Don’t be fooled by the mild-looking exterior of the Volkswagen Passat sedan.
This mid-size four door comes with a solid, stable ride, European-style handling, exceptional back-seat legroom and superlative fuel economy.
In fact, the Passat differentiates itself well from other mid-size family sedans because it is one of the few sold in the United States that offers buyers a choice of gasoline or diesel engine and automatic or manual transmission.
With VW’s turbocharged diesel four cylinder and five-speed manual, the 2014 Passat ranks second best in fuel mileage among non-hybrid, non-electric sedans sold in the United States. The federal government ratings are an impressive 31 miles per gallon in city driving and 43 mpg on the highway for a combined travel range of nearly 600 miles on a single tank of diesel.
The numbers drop slightly to 30/40 mpg with VW’s Tiptronic automatic, but based on experience with a test Passat diesel Tiptronic, these results are achievable.
Indeed, a slightly modified 2014 diesel Passat, driven for maximum fuel mileage, set a Guinness World Record of nearly 78 mpg.
Plus, the 2014 Passat, like its 2012 and 2013 predecessors, earned top, five out of five stars overall in federal government crash tests.
The Passat also is a recommended buy of Consumer Reports magazine, which lists predicted reliability as average.
Buyers get to pick among several trim levels and engines - one of which uses diesel.
Note that while VW announced it is replacing the 2.5-liter, gasoline, five-cylinder engine that was in the Passat with a 1.8-liter, double overhead cam, turbocharged, gasoline four cylinder, buyers may still find 2.5L models on dealer lots.
Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $21,815 for a base, 2014 Passat S with the 170-horsepower, turbocharged, gasoline four cylinder and five-speed manual. The lowest starting retail price for a 2014 Passat S with the gasoline turbo four and six-speed Tiptronic automatic is $22,915.
Mileage ratings for the turbo four gasoline engine are 24 mpg in the city and 34 mpg to 35 mpg on the highway, depending on the transmission.
The 2014 Passat with the turbocharged diesel four cylinder, is pricier, in part, because it includes more standard equipment, such as rearview camera and heated front seats. Starting MSRP, including destination charge, is $27,495 for a 2014 Passat TDI SE manual and $29,495 with an automatic.
Competitors run the gamut from the top-selling car in America - the Toyota Camry - to the Chevrolet Malibu. Starting retail price for the base, 2014 Camry L with 170-horsepower, naturally aspirated, gasoline four cylinder and automatic transmission is $23,235. The base, 2014 Chevrolet Malibu LS with 196-horsepower, naturally aspirated, gasoline four cylinder and automatic transmission carries a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $23,990.
Neither the 2014 Camry nor Malibu offers manual transmissions or diesel engines.
The Passat is styled on the outside cleanly and pleasantly. But no one gave the test car a second look. Some observers said the car, an upscale SEL Premium model, looked a bit plain, despite though the sticker price of more than $34,000.
Inside, the Passat exhibited VW functionality and a back seat with 39.1 inches of legroom - more than a 2014 Honda Accord and the larger Ford Taurus.
Buttons and knobs were well laid out in the Passat and had good tactile feel. The dashboard had a no-nonsense, horizontal appearance, even with a display screen in the middle.
But an enthusiast driver will enjoy the thick-all-the-way-around steering wheel, the properly positioned foot rest for the driver’s left foot and the supportive, adjustable driver’s seat.
The tester had a bonus: A 400-watt Fender premium audio system.
The typical diesel engine clatter came through at startup, acceleration and when the car was sitting idle at stoplights. It’s noticeable to people who are standing outside the car, too.
But the Passat seems to minimize road and wind noise.
The car rode stably and a bit firmly so passengers felt some vibrations as the car traveled over sunken manhole covers and broken pavement.
But the test Passat did not drive like the large, 16-foot-long car that it is. Rather, the sedan remained buttoned down to the road during abrupt, emergency maneuvers and drove easily in normal circumstances. It also managed mountain twisty roads with composure.
Speed can be deceptive. Several times, the test car was at 50 miles per hour without the driver noticing.
The Passat TDI tester had the 2-liter, double overhead cam, turbocharged, diesel four cylinder with direct injection. While horsepower of 140 is less than that of the Camry and Malibu and many other mid-size sedans, the Passat’s torque, or low-end “oomph,” is palpable and satisfying.
Fully 236 foot-pounds of torque comes on at 1,750 rpm, so a driver can scoot around obstacles and accelerate into traffic from a stop with impressive power.
In comparison, the peak torque in a 2014 Camry with four cylinder is 170 foot-pounds at a high 4,700 rpm. It’s 248 foot-pounds, also at 4,700 rpm, in a Camry with V-6.
Even with spirited driving, the test Passat averaged 35 mpg in combined city/highway travel, which translated into a generous 647-mile range on a single tank.
At today’s $4 average for a gallon of diesel, filling the Passat’s 18.5-gallon tank can cost nearly $75.
A few nits in the test car: While rear doors are long and have sizable openings, the windows go down only about halfway. And the middle person in the back seat has to straddle a sizable hump in the floor.
The Passat has only six air bags, while the Camry comes with 10.