Pros: Understated styling; spacious interior; fuel-efficient turbodiesel engine; strong V6; perfect crash test scores.

Cons: Inefficient standard 5-cylinder engine; a bit less upscale than it used to be.

What's New: The 2013 Passat SE and SEL get a new center console with rear air vents and revised storage options, while the SEL also receives a standard rearview camera.

Introduction

Following a successful debut last year, the 2013 Volkswagen Passat's job is to keep the good times rolling. American drivers have quickly warmed to this bigger, cheaper Passat, with more models leaving dealer lots than ever before. Built at VW's shiny new manufacturing plant in Tennessee, the 2013 Passat shows that Volkswagen is starting to understand what Americans want.

A bit of history is in order. Until last year, the Passat was known as the fancy European alternative to family sedans like the Accord and Camry. If it felt more expensive from behind the wheel, that's because it was, costing considerably more to buy and own than comparably equipped rivals. Volkswagen realized that savvy American consumers weren't in the mood to pay a premium, so they aimed for the center of the market this time around.

The result is a spacious, reasonably priced sedan that competes well with the usual suspects but still offers enough of that European character to feel special. We especially like the unusual diesel-powered Passat TDI, which delivers great fuel economy and surprising punch. Other family sedans might be flashier, but the Passat provides one of the best all-around combinations of features and value. Small wonder, then, that VW's mid-sizer has gotten off to such a strong start.

Comfort & Utility

The 2013 Volkswagen Passat is offered in different trim levels depending on what's under the hood: the 2.5-liter inline-5, the 2.0-liter TDI or the 3.6-liter VR6.

The base 2.5 S model is the one the Passat ads are referring to when they mention the car's base price of around $20,000. It comes standard with a 5-speed manual transmission (including a hill-holder feature), 16-inch steel wheels with plastic covers, a tilt-telescopic steering wheel, cloth upholstery, a height-adjustable driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, air conditioning, a trip computer, Bluetooth and a 6-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input.

If you want an automatic transmission, you'll at least need the optional Appearance Package, which adds a 6-speed automatic, 16-in alloy wheels, a back seat center armrest and a healthy pile of cash to the bottom line.

The 2.5 SE boasts 17-in alloy wheels, leatherette upholstery, a power driver's seat, heated front seats, an upgraded trip computer with a larger display, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, heated exterior mirrors, rear climate vents and an 8-speaker audio system with a 6-CD changer, an SD-card reader and a 5-in touchscreen interface.

The 2.5 SE with Sunroof adds the automatic transmission and a sunroof, while the 2.5 SE with Sunroof and Nav also includes a navigation system (which uses the same 5-in touchscreen) and iPod connectivity.

The 2.5 SEL comes standard with the sunroof, a hard-drive-based navigation system with digital music storage and a larger 6.5-in touchscreen, a rearview camera, better-bolstered front seats, footwell lighting, a 9-speaker Fender audio system with iPod integration, dual-zone automatic climate control and a rear-seat ski pass-through.

The 2.5 SEL Premium tacks on fog lights, keyless entry with push-button start, leather upholstery, driver memory functions and a power passenger seat.

The diesel-powered Passat TDI starts at the SE trim level with a 6-speed manual transmission, featuring the 2.5 SE's standard and optional equipment plus electric-assist power steering and optional 18-in alloys. The top-of-the-line TDI is the SEL Premium, which includes a 6-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission but is otherwise equipped similarly to the 2.5 SEL Premium.

The V6-powered 3.6 SE gets the automated manual transmission, 18-in alloy wheels and most of the 2.5 SEL's equipment, although the 3.6 SE's navigation system is the SD-based version with the smaller screen. The range-topping 3.6 SEL Premium gets the hard-drive-based navigation system with the larger screen and the rest of the other SEL Premium models' equipment, plus wood grain interior trim.

In our interior evaluation, the first emotion we felt was relief. Given the latest Jetta's downgraded cabin, we were worried that the Passat would follow suit, but we're pleased to report that the sophisticated German vibe has largely been retained. Materials are no longer notably above average in quality, but they're fine, and we like the upmarket look of the gauges and the precision feel of the knobs and levers.

The front seats offer minimal lateral grip, even with the SEL-and-up comfort sport bolstering, but we're okay with that. The new Passat is definitely all about highway cruising. A word of advice, however: Make sure the front seats agree with your lower back. Some of us find the lumbar area and, indeed, the general shape of these seats to be less than ideal.

In back, the Passat offers so much space that we think it's a viable alternative to large cars like the Toyota Avalon and Hyundai Azera. We also appreciate the addition of standard rear climate vents to SE models and higher for 2013. We're a little miffed, though, that a rear center armrest doesn't come standard on the 2.5 S.

Trunk capacity is above average at 15.9 cu-ft.

Technology

The entry-level Passat is pretty basic on the audio front, sporting just a CD stereo with an auxiliary input, though at least Bluetooth comes standard. We're troubled that iPod integration is only available starting at the SE trim level, and a USB port simply isn't offered at all, so flash drive fans will have to transfer their MP3s onto an SD card (if their Passats are so equipped). But the optional Fender audio system is well worth the price of admission, delivering excellent sound by family sedan standards.

Higher trims offer a touchscreen audio interface and not one but two navigation systems; we'd skip straight to the hard-drive-based unit, if possible, as it boasts not only the larger 6.5-in screen but also about 20 GB of music storage for MP3 aficionados. The smaller, SD-based navigation system works well enough, but we'd always wonder if we should have stepped up to the fancier system.

Performance & Fuel Economy

All Passats employ a front-wheel-drive layout. The Passat 2.5 is powered by a 2.5-liter inline-5 that generates 170 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard on the base 2.5L, while a 6-speed automatic controls the other trims. Unlike many critics, we feel some affection for this engine, as it has more character in its 5-cylinder growl than most rival inline-4s put together. We can't defend the fuel economy, however, which is below average for an all-new family sedan at 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway with the manual, 22/31 mpg with the automatic.

The Passat TDI features a turbodiesel 2.0-liter inline-4 paired with either a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed dual-clutch automated manual. Output checks in at 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. Although the TDI is ultimately a bit slower than the 2.5, it feels quicker around town thanks to all that torque, which is available virtually from the moment you depress the throttle. Audible diesel clatter is kept to a minimum, and fuel economy is stellar at 31/43 mpg with the manual and 30/40 mpg with the dual-clutch automatic.

The Passat 3.6 packs a 3.6-liter narrow-angle VR6 that cranks out 280 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque, transforming the Passat into an unassuming muscle car. Acceleration is downright swift with this engine, and it makes fun noises, too. The transmission is the dual-clutch automated manual, a surprisingly sporty choice. After all, the ostensibly sportier CC VR6 is stuck with a conventional 6-speed automatic. We're big fans of this transmission in powerful models, and it doesn't disappoint here, especially in quick-shifting manual mode with the steering-wheel-mounted shift buttons. Fuel economy is another pleasant surprise: 20/28 mpg is fairly frugal for such a muscular motor.

Safety

The Passat comes with standard stability control, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and six airbags (front, front side and full-length side curtain).

The new Passat aced the government's crash tests, scoring a perfect five stars in frontal, side and overall crashworthiness. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) similarly awarded the Passat its highest rating in every testing category.

Driving Impressions

The 2013 Passat is like an athlete after a full-body Novocain massage. You can tell there's some real handling capability in there that a sport-tuned suspension would tease out, but the default setup is definitely geared toward comfort. Nonetheless, the Passat dances well enough, though if you really care about sporty handling, that's why the CC exists.

As for ordinary driving, the Passat offers a quiet cabin and generally good shock absorption. If we're picking nits, the latest Passat's structure feels a little less robust over bumps than its German pedigree would suggest, but by the standards of this class it's more than adequate.

Other Cars to Consider 

Ford Fusion - Redesigned with real purpose for 2013, the Fusion combines practicality, technology and agility like few vehicles at this price point. Check out the Hybrid for fuel economy that shames even the stingy Passat TDI.

Honda Accord - Also all new for 2013, the revitalized Accord is once again a strong contender, though it lacks a diesel option.

Kia Optima - Before you drive off in a Passat, consider that you might be able to grab a 274-hp Optima SX for around the same price. The SX's fuel economy is better than the base Passat 2.5, while its smooth, strong acceleration puts it on par with the Passat 3.6.

AutoTrader Recommends

We're partial to the Passat TDI, as it offers unbeatable fuel economy and range (hybrid rivals aside) along with a healthy turbocharged shove when you goose it. Plus, even the entry-level TDI SE comes pretty well equipped.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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