2014 VW Passat SEL
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The 2014 Volkswagen Passat doesn't come up very often in my discussions about and comparisons with other sedans in its class. Perhaps, it's because the Passat is like a Jetta or because the RNS 315 and 510 navigation systems simply aren't exciting to techies and have been around forever. Perhaps it's because, for VW enthusiasts, the Passat is almost a foregone conclusion, the obvious choice when you need more space than the Jetta offers and for everyone else, suggesting a Volkswagen will be met with, "Yeah, but what about the reliability?" Perhaps it's that you either want a Passat or you don't that keeps it out of discussion.

Let's discuss it anyway, because the 2014 Passat SEL Premium 1.8T that I was able to take for a spin at a recent Volkswagen full-line driving event is interesting for a few reasons -- the most obvious being the 1.8-liter turbocharged engine, which is a new, strong performer, and the debut of VW's Car-Net telematics system, which brings the dated dashboard tech into the connected age.

Dashboard tech and Car-Net telematics
The Passat's dashboard tech doesn't seem to have changed much. Front and center, our SEL trim level featured the same RNS 510 navigation receiver that has graced Volkswagen models for as far back as I care to remember. It's not a bad system, boasting a combination of physical and touch-screen controls that are easy to understand and an interface that's well organized.

RNS 510

The RNS 510 navigation system is starting to show its age.

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Interestingly, the voice command button on the steering wheel only controls the hands-free calling systems. So you can't voice input addresses or queue music by shouting an artist's name at the stereo. The system also doesn't lock the driver out of accessing any of these features via the touch screen while the vehicle is in motion. So you can type an address while cruising down the highway.

Audio sources include AM/FM radio, CD playback, satellite radio, a 3.5mm analog auxiliary input, and VW's long-in-the-tooth Media Interface, which requires that owners use proprietary cables to connect USB or 30-pin iPod devices. Between this and the limited voice command, VW's cabin tech is in need of an update.

The 2014 model year models do have one new trick in the form of the automaker's new Car-Net telematics system. Functioning like a sort of OnStar for Volkswagens, Car-Net brings a number of connected features to the 2014 Passat, split into four major categories: Safe & Secure, Family Guardian, Remote Access, and Diagnostics & Maintenance. However, unlike other automakers, VW is only offering a single service tier that includes all of these categories.

Safety features include automatic crash response, roadside assistance (provided by VW partner Allstate), and stolen vehicle location. Family featurea include notifications (via e-mail or SMS) for exceeding preset speeds or entering or exiting preset, geofenced zones. Remote services include remote vehicle locking, horn honk, destination download, and a concierge service that lets the driver speak to an operator to search for a destination and have the location downloaded to the navigation system. Finally, Diagnostics tools allow the driver to schedule visits for service and receive vehicle health reports.

Car-Net destination

Via Car-Net, users can have destinations sent to the Passat's navigation system.

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Drivers can either interact with the Car-Net features by pressing one of the three buttons located on the ceiling console in the vehicle -- information, roadside assistance, or SOS -- to speak to a call center operator, use an iPhone application (an Android version is coming "soon" according to a VW representative), or access the service through a browser on a Web-connected personal computer.

I was able to try out the system to download an address while driving. Personally, I'm not a fan of using concierge services for destination search -- I find them too time intensive and, frankly, don't like talking to people -- but there's no denying the safety of letting someone else do the searching while I was able to keep my eyes on the road. The call quality of the concierge call left much to be desired, but that could just as easily be attributed to the limited signal strength in the remote area where testing occurred. I was also given demonstrations of the roadside assistance and the VW Car-Net app and found them to also be easy and accessible. I particularly liked the ability to send destinations from the app or a computer before getting into the car and have them waiting when I'm ready to go.

Car-Net app (iPhone)

Users can also use the Car-Net app to perform remote functions and search for destinations.

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A six-month free trial of the Car-Net service is included in the MSRP, after which it'll cost $199 per year to retain access. Going month to month will be more expensive, and committing to multiple years yields discounts. VW states that the system brings its vehicles into parity with telematics systems offered by GM, Hyundai, and Toyota at a competitive price.

New 1.8-liter turbocharged engine
Under the hood, you'll find a new 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that boast similar on-paper numbers to the previous generation engine of equivalent displacement: 170 peak horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. That power works its way through a six-speed automatic transmission on its way to the front axle. Fuel economy is estimated at 24 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. Elect to row your own gears with the available six-speed manual gearbox and you'll net an extra mpg on the highway.

Those are the numbers. VW tells me that, behind the scenes, the new engine features a number of internal design changes that grant it more thermal and friction efficiency and more midrange torque than its predecessor. The latter improvement was noticeable when guiding the 2014 Passat up a reasonably steep hill at a casually brisk pace, where it pulled strongly without the need to downshift to as low a gear as I expected a sedan of this size and stated power level would. VW has brought the torque curve peak lower in the powerband -- all the way down to 1,500rpm -- which gives the Passat strong acceleration around town. The power very usable and the sedan almost always seems to be in the right gear and unstrained.

1.8TSI engine

The new 1.8TSI engine will eventually replace the old 2.5L five-cylinder across VW's lineup.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

It's no neck snapper -- my uninstrumented 0-60 tests can be best described as "fast enough" -- but the '14 Passat 1.8T feels appropriately powered.

Unsettled and un-German
Things are bit less cut and dry when it comes time to round a bend. The Passat's handling and ride quality seem to be saying one thing, but its steering feel seems to be trying to say another.

The Passat's electronic power steering (EPS) has a noticeably weightier feel than most other vehicles that I've tested in its class, but not a good weightiness like you'd, for example, find in a proper sport sedan. The Passat's steering provides very little fingertip feel for what the front wheels are experiencing. This creates an odd disconnect between the amount of effort being put into turn the heavy steering wheel and the amount of actual steering that's happening where the rubber meets the road. It's as though someone at VW heard all of the criticisms being lobbed at other overboosted EPS systems in the class and just cranked up the steering effort to create artificial steering feel.

Passat interior with steering wheel

The Passat's steering felt artificially heavy, which is OK on the highway, but not on the twisties.

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On the winding and twisting backroad loop that VW chose for my drive, this meant that the Passat required a lot of effort and small corrections to place it where I wanted to on a bend and in its lane. I'd turn the wheel expecting to be met with a certain amount of steering and have to correct my input midcorner. Over rough, patched asphalt the vehicle would require multiple correction to keep within the lane, giving the vehicle a very unsettled and very un-German feel. Eventually, I stopped relying on fingertip feel and started listening to my butt -- the Passat's sorted suspension offers decent seat of the pants feel with a firm ride that still manages to be supple and not jarring.

On wider roads, with more space between the lane lines and higher average speeds, the Passat was able to settle a bit, and the heavy steering did give the sedan a heavy and planted character that was more likeable and less tiring.

2014 VW Passat SEL

The engine and chassis feel good, but the Passat could use new tech and a retune on its EPS.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

In sum
The 2014 Volkswagen Passat starts at $20,845 for the entry-level S model, but it's powered by a 2.5L non-turbo five-cylinder engine that VW will be phasing out in favor of the 1.8-liter turbo that we tested. Choosing the SEL Premium trim level that I was able to test gets you ahead of the curve and nets a number of creature comfort features like leather seating surfaces, a power sunroof, and automatic climate controls. Of course, you'll still be behind the curve with the dated RNS 510 navigation system, but the Car-Net telematics goes a long way toward shoring up that system's shortcomings -- if you elect to keep the service beyond the six-month trial.

Drivers looking for a bit more efficiency than the 1.8T's EPA estimated 34 highway mpg also have a variety of options powered by the automaker's 40 mpg turbodiesel engine.

As tested, our SEL Premium 1.8T model comes to $31,715, which includes $820 in destination charges.