Three model years after winning Cars.com’s Best of 2012 Award, the 2015 Volkswagen Passat remains a compelling family sedan, offering above-average space, mileage, drivability and quality.
In Cars.com’s recent test of 10 family sedans, the $27,000 Midsize Sedan Challenge, a Passat 1.8T SE took third place, an impressive showing behind two models redesigned for 2015: the first-place Hyundai Sonata Sport and the Subaru Legacy 2.5i Premium. The remaining seven contestants — which the VW dominated — have likewise been redesigned since 2012.
The Passat comes with a choice of three engines: a turbocharged, 1.8-liter four-cylinder in 1.8T models; a 3.6-liter V-6 in 3.6L models; and a clean-diesel, 2.0-liter four-cylinder in TDI models. Trim levels include the base S, Wolfsburg Edition, SE, Sport and SEL premium. Manual and automatic transmissions are available, depending on trim level. All Passats have front-wheel drive.
The Passat topped the acceleration ratings in our Challenge. Even with a turbocharger, the 1.8-liter engine might seem small for a car of this size, but its horsepower and especially torque output compare to the competitors, and the VW is admirably lightweight; only one sedan in the test was lighter as equipped. Combined with a responsive six-speed automatic transmission, the engine gives plenty of off-the-line power, and passing power is also on tap at a moment’s notice. Drivers who want a sportier experience can easily activate Sport mode by sliding the gear selector past Drive to the S position. It holds onto lower gears farther up the rpm range, but the difference isn’t dramatic, mainly because Drive mode is nice and responsive to begin with — not the case for some cars as automakers struggle for higher mileage.
With the Volkswagen Passat, though, there seems to be no mileage trade-off. In our test against nine other four-cylinders, the Passat got the second-highest fuel economy results, at 32.1 mpg combined. That was just 0.3 mpg behind the Nissan Altima, which was rated ninth for acceleration. The Passat Wolfsburg 1.8T’s EPA gas mileage rating is 24/36/28 mpg city/highway/combined with the 6-speed automatic. A five-speed manual transmission, which is standard on the S and Sport trim levels, cuts the highway figure to 35 mpg. (In these cases, the automatic is a $1,100 or $1,200 option, depending on the version.)
The automatic-only 3.6L is rated 20/28/23 mpg, while the TDI diesel gets an estimated 30/44/35 mpg with a six-speed manual and 30/42/34 mpg with the automatic. An outstanding road-trip version, the Volkswagen Passat TDI is a onetime winner of Cars.com’s Eco-Friendly Car of the Year award and is again a nominee for 2015.
Regardless of engine, the Passat has a sporty feel due to its precise steering and firm suspension. It’s clear our judges appreciate a well-executed firm suspension, because the Passat tied for fourth place in this regard. I can see how a shopper might find it too firm, however, so pay attention if you test the car. Our Volkswagen Passat SE came with 17-inch wheels, so it’s likely the optional 18s and 19s would be firmer still. Base 16-inch steel wheels in the S trim level might make a difference, though probably not much.
The Volkswagen Passat’s lack of optional all-wheel drive is notable, though common in this class. For those who require all-wheel drive, the Legacy has it standard and it’s optional on the Ford Fusion and Chrysler 200.
The Passat has one of the roomiest interiors in the class, especially its cavernous rear seat area which contributed to its high score. A couple aspects unexpectedly compromised my comfort, though: The otherwise supportive power driver’s front seat lacks a tilt adjustment for the bottom cushion — a major drawback in today’s market, where power seats typically let you vary thigh support. Second, the tilt steering wheel needs to drop down lower — much lower.
Overall, interior quality is one of the Volkswagen Passat’s higher points, especially at a modest price. (Sometimes more affordable versions — including a few models in our test, such as the Altima and Fusion — fail to deliver.) Specifically, I like most of the Passat’s materials, especially the patterned aluminum-look trim, but some aspects show the model’s age. For example, the gauges remain clear and classic but aren’t as rich-looking as some in the test, and the blocky monochrome display between them looks like a game of “Space Invaders” could break out at any moment.
Another unpleasant surprise was the black leatherette (imitation leather) upholstery. Perhaps it was the black color or a poor choice of protectant, because VW’s leatherette is usually impressive. Not this time.
In terms of noise, the Passat again scored midpack. The engine sound is a constant companion, but the judges clearly liked it, or at least didn’t object to its level or how familiar it sounds as it steps through six gears — unlike the droning sensation experienced with continuously variable automatic transmissions, especially the Altima’s.
The Volkswagen Passat proved easy to operate but lost Challenge points for lacking multimedia features like smartphone app integration — a shame, because our test car’s medium-sized touch-screen would support more ambitious features without the added cost of navigation (an option not included in our car). VW says more robust offerings will arrive in the 2016 model year.
Though an analog aux-in jack and Bluetooth audio streaming with hands-free telephone support are standard, the Passat was the only car in the Challenge not to offer a USB port; a digital connection cable is available for Apple devices.
Our Passat was one of four contestants to offer a telematics system with built-in cellular support for collision notification, roadside assistance and concierge services.
Sadly, our test car didn’t have the optional Fender premium stereo, which is one of the best audio systems you can get in a car.
The Volkswagen Passat’s trunk volume of 15.9 cubic feet is on the larger side for this class, and both the space and opening indeed seem large. The trunk lid hinges intrude somewhat into the cargo area but are nicely finished. A 60/40-split folding backseat is standard.
Cabin storage is mixed. The glove compartment is quite large, but the door pockets are only so-so and the compartment under the center armrest is small for a car of this size. The front cupholders have spring-tensioned fingers to hold cups in place. (Is it me, or does this seem a higher-quality approach than the rubber blisters many car cupholders have?)
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests, the Volkswagen Passat earned scores of good in all categories except the newer frontal small-overlap test, where it rated acceptable. Out of 19 models in the institute’s midsize moderately priced cars class, seven have the higher rating of good for this test. Six match the Passat.
The Passat falls way behind in one regard: It’s devoid of increasingly common active-safety options like blind spot and lane departure warning, and it also lacks a collision warning system now offered by many competitors. VW has hinted that these features will appear for 2016.
The Volkswagen Passat is particularly accommodating of child-safety seats thanks to exposed lower Latch anchors and plenty of backseat space. See more details in the Cars.com Car Seat Check.
See all the Volkswagen Passat’s features here.
Our judges’ average score ranked the Passat fourth in the “Worth the Money?” category, which is pretty good for a brand that once commanded a premium. It had the second-highest as-tested price of $26,840 in the $27,000 Midsize Sedan Challenge. The Altima was $40 more but ranked a step lower in value.
Many factors affect a perception of value, and different shoppers value different things. In my opinion, the Volkswagen Passat lost points for its lack of some features (especially because they aren’t available as options, either) but gained some for its size relative to price and its overall interior quality. With the exception of the faux leather in our test car, the Passat is a model whose interior impresses even in more affordable versions, which is definitely not the case for some competitors’ base trim levels.
I always say the market is seldom wrong, but it’s usually slow to learn. Our Challenge results reflect this loud and clear. The three best-selling models brought up the rear, and the high-ranking, onetime award-winning Passat is selling slowly. That’s good for you. As I write this, Volkswagen is offering low-rate financing and more than $3,250 cash back on 2015s and $4,500 on 2014s in my region.