Historically, the Volkswagen Passat has always been a bit of niche vehicle in the United States. It offered something a little different for the midsized sedan buyer, but never made much of an impact in the segment. It always catered to the outliers in the market and struggled to hit the radar of mainstream consumers.
Everything changed in 2012 with a Passat designed and engineered specifically to the wants and needs of North Americans. To top it off, the NMS, or New Midsized Sedan as it is known, is built in VW's brand-new state-of-the-art facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee. When it launched, the Passat was roomier and better equipped than its chief rivals the Camry and Accord. On top of that, it offered the 2.0-liter TDI, which put the big sedan's efficiency in an entirely different league. Since then, the competitors have caught up in interior space and features, but still don't offer the real key to the Passat. It drives like a Volkswagen. That is to say, in a class of underwhelmers, you can have a car that fits the whole family and still has the DNA of your GTI.
One of the few complaints about the Passat when it launched as a 2012 was the 2.5-liter I-5 offered as the base engine. While most of the complaints where blown out of proportion, it didn't necessarily offer either the fuel efficiency or the low-end torque the great chassis deserved. For 2014, that has been remedied and the car you see here is powered by VW's EA888 1.8-liter turbocharged I-4. It's rated at the same 170 hp as the outgoing 2.5, but thanks to 184 lb-ft of torque delivered at a mere 1,500 rpm, it feels significantly stronger. The improvements in power are also immediately apparent at the test track, as the 1.8t Passat is a full second faster from 0-60 mph than the 2.5 five-cylinder.
The Passat you see here is an SEL Premium trim model, finished in Reflex Silver Metallic over Titan Black interior. The sticker price as it sits is $31,715, including $820 for destination fees. The SEL Premium delivers on its name and is equipped with keyless access and ignition, power adjustable heated front seats with driver memory function, sunroof, rearview camera, remote start, navigation, and leather interior. There's more, but those are the highlights. The SEL is only available with a six-speed tiptronic automatic, but you should be happy to hear that S, SE, and Passat Sport 1.8t trims are all available with a manual transmission. I should point out that the Passat 1.8t S manual, which is still nicely equipped, can be had for just under 23 grand.
This project was already in motion when I jumped onto the EC train, so this first installment is my predecessor's take on what a Passat should be. To start with, he wanted the ability to control ride height in real time, which requires air suspension. Thanks to Airlift's Autopilot V2 system, the Passat will bounce up or down with the press of a button. The system consists of 30-way adjustable monotube dampers replacing the factory front struts and rear shocks, along with rubber airbags in place of coil springs. In the trunk, we fit a 4-gallon aluminum tank, a 1.3-cfm air compressor, and an air manifold that allows independent adjustment of all four corners. The installation is quite a bit more involved than your average coilover kit; ours was handled by Strassesport in Covina, California.
After the initial mechanical install and basic set up, we had the car fine-tuned by the air specialists at Boden Autohaus in Costa Mesa, California. The damping rates make a big difference in ride comfort and handling. You will need to coordinate those with the normal air pressure you will be running in the bags, as that determines effective spring rate and ride height. We found that in order to run significantly higher than factory spring rates, we needed air pressure that would extend the bag past the ride height we wanted. The length of the damper housing is adjustable in a similar manner to a coilover, but the car still runs short of droop travel, and the dampers are topping out with high bag pressure. Of course at normal pressures, this is only an issue on rough road surfaces and creates some three-wheeling action on steeper driveways.
If you want a ride and handling balance similar to factory, while having a lowered ride height, this kit does the job. The tops of the front struts are mounted with monoball-equipped camber plates, so those transmit more noise and vibrations, as you would expect.
I have a feeling most customers looking at air suspension are more concerned with ride height adjustability over track day performance. The Airlift kit fully aired up sits roughly an inch below stock height. On the factory wheels and tires, or a package of the same size, we were able to drop the car almost 6 inches. I have been driving around at roughly 2 inches below stock ride height, and the Passat still rides normally and with some attentive driving, doesn't scrape on driveways or speed bumps. Anything much lower than that, however, and your fenders will start running into problems, or more literally tires. Since the car is on loan, we weren't willing to modify the fenders, but if this was our car, we could have rolled the fender lip and modified the fender-liner mount to accommodate bigger turning angles at low ride heights.
To take it up another notch, we've fitted the Passat with some shiny new wheels and performance tires. The wheels are from Rotiform in Huntington Beach, California. They are a cast one-piece wheel sized 20x9 inches with a 40mm offset. The SNA is one of Rotiform's more affordable wheels, but it looks as good as anything out there. We went with a machined finish to match some of the brightwork on the Passat's body and the result is classy and aggressive. Retail price for one these wheels is $379 and I would say worth every penny. At first, I wasn't sure about the 20-inch diameter, but the Passat is a big car and it wears them well. Our enthusiast friends know right away these are premium aftermarket items, while the muggles see the size and bling and know something is up but can't quite tell what.
We chose Rotiform to supply the wheels for several reasons, one of which is they know their stuff inside and out. No matter what crazy fitment you're considering, they've probably done it already, so they can tell you how to do it, and then supply it. Second, they have a reputation for quality wheels, so you can be confident these wheels are going to balance out, run true, and hold up like the factory wheel.
The Passat SEL Premium comes from the factory with Continental ContiProContact all-season tires in 235/45-18. While we had zero complaints with the factory tires, living in Southern California, we didn't really see the need for an all-season and by nature, I always seem to want something a bit more aggressive. After talking to Continental, we decided on the ContiSportContact 5P, a max performance summer tire found as original equipment on cars with AMG and S badges. With some research, we determined a 255/30-20 would be about the biggest tire we could stuff under the car. The new tire is roughly half-inch wider and a quarter-inch smaller in diameter than the factory fitment, so it easily stays within acceptable variance.
While I've noticed more grip, better turn-in, and even better straight-line stability with the new tires, I haven't noticed any degradation of ride quality or increased noise. I expected the shorter and stiffer sidewalls to transmit more road irregularities into the car, but it just isn't the case. The only thing I have noticed is I have to lean into the brake pedal a bit more to get the same level of stopping power. It seems the extra rotating mass from the larger tire and wheel package is taking a bit more work to accelerate or decelerate.
While it seems like this is a pretty mild project build, it's what we are seeing a lot of at car shows all over the country. Enthusiasts just want to drop the car on bags and put on a nice set of wheels and call it a day. We won't stop there. In future installments, we will go in search of more performance from VW's big family sedan. While I like the new Sport model available from dealerships, I would still like to see something similar to a Passat GLI or GT offered from VW. The fundamentals of a sports sedan are alive and kicking inside the Passat; they just need a little encouragement to get out. The next time you read about this Passat, it will have gone from show sled to canyon carver.
2014 VW Passat SEL Premium
Front-engine, FWD, five-pass, four-door sedan
1.8-liter 170hp/184-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16v I-4
Single-piston calipers, 12.3-inch rotors (f), single-piston calipers, 10.7-inch rotors (r)
Airlift adjustable struts with airbags (f), adjustable shocks with airbags multilink (r)
Wheels & Tires
20x9" et 40 Rotiform SNA wheels, 255/30-20 Continental ContiSportContact 5P tires
Passat (as tested): $31,715, Airlift Digital Combo Kit with Autopilot V2: $4270.48, Rotiform SNA: $379/wheel, Continental ContiSportContact 5P: $357/tire (tire rack)