Big V-8s can get surprisingly good fuel economy on highway stretches, because they can cruise all day at a low engine speed. Volkswagen accomplishes similar magic with its new 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine in the 2014 Passat. For a long highway run at 55 mph, I noted the tachometer holding steady at 1,500 rpm, pushing the Passat's fuel economy into the mid-30s.
As Volkswagen's midsize sedan contender, the Passat's length of just under 16 feet puts it in company with other stalwarts in the segment, such as the Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry. That makes for spacious seating in the front or rear seats. Frankly, I find this segment fairly boring, but midsize sedans combine a practicality, comfort, and economy that proves extreme popular for US buyers.
In the US, the Passat's base price comes to only $21,815, but the SEL Premium trim example I reviewed ran to $31,715. Leather seats, cabin electronics, a Fender audio system, and other appointments accounted for the extra cost. Passat models in the UK start at £21,405 with a mix of diesel and gasoline engines. Australian buyers have to pony up AU$36,990 for a Passat, but that regional model gets Volkswagen's seven-speed DSG, a dual-clutch transmission.
One commonality in the midsize sedan segment is the 2.5-liter four cylinder engine, seen in Camry, Fusion, Subaru Legacy, Nissan Altima, and Chevy Malibu. In fact, the previous Passat also came with a 2.5-liter, but Volkswagen replaces that engine in the 2014 model with a new 1.8-liter, using direct injection and a turbocharger to produce 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. This new engine benefits from internal friction reduction, and Volkswagen notes that it hits peak torque from 1,500rpm to 4,750rpm.
The Passat's EPA fuel economy comes in at 24 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. In my course of driving, which included city, highway driving, and a few runs in Sport mode, the Passat delivered an average of 30.8 mpg. Most drivers should average in the low 30s. Most impressive, I noted the trip computer's average didn't plummet when I was driving in San Francisco, where hills, traffic, and ill-timed stop lights lead to average speeds across the city of well under 20 mph.
Contributing to the Passat's fuel economy considerably is its six-speed automatic transmission, with overdrive in fifth and sixth gears. In the US, a six-speed manual transmission is also available, but not Volkswagen's DSG.
This new engine leads to a distinct driving character in the Passat. The small displacement combined with sound deadening made it inaudible when idling or cruising. When I feathered the throttle at low speeds, the car proved a little jerky, as the torque comes up so fast. But once over that 1,500rpm point, the Passat sails along smoothly. The moderate power output meant the car didn't pin me to the seat when I floored it, but acceleration was adequate for merging and passing maneuvers. I even heard a little bit of front wheel chirp on fast starts.
As for tuning, there's nothing loose about the Passat's drivetrain and handling. The engine was always responsive to the pedal, and the transmission shifted smoothly, so that gear changes went unnoticed. The transmission offers a manual mode, which might come in handy for hill descents, and a mild Sport mode which held the engine speed around 4,000rpm when I hammered it.
I have found the driving character of midsize sedans differs by small degrees, and the Passat offers similar everyday comfort and ease of driving as the competition. However, I found the suspension leans towards stiff, so expect to feel more of the road than with a softer ride. On a long road trip, that tuning may lead to a little less comfort, but in exchange the Passat showed more lateral stability in hard cornering. The wheel gave the telltale whir of electric power steering at low speeds, but felt responsive and had decent heft. Given the power and only mildly aggressive transmission program, the Passat is no sleeper track star.
Given the similarities in the segment, midsize sedans' cabin tech features can help them stand out from the crowd. Despite sibling brand Audi's strong tech focus, Volkswagen's efforts have been rather mild. Fully loaded, this Passat came with a decent navigation system, a telematics service, minimal driver assistance, and an impressive audio system.
Where the Ford Fusion nears self-driving capability, all the Passat offers is a rearview camera with a static overlay as a distance guide. No adaptive cruise control, no blind-spot monitor, and no collision warning.
That camera view shows up on a modest 6.5-inch touchscreen, the display for Volkswagen's RNS 510 navigation system that comes standard in the Passat SEL Premium. Lesser trim Passats can be had with the feature-poor RNS 315 navigation system I recently saw in the Volkswagen Beetle. The Passat's touchscreen responded reasonably quickly to inputs, but I found its associated voice command system very limited. It gave me good control over the Bluetooth hands-free phone system, and some basic stereo system commands, but nothing at all for navigation.