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Quick Spin: 2018 Volkswagen Passat 2.0T SEL Premium

There’s a problem with mid-size sedans. They’re not selling. Seriously, no one is buying them. Everyone wants an SUV these days. It’s so much of a problem that Ford, a huge automaker by any measure, gave in and decided “hell, let’s just not make any ‘cars’ for the U.S. market”. And others might follow suit, because irrational thinking is contagious.

Not all automakers are so quick to simply give up on cars but it’s obvious that the focus for most sits with SUVs and crossovers. Volkswagen has the Atlas and the recently redone Tiguan, which is now available with third row seats. There’s also the excellent Alltrack, which itself is a jacked up version of the Golf Sportwagen. A version that’s significantly pricier and better selling. It’s maddening. Still, there’s also the lovable Golf, the new Jetta, and the Passat.

But is just having cars in an automakers’ portfolio enough? 

Volkswagen gave the Passat a mid-life update in 2016. At that time the mid-size sedan received a whole new front-end. For 2018 it receives a new 2.0-liter turbocharged and direct-injected engine. The four-banger makes 174 horsepower at 4,400 rpm and 184 lb-ft of torque at 1,500 rpm. That represents a very minor upgrade from the 1.8-liter of yesteryears that made 170 hp at 6,200 rpm and 184 lb-ft at 1,500 rpm. Along with the four ponies, the fuel economy went up slightly to 25mpg in the city and 36mpg on the highway.

Those two updates sum up the general effort that Volkswagen has put into this sedan. An updated front-end that I couldn’t really distinguish from my neighbor’s 2015 Passat paired with an engine that gets four more horsepower and two extra miles out of a gallon of gasoline. Along the way it got Apple CarPlay and Forward Collision Warning with autonomous emergency braking, both of which are noteworthy. But generally, the U.S. Volkswagen design team is either lazy or the just doesn’t care much for the Passat.

I would understand the minor updates if the 2012 Passat was some holy grail of modern mid-size sedan designs, but it’s wasn’t. Headlights being the biggest visual difference between 2012 and 2018, Volkswagen must be alone in thinking that the Passat was perfect from the get-go and didn’t need any significant updates. Or perhaps in recent times the company was busy with some other issues and/or focused on other models?

The interior and trim throughout the vehicle is rather basic. It looks good in pictures but it’s generally plain in person. On its own, there is really nothing wrong with it but there’s nothing striking about it, either. It’s until one compares it to the Accord or the Camry, both completely redone for 2018, that he Passat’s shortcomings truly shine through.

The same can be said for the ride, handling, power, price, and fuel economy. None of these things are bad in any way but not one excels over the competition in any way. As it stands, this $32,500 Passat 2.0T SEL Premium is the epitome of average, generic, and forgettable. The equally good and bad news is that the Passat isn’t alone in this group of forgotten mid-size sedans. Perhaps this may have something to do with the sluggish sales?

There is one part that is truly frustrating to me and it’s the fact that I know Volkswagen can do better. I drove the new VW CUVs; The Alltrack, the Atlas, and the Tiguan. They were all great; good looking, competitive, cleverly designed, even if they were similarly not exceeding any expectations. I was also given a ride in a new European-spec Golf press car on my last trip over the Atlantic and it blew me away. It did not look much different but it was better is every way. Similarly, I got into a new Euro-spec Passat Uber and it felt similar to the Lexus ES, with a distinctive feel of premium quality. So Volkswagen can do it, it just seems like they don’t care to.

Before we write cars completely off with regards to the excuse that no one is buying them, perhaps automakers could offer products that are better than average and generic. 

[Disclaimer: Volkswagen provided the Passat for the purpose of this review. All images copyright Kamil Kaluski/Hooniverse 2018]

  • B3NN3TT

    Hm. 174 hp is more like what most automakers get from a 1.4 turbo these days; most 2.0T’s are all closer to 250 anymore, aren’t they?

    • VW has “the same” engine in various output grades, the Golf R here has a 2.0T with 310hp indeed. I guess we’ll see a Passat with chrome mirror housings in a short while.

      • outback_ute

        Did the old R36 sell well enough to be followed? They sell the Passat with a 206TSi engine here – 276 hp. 174 hp is good for a standard family sedan when combined with turbo torque although more power is only going to be a downside if you use it, and thus more fuel.

        Presumably once the new-generation car will come out next year, it is on track for a normal model cycle. It’s had a longer run than the Honda Accord but is matching Toyota, and I am not going to fault them for updating things in the car’s last year.

        VW’s ‘thing’ is flair-free but neatly executed design so no surprises there. Of course I haven’t seen the US Passat, and I wonder how much money they save by having two versions of the car instead of smaller differences.

    • Harry Callahan

      That jumped out at me too. The 2.5L SkyActive naturally aspirated engine in my Mazda6 develops a paltry 184 bhp, and nearly everyone who reviews the car calls it underpowered. Maybe VW is using turbo tech from 1987…? I think the 2.3L Turbo SuperCoupe TBirds made about 175 bhp…

    • Maymar

      Considering the GTI is rated at 210hp, and it’s acknowledged that VW wasn’t trying too hard for the high score when they set the rating, I think VW’s just trying to get decent low end torque and acceptable EPA ratings (on regular, at that). Plus, they want to upsell the VR6 still.

    • Zentropy

      That’s a good point– I had to re-read the article to convince myself that I was incorrect in thinking it was a naturally-aspirated engine. That’s serious under-performance for a turbo. My neighbor’s Civic Si achieves a similar hp/L ratio without boost.

    • smalleyxb122

      Specific power is a fun, but ultimately worthless metric, unless you live where they tax vehicles based on displacement (or race in a series with displacement limits). 174hp is 174hp regardless of how many liters of displacement it takes to make them. A smaller engine doesn’t mean it is making power any more efficiently. That this engine is making more power and gets better mileage suggests that its brake specific fuel consumption is lower (better) than the smaller engine it replaces, even though hp/L is lower.

      • outback_ute

        The good old LS engine is a good case study for this.

        • smalleyxb122

          I may not be unbiased in this discussion, since 2 of my vehicles are powered by LS2s, but I agree wholeheartedly. My Astra has better specific output (138hp out of 1.8 liters) but 400hp out of 6.0 liters still whups its ass.

  • neight428

    I rented a TSI trim Passat last summer, and it drove fairly well. Bits of interior trim were flaking their coating/paint off and a wiring loom and liner were flopping around in the trunk. Some of this would be forgivable in a rental, but it only had ~8k miles.

    • spike_africa

      TSI isn’t a trim. That’s the engine. Most likely a super base S model.

  • Zentropy

    I’d much prefer the Passat to the Atlas. And the Alltrack to the rest of those VWs you mentioned. And the SportWagen to all of the VW offerings. I feel that five doors is better than four, which is better than three, which is better than two, but I definitely don’t want a CUV/SUV. The sedan is viable, it’s just secondary to a station wagon, in my view. Crossovers and Sport Utilities have their place, but for me, it’s not with daily driving.

  • Maymar

    I think the current Passat’s problem is that it’s a little too WalMart for VW buyers, and too VW for the shoppers concerned with getting the most car for their dollar.

    I actually like this Passat just fine (spent about a week with a 1.8T in the fall), it’s laid out sensibly, it drives decent (in the context of big commuter sedan), and unlike so much of the competition, well, it’ll still look sort of boring in 5 years, but it’ll look just as boring then as it does today, instead of being a hot mess of ill-considered trendy cues. Also, I have a ’17 Camry SE this week (prior gen), which manages to have a harsher ride (without enough enthusiasm tradeoff), and gets about the same 30mpg in mixed driving despite feeling a little more strained (granted, the 1.8 runs out of breath sooner). But then, despite being amenable to the Passat, the Golf suits me better. That might be the other problem, is “compact” cars getting so big, they’ve started rendering midsized cars sort of moot.

    • duurtlang

      “”compact” cars getting so big, they’ve started rendering midsized cars sort of moot.”

      It’s a development you see very strongly in Europe. Non-premium midsize (in the US context) cars simply don’t sell anymore. Most people have flocked to either compact crossovers or compact wagons. Or they went to BMW/Audi/Merc(/Volvo), as you can lease one of those for almost the same amount of money.

      With every new generation being larger than the previous the discontinuation of the largest non-luxury segment is something you see every few generations in Europe. Previously, cars like the Ford Scorpio and Opel Omega (Cadillac Cetera) and a generation later the Peugeot 607, Citroën C6, Renault Vel Satis and Lancia Thesis were all discontinued without a replacement. Now the midsize cars are the largest ones available. They however have grown so large that their sales are plummeting as well.

  • Zentropy

    If shopping sedans of this category, my choice would easily be the Accord Sport 2.0T with the manual. It’s a couple grand cheaper than this Passat, is more interestingly (if not entirely attractively) styled, and is far more enjoyable to drive. Plus, it’s a Honda, which has better build quality and resale value.

  • Paul M

    I actually think this is a solid entry. Exciting, no it is not. But it is what the old Buicks were. Big, comfy, can get out of its own way. They don’t need fixing here. Price sells midsizers. Quality is second. Design and performance no one care about.

  • Ed

    My father currently has a 2016 Passat SEL. It’s great on gas, comfortable and the trunk is huge. Throughout the 60s and 70s he owned a bunch of MBs, the 80s, 90s and the 00’s were the BMW era and after that he’s had a V8 Genesis and a Lexus GS350. He could not be happier with the Passat. Is it exciting? Nope. Does it do everything he wants comfortably and frugally? Yup.

  • spike_africa

    I bought a 2017 SE w/tech last year. Yes the 1.8 TSI stock is dog shit slow. It does what it needs too and gets good mpg. But its sooo slow. However just a tune boosts power by almost 90hp in the mid range. Its crazy. I lowered mine slightly on H&R OE springs for a slightly firmer sporty ride and handling, while still being able to have the baby fall asleep in it. Along with 19″ wheels and sticky Continental DW tires and Hawk pads. Its fun to drive and whip around. The interior is very nice, feels nice, the head unit is fantastic, and the LED lighting is the best money spent. Mines also Reef Blue not the boring silver seen here.

    Overall with all the tech and safety features I have. Along with a massive trunk and rear seat room that you can’t find in another car. And the Passat is a great car. No even tuned it isn’t fast, (runs high 14’s with just a tune), but its comfy for big tall people even in the back, and looks and feels great. But I think most stock sedans are pretty boring, minus the of course factory fast sedans.

  • mseoul

    If they had the guts to just try a wagon in the US?