Editor's note: This review was written in October 2013 about the 2013 Volkswagen Passat. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2014, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
While the 2013 Volkswagen Passat's straightforward simplicity may not win over the tech-addicted, its massive rear seat legroom should certainly win over those who plan to use it for real live people.
The Passat was redesigned in 2012, and for 2013 has a few minor changes, namely a new center console with rear air vents in the SE and higher trims, and a backup camera in the SEL. Compare the 2013 version side by side with its 2012 predecessor here. Technically a full-size sedan due to its passenger volume, the Passat is priced to compete with midsize sedans like the Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima and Honda Accord. Check them all out here.
The Passat's trim levels include the base 2.5L S (which I drove), where the number refers to the 2.5-liter, five-cylinder gas engine. Higher trim levels include the SE, Wolfsburg Edition, SEL and SEL Premium, some of which also come with a gas-powered 3.6-liter V-6 or a 2.0-liter TDI clean-diesel four-cylinder. You can compare a few of these here.
Exterior & Styling
While the base Passat 2.5L S has 16-inch alloy wheels, 17-inch alloy rims are standard on the SE and SEL trims. Eighteen-inch alloys show themselves on the TDI SEL Premium and the 3.6 SE and SEL.
The Passat's styling probably won't turn many heads and might simply elicit a "meh," unlike the "oohs and ahhs" garnered by the sweeping lines of the Passat's sexy little sister, the CC. The Passat's exterior styling is a little bit pedestrian, part utilitarian and certainly won't offend anyone on the road.
How It Drives
The Passat is easy to cruise around in, whether your daily driving adventures take you on a morning highway commute or on quick in-town jaunts throughout the day. The Passat's refined suspension manages to feel perfectly soft and comfortable without losing too much road feel or adding an unnerving floaty sensation.
The 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter five-cylinder I drove felt a bit underpowered when trying to punch it up to speed on the highway. Around town, however, this wasn't noticeable. In the 2.5-liter version, performance was simply average, which seems to be a common theme in this car. There's nothing bad to report, but, likewise, nothing necessarily stands out or revs my engine, either.
Of course, for drivers wanting a punchier feel to their ride, VW gives you the option of a 3.6-liter V-6 with 280 hp, as well as the more fuel-efficient and typically fun-to-drive turbo-diesel, which has 140 hp but 236 pounds-feet of torque, which is what really gets you going from a standstill. This spec is closer to the V-6 than the five-cylinder.
The 2.5-liter Passat comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission and gets an EPA-estimated 22/32/26 mpg city/highway/combined. An optional six-speed automatic transmission changes those numbers ever so slightly to 22/31/25 mpg. The 3.6-liter V-6 with automatic transmission takes this down to 20/28/23 mpg, while the automatic turbo-diesel gets a whopping 30/40/34 mpg estimate.
The Passat's interior is remarkably simple but somehow manages to avoid crossing the line into frumpy or plain Jane. As VW points out, "Nothing here is trendy or overdone." It feels timeless and is very practical.
Up front, the driver has access to in-door storage bins with bottleholders, two cupholders in the center console area and an open bin under the radio that held my phone and garage door opener. An additional small storage area keeps unruly small items like change and lip gloss contained. The center console itself is relatively small but houses an aux input jack for routing music from a phone through the car's speaker system.
The Passat's most impressive feature is its 39.1 inches of backseat legroom. In comparison, the Hyundai Sonata offers 34.6 inches and the Kia Optima has 34.7 inches. This is where the Passat really excels in its class. Even for an adult sitting in the back, there's plenty of space, and my husband was quite comfortable back there as I played the chauffeur in "Driving Miss Daisy." (Hey, don't judge — what we do behind closed doors is our business.)
This backseat comfort was further enhanced by a center armrest with cupholders, which was very handy for adults and kids alike.
Visibility was excellent without making me feel like I was in a fishbowl. I also really liked the sliding sun visors.
Ergonomics & Electronics
While many cars are adding excessive technology and, as a result, multiple steps to do the simplest tasks, the Passat S sticks to old-school buttons and dials in all the right places, including within thumb's reach on the steering wheel.
The audio system's functions were without confusion and didn't require the assistance of the owner's manual to get up and running within seconds. When shifting the balance of the sound to the rear, we could comfortably have an adult conversation up front while the kids grooved away in the back. The steering wheel's audio controls were also well-located and easy to manipulate by feel without requiring me to take my eyes off the road. Bluetooth phone pairing was also quite easy to configure, again without assistance from the manual.
Cargo & Storage
With 15.9 cubic feet of cargo space, the Passat's trunk feels plenty big for a family. You have the option to expand the trunk even farther by folding the rear seatbacks jointly, or just folding one side or the other. For comparison, the Kia Optima is on the lower end of this car class with a 15.4-cubic-foot trunk. Families needing even more space may want to turn their attention to the Hyundai Sonata and its 16.4 cubic feet.
Just as important as volume, the Passat's trunk also has a low sill that makes it easy to load and unload large, bulky and unruly sized items. Golf clubs, bags for sleepovers or luggage for a weekend road trip all fit very comfortably, with room to spare.
My family and I even tested the Passat's storage ability with a run to the local Home Depot, and it comfortably accommodated some 2-by-4-foot lumber and a small ladder. Customers, and especially families, have come to expect flexibility in their vehicles, and the Passat delivers in this department. For a midsize sedan, the Passat is an impressive mover of both people and stuff.
The 2013 VW Passat received the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's top label of Top Safety Pick Plus, having received the required highest rating of good in four out of five tests, and a rating of acceptable in the stringent new fifth test, the small-overlap crash test.
The Passat also received an overall rating of five out of five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a common rating among best-selling midsize sedans.
These ratings, combined with the fact that every safety feature is standard on every Passat, are comforting reassurances for a mom like myself who regularly chauffeurs three very valuable little packages.
In addition to all the standard safety features we'd expect in any 2013 vehicle, the Passat also includes an intelligent crash response system. This unlocks doors, turns off the fuel pump and turns on the hazard lights in the event of a collision.
Installing child-safety seats in the base Passat with fabric upholstery using Latch proved simple and straightforward. The lower anchors are visible within the seat bight, and the soft and malleable fabric seating surfaces make it easy to manipulate a child seat's anchors into place. Check out our Car Seat Check of the 2012 VW Passat, which also represents the 2013, here.
All three of the backseat's seat belt buckles are on stable bases, making it easy for kids in booster seats and those with limited dexterity to easily buckle up on their own.
See all the standard safety features listed here.
Value in Its Class
The Passat is great value for families in the market for a midsize sedan. You get ample seating and massive legroom for five, combined with a very flexible cargo space at a reasonable price. For those who want a little more voom, available upgraded engines and interior technology are accessible for a small price increase.
While the Passat might not come out on top in the sexiest-sedan pageant, it's a very practical and comfortable option for families on a budget.