transmission, and 9.1 seconds with the dual-clutch automatic. Top speed is pegged at 118 mph. Objectively slower than the five-cylinder, the turbodiesel simply feels more lively in urban cruising; we've stitched together long driving loops of country roads and city dodge-ems and racked up thousands of miles in a long-term Passat TDI, and the turbodiesel pulls away more smartly from launch than the five-cylinder, with a more energetic feel than the acceleration numbers indicate. The dual-clutch is the way to go, too, though it won't eke out the absolute best fuel economy, and though it lacks paddles for shifting. Its gears are well spaced, it shifts quickly, and feels fluid in sporty driving.
At 43 mpg estimated for the EPA's highway cycle, the TDI's slightly slower straight-line performance seems like a fair trade-off, particularly when it's compared with the alternatives.
The 280-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 version arrived late in the 2012 model year, and we've driven it briefly to confirm our impression that its 0-60 mph time of 6.5 seconds, and top speed of 130 mph, are fine for those who need to spend more. On a sedan that frankly lacks all the full-tilt luxury items found on some other sedans, and that acquits itself so well with its high-economy model, the V-6 seems like an invisible extravagance.
The Passat's ride and handling are a cut above most of its competitors, with the possible exceptions of the Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion. With 16-inch wheels and hydraulic steering, the five-cylinder Passat sounds pedestrian but has the nuanced feel--a taut ride without too much stiffness--that distinguishes it from the still-learning Korean brands. It's compliant over small bumps, and stands out on interstate drives for its composure alongside the Altima. On the TDI, the steering goes electrohydraulic, which lends fuel-economy benefits and a slightly zippier steering feel. The TDI Passat had the best heft-to-accuracy ratio of its kind, up there with the all-electric steering in the Fusion and some versions of the new Chevy Malibu. In all, the Passat's eager turn-in and body control are better than cars half a foot shorter in wheelbase.