Car Reviews First Tests

2018 Volkswagen Passat First Test: Tough Company

Testing the Passat's new base engine and six-cylinder GT model

Testing the Passat's new base engine and six-cylinder GT model

The Volkswagen Passat competes against talented rivals including the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, yet the 2018 model is essentially the same midsize sedan that won our coveted Motor Trend Car of the Year award way back in 2012—that’s a lifetime in today’s car market. Sparking some life back into the lineup, Volkswagen updated the Passat with a new base engine and a fresh V-6-powered GT model for 2018. So is this former Motor-Trend-favorite still a viable option against the redesigned Camry and Accord? We recently spent some time with R-Line and GT models, and it’s not hard to see where the Passat currently stands.

Volkswagen claims the Passat’s updated base turbocharged engine—which grew from 1.8 liters to 2.0 liters—is more powerful and efficient. EPA numbers agree. The new 2.0-liter delivers 25/36 mpg (9.4/6.5 L/100km) city/highway, up from the 1.8’s 23/34 mpg (10.2/6.9 L/100km). The new engine produces 174 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, up 4 hp from the 2017 model. Unfortunately, the extra horsepower didn’t make a difference at the track. Our R-Line trim tester hit 60 mph in 8.4 seconds, 0.4 seconds behind a 2016 SEL 1.8T model we’ve tested. It was a similar story in the quarter-mile run.

On the other hand, the 280-hp GT is quick; it hit 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, tying a more loaded V-6-powered 2016-model-year Passat SEL we’ve tested. The 2018 Passat GT’s quarter-mile run of 14.4 seconds at 98.0 mph (158 km/h) is almost identical to the 2016 SEL’s run of 14.3 seconds at 98.8 mph (159 km/h).

For a little perspective, the Accord, equipped with its base 1.5-liter turbo-four engine, hit 60 mph in 7.6 seconds, over half a second quicker than the 2018 Passat 2.0T. With Honda’s optional 252-hp 2.0-liter turbo-four engine, the Accord hit 60 mph in 5.8 seconds and tied the GT’s quarter-mile time. The Accord’s engines are more fuel efficient, though (29/35 mpg (8.1/6.7 L/100km) for automatic-transmission Sport and Touring 1.5T models and 30/38 mpg (7.8/6.2 L/100km) for automatic LX and EX models). Road test editor Chris Walton noted that the two 2018 Passats’ acceleration times might have been quicker if the power-cutting stability control was defeatable. Around town, the R-Line’s 2.0-liter feels quick at residential street-level speeds thanks to good throttle response and plenty of low-end torque, but on the highway, the 174-hp engine struggles to get the 3,354-pound (1,521-kg) sedan to speed.

The Passat’s braking feel should be better and could be improved by making it more linear. Initial bite is weak, but once you get about halfway through the pedal, it quickly becomes strong. This can cause a lot of unintentional and unsettling quick stops during daily driving. Nonetheless, stopping power is adequate. The R-Line and GT stopped from 60 mph in 126 and 122 feet, respectively. With its base and optional engines, the Accord’s stopping distance is 135 and 116 feet, and the Camry’s is 122 and 123 feet. On both Passats, Walton noted the VWs had a “squishy pedal, hard tires, very little initial bite (actual delay), but excellent fade resistance.”

Most drivers will be pleased with how the Passat handles, but for those who like to have fun on twisty roads, neither model inspires much confidence (sorry, GT). The steering is nicely weighted but not precise. Body roll is plentiful, even on the GT model. Still, the chassis is pretty solid, providing enough control for daily driving duties. On our figure-eight course, testing director Kim Reynolds felt a little underwhelmed and said, “It’s a pleasant, agile car, but VW’s historic edge in terms of sheer handling quality isn’t much of an edge anymore. In fact, these cars might easily pale compared to an Accord in terms of driving sportiness.” The Passat’s platform is showing its age here, but surprisingly, its figure-eight performance is on par with the Camry and Accord.

On the highway, plenty of outside noise seeps into the cabin, and handling at higher speeds only seems to get sloppier. The Passat handled fine during normal highway driving, but I almost never took a long, sweeping highway curve fast—it was a little scary (even in the GT). The more affordable, subcompact Honda Fit Sport hatchback and full-size Toyota Avalon Touring sedan I reviewed earlier this year both provided more confidence during high-speed maneuvers.

The dated VW platform also demonstrates its age gap during stop-and-go driving. And when the engine hits a certain low rpm, it emits a vibration throughout the entire car along with an annoying droning sound. It only lasts a few seconds and disappears when the transmission shifts, but this really shouldn’t happen in a car at this price point. In the R-Line, another annoyance happens during the shift from park to drive or reverse (and vice versa). If you shift when you’re on an incline or decline, the car will roll during the transmission’s very slow gear engagement if you lift off the brake too soon. It’s not a good feeling when you’re trying to park on a hill, forcing you to leave your foot on the brake pedal longer than you should.

When it comes to safety, the Passat does fine but doesn’t excel. Like the Camry and Accord, the Passat earned the highest five-star safety rating from the NHTSA. But things change in IIHS testing. The Camry earned the institution’s highest rating of Top Safety Pick+, and the Accord is considered a Top Safety Pick (though it doesn’t get a “+”) for 2018. Although the Passat earned the highest rating of Good in five crash tests, the second-lowest score of Marginal for the passenger-side small overlap test kept it from being a Top Safety Pick. For the front crash prevention test, the Passat also lagged behind the Camry and Accord’s top Superior rating with a lower score of Advanced for avoiding a collision in a 12-mph (19-km/h) test but not reducing speed in a 25-mph (40-km/h) collision.

Value is one area where the Passat excels. The sporty-looking R-Line model starts at $25,890 USD and comes standard with 19-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, leatherette seating, R-Line interior trim, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, a 6.3-inch infotainment screen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (the latter not offered on the Camry), and unique R-Line bumpers, grille, exterior trim, rear spoiler, and badging. The Camry’s and Accord’s sporty trims (like the R-Line) start slightly higher at $26,270 USD and $26,675 USD, respectively, but both of those cars include LED headlights. The Passat’s optional lighting package (LED headlights with LED daytime running lights and LED taillights) takes the sticker price of our tester to $27,085 USD.

With a starting price of $30,040 USD, the Passat GT is also laden with value. With the exception of adaptive cruise control, the GT comes standard with all of the above features and adds 19-inch Tornado alloy wheels, a sunroof, a proximity key, sport-tuned suspension, an exhaust system, front red accents, red brake calipers, carbon-fiber interior trim, and a black roof, spoiler, mirrors, and window trim (GT badging, grille, and exterior trim replaces the R-Line-branded components). With optional remote engine start and all-season floor and trunk liners, the price of our GT tester is $30,680 USD. The optional V-6 on the Camry and optional 2.0-liter turbo-four on the Accord also start higher than the Passat GT.

For all of the Passat’s mediocrities, there are some laudable features. The interior is spacious and comfortable (especially the big back seat), the engine note (when not droning) from both models is appealing, the interior has good fit and finish and is well laid out, the ride is usually comfortable, the adaptive cruise control system works well, and the infotainment system is responsive and easy to use. On the GT model, my favorite feature is Sport mode. It provides strong throttle response and transmission programming that loosely resembles Porsche’s PDK unit. Furthermore, Volkswagen’s updated bumper-to-bumper new car warranty is generous, lasting six years or 72,000 miles (116,000 km), and it’s transferable to subsequent owners.

Volkswagen can resolve many of the previously mentioned issues (handling, safety ratings, noise, and vibration) in the next Passat hopefully coming soon, riding on a new platform. But Volkswagen could also add the eight-speed automatic found in the new Jetta, larger infotainment and instrument cluster screens, a bit more style to the sterile interior, linear brakes, an electric parking brake, and a more complete package of driver-assist features that includes lane centering. If Volkswagen wants to make the Passat a tough competitor again, it needs more than updates. The redesigned Accord and Camry are considerably better than the models they replaced. It’s time for that to happen to the Passat.

Also interested in the Camry and Accord? Read our Camry vs. Accord comparisons—base-engine sedans here and the upgraded-engine models here.
2018 Volkswagen Passat TSI 2018 Volkswagen Passat GT
BASE PRICE $25,845 $29,940
PRICE AS TESTED $27,040 $30,625
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINE 2.0L/174-hp/184-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4 3.6L/280-hp/258-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic 6-speed twin-clutch auto
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3,354 lb (60/40%) 3,542 lb (59/41%)
WHEELBASE 110.4 in 110.4 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 191.9 x 72.2 x 58.5 in 191.9 x 72.2 x 58.5 in
0-60 MPH 8.4 sec 5.8 sec
QUARTER MILE 16.4 sec @ 86.7 mph 14.4 sec @ 98.0 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 122 ft 126 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.85 g (avg) 0.87 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 26.9 sec @ 0.64 g (avg) 26.5 sec @ 0.68 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 25/36/29 mpg 19/28/22 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 135/94 kW-hrs/100 miles 177/120 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.67 lb/mile 0.87 lb/mile