US market Passats are available with three different engines. Top of the range is the 280 bhp V6 3.6 litre engine, and the unusual choice for the US market is the 2.0 TDi unit putting out 140 bhp, but these do not feature in the rental models, which come instead with the very familiar 2.5 litre 5 cylinder unit. I’d previously experienced this unit in the old model Jetta and Beetle and had enjoyed the fact that there are occasions when it does sound distinctively different from your more commonly found 4 or 6 cylinder machine. Standard transmission for this unit is a five speed manual, but as with all rental cars, the six speed Tiptronic automatic box featured in my test car. With “only” 170 bhp and the large body of the Passat, you might fear that this would not be a quick car, and indeed, there were times when I needed a sudden burst of acceleration to pull out around a slow vehicle when I had to work the engine quite hard, probably harder than you might expect to get that speed increase. Noise levels rise a lot as a consequence, but the Passat always delivered. Driven mode sedately, it is fine, and there is always that off-beat thrum that you can hear at moderate revs. Otherwise this is a refined unit, and freeway cruising is quiet, with just a trace of wind noise audible. As with its recently sampled rivals, fuel economy was better than I would have predicted. I took the Passat on a similar route to the Sonata, and it was not quite so parsimonious, using 10.4 gallons over 314 miles, equating to 30.1 mpg US, or 36 mpg Imperial, a commendable figure indeed. The acid test was always going to be the other driving dynamics as this is where VW has taken cost out with a simpler specification than in Euro Passat. The steering is not as light or vague as in some of its competitors, though it lacks the sharpness and precision that is needed to take class honours in a European spec car (ie to rival a Mondeo), but it did mean that manoeuvering the Passat was as easy as piloting it on the freeway and other roads. I took the Passat up onto the canyons up above Los Angeles to see how it coped with the swooping bendy roads, and the answer was that it was not bad. Again, it lacks the ultimate prowess of a Mondeo, with quite a lot of understeer becoming evident on the tighter twists and turns, but compared with US market alternatives, it is not wide of the mark. Thanks no doubt to the long wheelbase and the soft suspension, it rides well, tackling California’s notoriously deteriorated road surfaces without undue discomfort. The brakes needed quite a firm application of pressure on the pedal but otherwise worked well. I was quite surprised to find a conventional pull up handbrake lever between the seats, as Euro Passat was one of the first cars to convert to the electric nonsense. There is plenty of glass, so visibility is not bad, though the door mirrors are pretty small and have a slightly restricted field of view.
At first glance, the cabin of the Passat looks very much like any other VW product. Indeed, it has clearly raided the corporate parts bin for many of the individual components that go to make up an interior. There is a standard looking VW steering wheel, and the instrument dials, the column stalks, the audio unit, the air conditioning controls and some of the door furniture are all very familiar looking. However, look a bit harder and poke things, and you soon realise that whilst these elements are the same, the main dash moulding, and the door casings are not. They are far harder than those used in the Wolfsburg cars, and whilst from a distance they do not look bad, they do lack some of the same feeling of quality that defines the modern VW. That said, everything seemed to operate with a welcome precision, and gave you the impression it would last well. There is a single cowl covering the instrument binnacle. In this you will find two large dials for speedometer and rev counter, and the fuel gauge and water temperature are little dials set in the base of the larger ones. The graphics are particularly clear and unfussy making them easy to read. There is a display area for the various on board computer messages between the dials, and you cycle through the rather large number of menus and sub menus with some of the buttons on the right hand steering wheel spoke. Everything is here from average and instant fuel consumption to various warnings that you can set for doors open and speed limits, as well as some vehicle information. The wipers and indicators operate off column stalks which are identical to those in all current VAG Group products, and there is a rotary dial on the left of the dash for the lights. Centre of the dash contains the audio unit, which also looks very familiar, In the test car as well as AM/FM radio and a CD slot, it had an expired XM satellite radio subscription, which was frustrating (but not uncommon in rental cars as the initial deal tends only to be for 90 days), and it also sported a touch sensitive screen which was nice and which made it easier to use. Underneath this unit are the rotary dials and buttons for the air conditioning system, again which are just like those you will find in other VW models. There are repeater buttons on the steering wheel spokes for many audio unit features as well as the cruise control switches and the set up for the on board computer.
On this model, adjustment for the driver’s seat is all electric, and that included a lumbar support as well. It made getting my ideal driving position easy, and thanks to the lumbar control, I was comfortable sitting in the Passat for a long trip on the 10 freeway. I did note that the central armrest is set well back, so certainly someone with my proportions would find it of no use at all, as it was too far behind me. This does not bother me, as I do not like finding an armrest in the way of my elbow anyway.
The biggest gain in a US Passat is the amount of space in it. The car has a longer wheelbase than its competitors, and it shows when you look inside the cabin. With the front seat set to suit my driving position, there was a veritable acre for the person travelling behind, almost rivalling Skoda Superb levels for leg room. Even with the front seats set well back, there is definitely more space in here than any of the competitors listed in the first paragraph of this test report. There is ample width across the car, so three adults would not feel cramped, and headroom is more generous than in some cars with a more sloping rear roofline. There is a central rear armrest which has two cupholders and a lift up lid over a stowage cubby on its upper surface. The boot is also far larger than class average, too, extending a long way back from the rear of the car. It is also quite deep, so you could easily get the luggage for those five adults in here. The rear seat backrests are asymmetrically split and fold forward, though the hole through the backrest is not that large. Inside the cabin, there are bins on all four doors, a reasonable sized glovebox, a cubby under the central armrest, a useful additional cubby on the lower left of the dash above the driver’s knee, and you could use the area in front of the gearlever, sitting on top of the ashtray as space for smaller items such as a phone or camera. Rear seat passengers also get map pockets in the back of the front seats.
US market Passats are offered in S, SE, SEL and SEL Premium variants. The 2.5 models are available in all trims, the TDI is available as the SE and SEL Premium, and the 3.6 litre cars come as the SE with Sunroof and SEL Premium. S equipment includes cloth upholstery, dual zone air conditioning, six-speaker stereo, wireless cell-phone link, split-fold rear seat backs, and a wireless cell-phone link. The S is available with an Appearance Pack that adds 16″ alloy wheels and a centre arm rest for the back-seat. My test car, slightly surprisingly for a rental machine was the next model up the range, the SE. This adds quite a bit of extra equipment including 17″ alloys, a leather like vinyl upholstery, power driver seat, heated front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel with radio and phone controls, heated side-view mirrors, and a stereo with touchscreen controls. Optional packs are the SE with Sunroof, and the SE with Sunroof and Nav which comes with a built-in navigation system and VW’s “Media Device Interface” (MDI) that adds a USB port and a cable for iPod integration into the car’s audio system. The 2.5 SEL adds additional chrome exterior trim, interior footwell lighting, upgraded navigation system, “Fender” audio system, sport seats, rearview camera, and a rear-seat pass through. The top 5 cylinder Passat is the 2.5L SEL Premium. Choosing this model means you get leather upholstery, keyless entry, push-button start, foglamps, power passenger seat, and a memory function for the power driver seat. Similar equipment distinctions apply between the different models in the 2.0 TDi cars, though the TDI SE with Sunroof and Nav. It adds 18″ alloy wheels, chrome-trimmed side mouldings, and fog lamps. The top TDI model is the SEL Premium. Its features include leather upholstery, sport seats, upgraded navigation system, wood grain interior trim, rearview camera, and the Fender audio system. Top of the range are the V6 powered 3.6 litre models. The lineup starts with the 3.6 SE with Sunroof. Standard equipment includes 18″ alloys, the leather-like vinyl upholstery, sunroof, power driver’s seat, heated front seats, Fender audio system, and foglamps. The SE with Sunroof and Nav adds the sunroof and navigation system, along with MDI and the iPod cable. The 3.6 SEL Premium includes leather seating, wood grain trim, additional chrome interior accents, power passenger seat, rearview camera, upgraded navigation system, and keyless entry with push-button starting. Start price for the basic 2.5S is a whisker over the magic $20,000, at $20,485, though by the time you add the automatic gearbox, that will be a further $2460. Even so, that is absolutely in line with its market competitors, a price point that VW could not achieve with its German made predecessor.
Commercial success these days more than ever is all about fitness for purpose. So, how does the US market Passat score? It clearly is not as sophisticated as the European market models, so objectively you could say that it is a “miss”, but on reflection, I don’t think that is right. Assessed against what matters in the market where it is sold, it has to be compared not against the Mondeo, the Insignia, the Peugeot 508 and Toyota Avensis, but against its US market competition, of Camry, Malibu and Altima and the like. The acid test is this: when you are at the rental facility and there is a line of all the main competitors in this class, and at Hertz with the exception of the Accord which they rarely stock, this will probably hold true, and you have to pick one, which will you go for? It’s quite a hard choice, now, as standards have improved noticeably in the last few years, but on the evidence of this test, and especially if the badge on the back said “SE” and not “S”, I think I could easily sway to taking the Passat. Yet again, VW would appear to have judged what the market wants and responded accordingly, No wonder they are on such a roll.