The Volkswagen Passat has been getting a lot of attention lately. Not only is it the first U.S.-built Volkswagen in a decade, it's also one of the brand's first serious attempts at a mainstream car designed to challenge rivals like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion. So how does it stack up? To find out, we spent a week with a diesel-powered 2014 Volkswagen Passat TDI SEL.
Solid, Stylish Family Car
One piece of feedback we heard from nearly everyone who drove our 2014 Passat is that it feels like a very solid car. Of course, many of today's midsize cars feel solid in the sense that you don't expect them to crumple in an accident, but most staffers who drove the Passat thought the sedan went even beyond that feeling, giving drivers the sense that they were in a much more expensive car like the BMW 5 Series or Audi A6.
One reason for this is the Passat's materials. Fit and finish is excellent, and Volkswagen uses high-quality materials throughout the cabin to give drivers the feeling that they're in a proper German car, even if it's one that was built in the States. Volkswagen also contributes to the solid feel with overengineered touches like auto-down windows in the front and back. That's a feature that few other cars have, and it's one you'll notice quickly.
Another aspect that everyone agreed on was the sedan's styling: We like it. Everyone who drove the car felt that its proportions were right, its look was subdued without being boring and its lines will age well in the coming months and years. That's something we wouldn't necessarily say about certain rival models like the Hyundai Sonata or Honda Accord, which use very modern design cues that may not look so fresh in a few years.
Good, Not Great, Gas Mileage
We have mixed feelings on the Passat's fuel economy. In combined city and highway driving, we were able to easily reach 30 to 35 miles per gallon, an excellent number reserved for the smallest cars only a few short years ago. Of course, this is courtesy of the Passat's 140-horsepower turbodiesel 4-cylinder engine, which is rated at 30 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The only problem: A Passat TDI starts around $27,500, while our SEL model pushed that figure to more than $34,000. By comparison, a Ford Fusion Hybrid starts at $28,000 and a well-equipped Fusion Hybrid Titanium is $33,000. The numbers are comparable until you realize that the Fusion Hybrid returns an EPA-rated 47 mpg city/47 mpg hwy, which soundly trumps the Passat's figures. Same goes for the Honda Accord Hybrid, which starts around $30,000 and returns 50 mpg city/45 mpg hwy.
Engine Only Adequate
Unfortunately, the Passat's powertrain troubles don't stop with its fuel economy. We're not entirely impressed with its 2-liter engine, which can be a little noisy and slow to respond, even though it's mated to Volkswagen's usually excellent dual-clutch automatic transmission. We're also not sold on the Passat's acceleration, which has a 0-to-60 miles per hour time of nine seconds, making it slower than both the Accord Hybrid and the Fusion Hybrid despite having worse gas mileage.
Easy to Live With, Especially for Audiophiles
Fortunately, the Passat is full of traits that make it easy to live with. Bluetooth, for example, is surprisingly clear, although we're not sure why phone pairing isn't done on the large, center-mounted touchscreen. Also, the Passat's trunk is huge, which makes it especially practical. And while fuel economy might not beat some hybrid rivals, its range will: The Passat comes with an 18.5-gallon tank, which means it's theoretically possible to drive the sedan more than 700 miles on a single tank. That's good if you spend a lot of time on the highway.
More importantly for drivers who like music, however, is the Passat's Fender sound system. Although it takes a while to boot up, it's excellent once it has. The music clarity is fantastic and the sound quality is nearly perfect. In all, we're surprised to see a system like this on a midsize sedan.
Our Conclusion: Solid Choice
The 2014 Volkswagen Passat TDI SEL certainly has its shortcomings, especially when you consider fuel economy and engine power, but that doesn't mean we wouldn't recommend it. On the contrary, there are enough features we like about the Passat to suggest it to our friends, but we'd also strongly recommend that they check out the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Honda Accord Hybrid, which offer similar equipment and far better gas mileage for about the same money.