Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Test Drive: 2013 Volkswagen Passat SE 5MT

Update: See how the Volkswagen Passat did in our 2013 Mid-Size Family Sedan Comparison.

Volkswagen has always been the oddity in the mid-size segment. While the Passats have been good, they have never quite gotten the kind of accolades heaped on them the way that Honda's Accord does and have never experienced the kind of sales success that the Camry and Accord each see. Some of that may have to do with German cars generally having the reputation for having poor reliability and being expensive to repair. It could also have something to do with VW's of the past having designs that wer
e far from attractive, leaving most buyers to have written off purchasing the brand even though their most recent has have been handsome, if a bit unassuming.

Regardless of its commercial success, I have always generally liked VWs and the Passat, a car which my grandfather owned nearly 20 years ago. To see how it has evolved in some places, but not in others is interesting and might speak to some of why it continues to struggle to reach the kind of audience that the much more pedestrian Japanese sedans are able to. There is nothing particularly bad about the 2013 Passat SE that I tested, but then again there is nothing outstanding about the car either.


Stepping up to the car, switchblade key in hand, one cannot help but notice that it looks a little bit too much like a bar of soap in this particular shade of white. The exterior styling has taken a turn for the the nondescript, likely to try to appeal to a much broader audience that models of the past. The front fascia carries the corporate grille treatment and the rear appears penned by a
design team that just ran out of original ideas so they just copied the Audi design team and called it a day. On whole, it is not an unattractive looking car, but the overall blandness, worsened by the choice of color, simply makes it feel more self-conscious in a market where style is fast becoming a big differentiator.

However, walk up and open the door, and the heft with which it operates offers a very Germanic and premium feel. Everything about how the fluidity of the parts operates feels well engineered, something that is still lacking in many of this cars competitors. Sliding into the driver's seat, which while comfortable is very flat and not the least bit enveloping, and looking around the cabin, the initial visual impression of the material quality is that every looks very nice, but dated. The leatherette seats are well done enough to pass for lower grade leather, the buttons and plastic all carry a somewhat Audi-esque vibe to them, and once again, everything operates with a fluidity that only the Germans seem to be able to pull off. The only problem is that the instrument cluster and center console feel about a decade behind in design and seem to have been designed by someone who could only use a compass and a ruler. There is such a lack of modernity to the cabin that it almost feels retro, but not in that ironic, hipster way that is trendy nowadays.

Starting up the 2.5L inline 5 cylinder motor, the car clatters life and settles into a quiet idle. The motor, which makes 170 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque never feels anemic, but never seems to offer much thrust either. It just kind of chugs along, occasionally protesting when you try to really rev it. The sound from the intake tract is not entirely unpleasant from behind the wheel, but the upper RPM ranges should only be reserved for those with hearing loss as this is not a pleasant motor to listen to when strained. The transmission, a 5-speed manual on our test car, feels typical VW with a wobbly shifter that slides Teflon smooth into each gate, but offers no satisfying feedback to assure you that you have selected the right gear. Combine that with a finicky clutch that sometimes feels like it is actively trying to thwart your efforts at a smooth start and you cannot help but wonder if VW is not actively trying to kill the manual transmission.

Taking to the road, the car rides well, absorbing bumps with an aplomb, never allowing too sharp a shock into the cabin. The suspension does feel a bit on the soft side, likely from springs intended to offer a more comfortable ride, but the dampers seem well matched and the car never feels out of sorts. The only problem is that all of this is matched to a steering wheel that seems dead on-center, offers little feel, and, while it weights up nicely off center, seems to get lighter and lighter as speeds increase, creating an odd sense of a lack of feedback at highway speeds. To put it simply, it is as if the VW team got the whole steering thing completely backwards. This pretty much ruined the drive for me as the car never quite felt as planted as many of the other cars in this class I had tested. The brakes slow the car predictably and offer adequate, though not great feedback.

After running through the test loop I had chosen, I gladly returned the car to the dealership. While there is a decidedly Teutonic appeal to the Passat, especially in how solid the components feel, the driving experience is not a pleasant one. As well engineered as the individual components are, the car simply lacks the cohesiveness that makes a great car truly great. There is nothing distinctly terrible about the Passat, and it really does have one of the more premium feeling interiors in its class, assuming you can overlook the decade old retro interior design, but as I mentioned before, there is nothing distinctly good about it either. In the end, the Passat, at least as it stands now, is destined to remain a mediocre competitor in this cut-throat competitive class.