As some of you know, I’m between cars. Well, just before Thanksgiving, I had a call from a client — let’s call him Robert — who asked me to come over to fix his Mac. We set Monday for the visit, and since he lived just a few minutes away, he arrived to pick me up. His car was new, still bearing the temporary plate, and he seemed proud of his new purchase, a white 2015 VW Passat Limited.
As you might expect, I was a little surprised at his choice. If you’ve been reading about Volkswagen’s problems with embedding software that faked emissions tests on their diesel engines, you might have wondered what Robert was thinking about. While he might have chosen a diesel for maximum fuel economy, VW has stopped selling vehicles with TDI diesels until they’re fixed, so he got one with VW’s 1.8 liter TSI turbocharged gas engine. It promises up to 36 miles per gallon; Consumer Reports claims up to 39 miles per gallon, and that’s not too shabby.
Well, as a car buff, I peppered him with questions about his choice. But Robert is no fool. VW dealers are struggling to sell product. They’re offering huge incentives not just on closeout vehicles, but the 2016 models that are now trickling in. He figured he saved enough money to cover much of what he’d lose in trade-in value when it was time to get a new car a few years hence.
Having arrived at his home, I began work on his late 2009 iMac that required a drive transplant. Having done it before, I can tell you it’s not a pleasant experience. You have to use suction cups to pry off the glass to get at the insides, and the entire process of taking it apart and putting it together took about an hour in billable time.
Now since I’ve owned two VWs over the years, I was real curious about his new purchase, and I kept asking him questions. So he offered me the chance to take it for an extended drive, with him in the passenger’s seat serving a sort of backseat driver’s role, and to make sure I didn’t attempt to test its 0-60 acceleration potential.
I did some research first as I tested his iMac after the repair. The “Limited” moniker applied to a special model, released in March, which contained several useful options in a Passat that was otherwise based on the entry level “S” series. You got fancier 17-inch wheels, corner-illuminating foglights, a rearview camera, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, an 8-speaker touchscreen sound system with SiriusXM and HD radio, proximity keyless access with a push-button start button, V-Tex faux leather seating, heated front seats, an 8-way power driver’s seat, and a few other geegaws that would normally list for $2,755 at a $1,555 premium over the standard price.
It’s actually a smart package, even though you give up a few things. There’s nothing comparable in the 2016 lineup, and some features require that you buy options that take the list price to over $29,000.
Style-wise, VW tends to be conservative but elegant. This motif also mostly applies to the Audi luxury brand. I compared it closely to my last car, a 2014 Kia Optima EX. It is an interesting contrast, since the Kia was designed by Peter Schreyer, who also designed the distinctive Audi TT and the New Beetle during his stint at VW.
Now the Kia was meant to be futuristic outside, and Germanic inside. An interesting combo, but it also has a high belt line and a coup-style slope at the rear that somewhat restricts headroom and your view to the rear. The rearview camera is essential, but the one on the Passat also came in handy.
Since the 2011 model, the American Passat, built in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is noticeably larger than its European counterpart. While it’s within an inch or two of most mid-sized sedans, such as the Kia Optima, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, it’s positively huge inside. You can easily spread out in the front, and the rear seats offer almost limousine-like space. The trunk, rated at 15.9 cubic feet, has a wide opening, thus affording more usable space than the storage areas on comparable vehicles. You sit upright in a tall cabin, with big side windows. Except for thick rear pillars, visibility as as good as it gets.
Indeed, I was positively amazed at how much extra room it appeared to offer, while, again, being about the same size and weight as the Kia. It’s very much about clever packaging.
The faux leather on the Passat is so well done, I was hard pressed to detect much of a difference compared to genuine leather. The control placement is excellent with big white on black gauges, and simple controls for the radio and cooling systems. There’s also a multifunction button on the steering wheel that puts the phone and audio functions in a convenient space.
The touchscreen radio has big labels for selecting station presets. Options are straightforward, and there’s no multifunction button or the need to wade through loads of menus and submenus to manage some functions. It’s also responsive. The touchscreen on the Kia was a little hit or miss.
But the best things about the VW radio are the surprisingly robust audio quality and the sensitivity of the FM and satellite radios. My Kia had a Premium package with a fancy Harmon Infinity system sporting seven speakers, the last being a subwoofer. Despite the pretense, I found it overwrought in both bass and treble, with an overall tinny aspect. It eluded an air of cheapness,
The sound on the Passat is warm. Bass is decent, not quite as deep or robust as the Kia, but it still delivers the appropropriate thump when it’s called far. As a former drummer, I listen carefully to the quality of snares, bass and cymbals. The VW gets it mostly right. Cymbals smeared on the Kia. Best of all, my extended drive took the Passat to a few places where the audio cut out on the Kia’s satellite radio. Kia fans claimed it was the fault of the Sirius satellite system, but the dropouts on the Passat’s radio were few and far between. All in all it’s a better deal.
For 2016, the Kia is offering a radio with up to 14 speakers. The top-of-the-line for the Passat is a 9-speaker Fender system, highly praised. But the 8-speaker audio on Robert’s Passat is good enough for most of you.
So what did he give up with a car priced just above the entry-level?
There’s no moonroof. But Robert never used them, and I maybe spent a day using one over the past 20 years. and just about all of my cars had some form of moonroof or sunroof. There’s no dual-zone automatic climate control either, but that’s of minimal impact in the real world, unless you and your passenger have widely divergent tastes. I’m almost always fiddling with the temperature settings on the automatic systems, since few provide consistent performance from day to night, as outside temperatures change. It’s a minor loss.
The lack of a power front passenger seat may also be a negative, but if only one or two people sit there and can settle on basic adjustments, it’s not such a big deal. The manual controls on the Passat are fairly easy to manage.
The other negative, slight, is the lack of a rear vent for back seat passengers. But I find the airflow on those systems is so light that it hardly matters, at least in the cars I’ve driven. In addition, the rearview mirror is not auto-dimming, and there is no Homelink garage controller. But it’s no big deal to manually switch from day to night view without depending on the system to figure it out, and aftermarket garage door openers aren’t very expensive.
What this means is that the buyer who can still find one of these cars will be getting a great price and save thousands on options you may not actually need.
The styling has been criticized by some as being a tad plain. But it’s VW through and through, without the needless styling cues that serve little purpose other than look fancy, or different. This conservative approach carries to the interior, where the layout is straightforward with generous storage space and large cupholders front and rear. It gives evidence of careful thought to every detail of the motoring experience. An example: Unlike other brands, the ignition start/stop switch is conveniently placed on the center console at the left of the transmission stick. The emergency brake is activated by a big old fashioned lever on the center console. The Optima’s was at the left below the dash, and occasionally missed. More than a few times, I began to drive the car without realizing, until I saw the dash light, that the emergency was still activated.
Both the Passat and the Optima have a ride that leans firm. But Kia and its sister brand, Hyundai, have a few things to learn about proper suspension design. The Passat simply offers a better combination of comfort and control, and is rarely upset by bumpy roads. The electric power steering is rock solid, and you could drive miles on a straightaway barely moving the wheel. Not so on the Optima, which required slight but fairly frequent corrections on the very same roads. After a few hours driving, the Passat would leave you feeling less fatigued.
Despite having “only” 170 hp, the 1.8 engine manages to move the Passat faster than the higher rated engine on the Kia. We’re talking of maybe a second in 0-60 times, but it’s enough to make you feel you’ve really got a small six-cylinder engine under the hood.
For 2016, VW has given the Passat a nip and tuck here and there, with some fancy tricks to reduce wind resistance that results in an improvement in mileage of a few percent, from 36 to 38 mpg on the 1.8 turbo. The interior is also gussied up a bit, and some added safety features that include adaptive cruise control, automated braking, blind spot monitoring, and lane change warnings. You may even be able to get one with a diesel version once VW fixes the emission controls and gets EPA approval.
It’s unfortunate that VW managed to screw itself with its emission control fakery. It will cost the company billions to fix the cars and pay regulatory fines. An untold number of customers will give up on the brand, and it may take years to grow sales once again.
The solution going forward will require total honesty, and careful attention to the recall and repair process. That, and huge financial incentives for new car purchases may help.
All in all Robert let me spend several comfortable hours taxiing him around the Phoenix area. He allowed me to repeat the experience a couple of days later to flesh out my review. All in all, it was a pleasant motoring experience, and when I’m in the market again, I’ll give the Passat a real serious look, well at least if the dealer is willing to offer some huge financial incentives,
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