Cars, Culture, and the Modern World

Sophia Relph is a mechanical engineer who researches fluid mechanics by day, and writes about cars by night. This blog intends to not only explore the physical and mechanical nature of automobiles, but to investigate their cultural significance and the meaning they impart as texts and works of art.

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2014 Volkswagen Passat S

Word count: 1914 (~11 minutes), Last modified: Sun, 24 Feb 2019 14:24:00 GMT

What is it?

The Volkswagen Passat is the sensible choice for anyone who likes cars, but not too much. This effectively means that anyone who doesn't care for cars won't appreciate what it offers, and someone who likes cars a lot will be disappointed that it doesn't offer them enough. The B7 Passat is a car that knows exactly what it wants, and there's a very good chance that that's also what you want. The Passat, unlike some of its competitors, already knows exactly what it wants to be.

It's such a darn nice-looking car. It's contemporary and purposeful, but not too angry. It fits right in anywhere.

What is it like?

In 2014, the auto market was adapting to the skyrocketing popularity of crossover vehicles (for better or for worse), and this rapid shift of the middle of the market pushed auto manufacturers to redesign their middle-priced bread and butter full size and midsize sedans so as to not get caught up in what consumers might have seen as stuffy, boring, and uninspired 2000s car designs. This meant that these sedans received substantial styling updates between approximately 2012 and 2016; anybody with an eye on car styling will notice how modern Ford Fusions, Toyota Camrys (Camries?), Kia Optimas, and the like, all have aggressive headlights, lower bumpers that resemble splitter plates, copious vents on the bumper, and twin tailpipes are pretty much standard. The modern large sedan looks more like a grand tourer than a comfortable family commuter.

With this trend of large sedans becoming increasingly shouty and aggressive with their performance, styling, and features, the Passat stands out partially because of how it doesn't stand out. Simply put, the Passat has nothing to prove. Volkswagen knew they had a reputation for high quality, reliable cars (the B7 Passat came about before the diesel emissions scandal!), and as such, they didn't waste their effort making a car that desperately grabs for attention and relevance. The styling of the Passat is relatively understated, though not so simple as to seem outdated. The B7 generation did away with the rounded styling of the B6 model, gaining more facets and edges, and getting longer, wider, and lower. However, it lacks unneccessary details and contours, and eschews sporty styling in favor of quiet professionalism. The interior stays simple as well, and has easy to use controls and, on the base model, a welcome lack of distracting screens and displays. Higher trim levels have such amenities as well as optional backup cameras and parking sensors. The base model is still well-equipped, with automatic headlights and phone connectivity.

The shifter feels nice to work, with light but distinct detents, and the stereo and HVAC controls are good. No distracting screens here!

The base-level 2014 Passat replaced the 2013's naturally aspirated 2.5L with a 1.8L turbocharged I4 that develops 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque; this whole system is extremely well packaged and integrates the turbine body into the engine block, making for an extremely compact powertrain. I found conflicting sources on whether the engine is equipped with a charge air cooler or not, and as such I will assume for the purposes of this review that one is not equipped.

The Passat curiously has a floor hump in the rear footwell despite being a front wheel drive car; this is for routing the exhaust system, presumably to improve overall ground clearance (and lower the car as a result). This of course presents no more problem than it would on any RWD car.

With the long hood, it has the lines of a longitudinal engine, RWD car. Unless you look under the hood, you wouldn't know it's FWD. Volkswagen probably likes it that way.

How does it drive?

In all respects, the B7 Passat drives politely and predictably. I feel that this should really say all that needs to be said, but for my own sake as an automotive enthusiast I will clarify.

First; the noise. The Passat is an extremely good sounding car-the engine makes a low, reassuring growl and road noise is well minimized by cabin insulation and the underbody fiber plates. The stereo is quite good enough for the cabin size, and even under heavy load, the engine does not get too loud, though its noise does become quite hard to ignore in sport mode. The Passat will certainly not leave its occupants wishing for earbuds or earplugs on long drives.

The Passat does a good job of sipping fuel for the power it develops and its weight; a specimen with its engine in good shape will likely do about 29mpg on a city-heavy commute, and hover around 34 mpg for highway driving-for a large car this is quite good, though it obviously can't compete with small cars that feature lighter bodies and smaller engines.

I mentioned earlier how the Passat competes against loud, aggressive cars, that market "driver-focused" interiors with sporty images and branding: to compete against crossovers, with their perceived comfort, safety, and spaciousness (despite whether crossovers achieve any of these well in the real world!), modern large sedans have to be low-budget GT cars. Does the Passat do this? Sort of.

For normal driving, the car's power steering operates at a gain level that makes low speed parking easy while preventing the car from feeling twitchy at road speed; driving with one hand is comfortable at all speed ranges. The transmission upshifts quickly and smoothly, getting the most mileage it can out of the powerplant, and the engine has the measured reluctance to rev of any self-respecting economy car. The Passat is an extremely predictable car to drive, as long as the driver respects its dimensions-after all, it's no Beetle when you need to park.

So then what happens if the driver cares about driving as much as they care about having a car that gets them to work and sips gas? Does the whole charade fall apart?

Simply put, no. Recall that the Passat has no charade. When you start paying attention to how the Passat drives, it's...fine. It's okay. There's nothing wrong with it. As with any good, non-sports car, it takes a firm press on the pedal to get actual power applied; after all, the car is hypermiling at all times so you don't have to. Steering is a little sluggish, but most drivers don't expect anything else, after all, it's a big car, and Big Cars Have To Feel Heavy, or something. I can only imagine how loose the steering on America's bread and butter crossovers is. After you enter a turn, though, the Passat is extremely well put together; its well-tuned, fully independent suspension handles tight turns well and distributes grip effectively, and for any reasonable cornering speed, the Passat is just fine. I expect that at higher speeds, body roll would start to become noticeable, but I think it should be able to corner with the best of its market sector. The Passat's suspension stays well damped and comfortable over rough roads, and even the harshest potholes hardly raise eyebrows, unlike some lighter and older cars. The Passat is an excellent demonstration of the advances that have been made in suspension design in the last decade or two; it feels comfortable, responsive, and planted in all reasonable scenarios.

As I mentioned before, the Passat's transmission upshifts fast for normal driving. In the rare instance the driver doesn't trust its judgment, manual operation is accessible by bumping the stick to the right (which is hard to get used to, since most cars go to the left for manual mode). As with most automatics, shifts are somewhat delayed, so for dynamic driving and maneuvers, the driver should input shift commands slightly before they think they should. Shifts are smooth and the transmission puts power on the road effectively, and nearly the entire performance envelope is accessible only using manual mode. Should the driver decide to really turn on the heat, sport mode is accessible by bringing the stick back one more detent past drive. This makes entering sport mode easy to do on the fly, and makes passing maneuvers as simple as bumping the stick back and putting your foot down. Sport mode fixes the slow-revving, low-revving engine response entirely, and the transmission becomes perhaps even too eager to leave the engine spinning fast; sport mode makes the Passat loud and aggressive enough to startle the driver into calming down and using the more efficient normal drive mode. Perhaps this was Volkswagen's plan after all. The engine's 170hp is a respectable amount of grunt, and even if it won't win you drag races, it's more than enough to pull ahead of the Durango next to you so that you can make your turn at the next light. The Passat has no noticeable torque steer, which is very welcome; this contributes to how politely and predictably it drives.

Even more noticeable than the change in throttle and transmission use, the biggest change sport mode makes is turning up the gain on the power steering assist. This doesn't affect cornering performance, but it makes steering input quick and precise, and makes it easier to guide the Passat down narrow, windy roads and the sweeping curves of interstate passing lanes. I found that after putting the Passat in normal drive from sport mode, I actually really missed the precise, quick steering of sport mode; it made the car feel lighter, more manageable, and more precise. I believe that it uses electric power steering, which by its nature has infinitely adjustable gain; I feel that steering sensitivity should be able to be adjusted by the driver, so that they can enjoy the precise steering of sport mode without sacrificing fuel economy to its spirited throttle response and delayed upshifts.

The Passat's brakes are responsive and stopping the car does not feel heavy or futile; the four wheel discs soak up its energy well, and the aforementioned suspension prevents worrying bouncing and skidding when braking hard on rough surfaces.

Amazing-no diffuser, no weird fake carbon fiber, no twin tailpipes or decorative spoiler lip; it looks composed and professional. This car looks business-casual, when the 2014 Camry looks like it just walked out of the gym.

Who is it for?

The Passat is for a family that thinks they want a compact crossover. They don't really, they just like how it looks imposing without being ostentatious, and how its tall stance makes them feel safe. The Passat offers imposing size and subdued styling, and its quiet ride and growly engine note give its cockpit a good enough illusion of safety, which is really the most that can be asked of any car. It has enough power to complete the image of a fast, capable German sedan, but not so much that inexperienced drivers can easily drive beyond their skill level. In fact, its ease of use is perhaps the Passat's greatest strength; I can think of no better car to learn to drive in. Its decent visibility, good brakes, and smooth driving make easy operation for young, inexperienced drivers, and its manual and sport modes allow for introducing new drivers to concepts like shifting manually, managing engine power, and accelerating through corners. For nearly anyone who doesn't want a performance vehicle, the Passat is just fine. It's easy to drive for both new and experienced drivers, it's quiet and well-balanced, and it's spacious; it's a great deal for most car buyers.