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2014 Volkswagen Passat SEL Premium review: New VW Passat proves that 1.8 is enough

VW equips its latest midsize sedan with a 1.8-liter engine, using a turbocharger and direct injection to compete with larger engines in the segment.

Wayne Cunningham
Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
7 min read

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.

2014 Volkswagen Passat

2014 Volkswagen Passat SEL Premium

The Good

The 2014 Volkswagen Passat's 1.8-liter engine provides competitive power and excellent fuel economy, plus tight suspension tuning supports stable cornering. The Fender audio system is one of the best in the segment.

The Bad

The RNS 510 navigation system relegates traffic information to a secondary map, and is not very aggressive about routing around traffic jams. Volkswagen's Multimedia Interface requires adapter cables for USB and iOS devices.

The Bottom Line

The 2014 Volkswagen Passat competes well in its segment for driving character and fuel economy, and checks off the right boxes for cabin tech, but falls short on driver-assistance features.

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.

New VW Passat features small engine, big sound (pictures)

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Torque uncurved

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.

2014 Volkswagen Passat
Volkswagen's new 1.8-liter engine produces power comparable to other automaker's 2.5-liter engines, while pulling in excellent fuel economy. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

2014 Volkswagen Passat
The Passat features slightly tighter suspension tuning than other midsize sedans. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Data connected

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.

2014 Volkswagen Passat
The RNS 510 navigation system includes a traffic map separate from the 2D and 3D maps. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

This navigation system makes an odd distinction between its map views, offering 2D and 3D perspective maps, then a separate 2D map showing traffic conditions. Other automakers seem to have no trouble including traffic conditions on their navigation system's standard maps. However, whether you can see traffic flow information or not, the Passat can dynamically route around bad traffic.

Using route guidance, I found the system did a good job with voice prompts, and even showed lane guidance. Most helpful were the turn-by-turn directions shown on the instrument cluster's monochrome display, which I could see at a glance. On one trip, I was disappointed to find the navigation system had sent me into very slow traffic on the freeway, indicated in red highlighting on the traffic map. I would have preferred more aggressive traffic avoidance.

Volkswagen includes a few connected features in the Passat, such as the venerable Sirius Travel Link system integrated with the RNS 510 navigation system. That means traffic data, fuel prices at nearby gas stations, movie listings, and even stock prices are all beamed into the car, and viewable on the touchscreen. The Passat also includes Volkswagen's new Car-Net system, an app for iPhone and Android which includes standard telematics such as crash notification and roadside assistance.

2014 Volkswagen Passat
Local fuel prices, recieved through satellite radio, are one of the Passat's most useful connected features. Josh Miller/CNET

Useful on a daily basis, Car-Net lets you looks up destinations on your phone, then sync them to the Passat's navigation system. It isn't quite as slick as integrating Google search into the dashboard, but offers similar functionality.

The navigation system stores its maps on a hard drive, a technology that has fallen out of favor lately due to increased flash memory storage. However, Volkswagen makes space available on that drive for music, as one audio source. The stereo includes an SD card slot and Volkswagen's proprietary Multimedia Interface (MMI), a port tucked away in the console which supports adapter cables for iOS devices, both lightning and 30-pin, and USB drives.

Bluetooth streaming is also handy, but where MMI sources show a music library interface on the Passat's LCD, you will have to select music on your phone with the Bluetooth connection.

The star of the cabin tech suite is the Fender audio system, another standard feature at the SEL Premium trim, but available as an option on lesser trim Passats. With a 400-watt amp and nine speakers, including a trunk-mounted subwoofer, this system delivers well-balanced and crisp sound. The fidelity came through at low and high volumes. I was more impressed at the lack of distortion or panel rattle when I cranked it up. The Fender system offered by Volkswagen is one of the best in the sub-$30k price range.

2014 Volkswagen Passat
The new Passat competes well on driving characteristics, but it doesn't keep up when it comes to driver-assistance technologies. Josh Miller/CNET

In sum

Volkswagen's new engine is a standout in the 2014 Passat, offering excellent fuel economy and adequate power. Low speed power comes on unevenly, but the engine feels fine in the majority of driving situations. The associated six speed automatic makes for a seamless and easy driving experience. Those who favor more engagement with their cars will appreciate the Passat's tight tuning in both suspension and drivetrain.

The cabin includes most of the required tech features for a modern car, such as a Bluetooth handsfree phone system and audio streaming, navigation with integrated traffic, and satellite radio. The Fender audio system is the star here, an edge that could sway a music lover towards the Passat. However, I have never been a fan of Volkswagen's MMI system, and wish the Passat came with a USB port or two.

Connected features come in two buckets here, those from satellite radio and those include in the Car-Net telematics system. Traffic and fuel prices are the most useful for the satellite radio-delivered data, but Sirius Travel Link is only available in the top trim Passat. Car-Net is an intriguing system, and can be had at lower trims. I would like to see more integration of Internet-based data with the Passat.

Driver assistance features are a real let-down, especially at this price. Although not in the same segment, the similarly priced Nissan Rogue I recently tested came with a surround-view camera, LED headlights, a blind spot monitor, and a collision warning system, showing the multitude of useful features for drivers passed up by Volkswagen.

Tech specs

Model 2014 Volkswagen Passat
Trim SEL Premium
Powertrain Direct-injection turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy 24 mpg city/34 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 30.8 mpg
Navigation Standard, with live traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Onboard hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, SD card, satellite radio, HD Radio
Audio system Fender 400-watt nine-speaker system
Driver aids Rearview camera
Base price $20,995
Price as tested $31,715
2014 Volkswagen Passat

2014 Volkswagen Passat SEL Premium

Score Breakdown

Performance 6Features 5Design 6Media 5


See full specs Trim levels SEL PremiumAvailable Engine GasBody style Sedan