The VW Passat has uniformly good handling, no matter which drivetrain you choose. If we were to choose, we'd look only at the two highest-efficiency engines, and give a pass to the cheapest and most expensive Passats in the process.
Volkswagen is giving its tired five-cylinder engine one more year at bat in the Passat, though it says it will transition completely away from the unit by the end of this model year. The time has come. The outdated 2.5-liter in-line five hasn't been tightly competitive on refinement, acceleration, or fuel economy, not when compared to the excellent four-cylinders from Honda, even Nissan and Ford. The five feels flat and vibrates coarsely as it winds up with a characteristic off-key burr, accelerating the Passat to 60 mph in about 8.2 seconds when it's paired with a rare-find five-speed manual transmission; with the six-speed automatic, add another half-second. Its best EPA highway gas mileage rating of 32 mpg lags the Altima's four-cylinder/CVT combination by 6 mpg.
The picture brightens considerably with the new 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that will replace the five entirely next year. For now available in just one trim level, the new turbo four specs out with the same 170 hp as the in-line five, but finely tuned turbocharging and clever tech features like an integrated exhaust manifold bring its 184 pound-feet torque peak much lower. That torque peak is more a plateau, holding steady from below 2000 rpm to above 5000 rpm, completely unlike the lumpy five. VW quotes a 0-60 mph time for the manual turbo four Passat at 7.3 seconds, and it's clear from our first drives how it delivers on that promise. The turbo four isn't just more capable, it's happier in its mission. It winds energetically and much more smoothly toward redline, and can be paired with paddle shift controls for more direct control over the willing six-speed automatic. Gas mileage is much improved, and so is the car's whole demeanor.
Even so, the turbodiesel 2.0-liter four is the clear winner in the Passat lineup, even though it's somewhat slower to 60 mph than even 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, the turbodiesel feels more lively in urban cruising than its 0-60 mph times admit, and its 43-mpg EPA highway rating is easily within reach. The manual six-speed here is a fair alternative to the dual-clutch transmission, which doesn't offer paddle controls. Its gears are well spaced, it shifts quickly, and feels fluid in sporty driving.
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 other models, the steering goes electric, 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.