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The 2014 VW Passat SEL Premium: Playing on the wrong playground

Some people like plain things. Hot dogs with no relish, a scoop of ice cream with no sprinkles, vanilla please. Most Americans however like a little bit of flair, a wee bit of oomph in everything. We want a scoop of ice cream smack dab in the middle of a banana split , lots of sprinkles and don’t’ forget the chocolate syrup.

The 2014 VW Passat SEL Premium
The 2014 VW Passat SEL Premium
The 2014 VW Passat SEL Premium

We are the same way when it comes to cars. Big, loud, in your face belching fire smoke and tearing up the road machines tailored to our freestyle ways; we like cars that can be individualized to our tastes. If we want a hula girl air freshener swaying on the dashboard or a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror then so be it.

Europeans are far different. Quiet, plain, simple, and in many ways very refined. Same with their cars; sure they want fast, but they want simple, functional and clean designs. That is what makes a Euro style sedan stand out. It’s clean, simple and functional but not much else.

That’s why when VW, that storied German brand most often identified with the Beetle, decided to build a plant in Tennessee to manufacture the Passat it seemed kind of odd. Like a young girl in Georgia marrying a German, we wondered what we’d get. What we ended up with is the Passat, a midsized sedan that looks mostly European but has according to VW has some American touches.

When it comes to VW we have sort of a like it or not like it relationship. Last year we drove the Beetle for a week and really liked it, later in the year we had a Touareg and didn’t exactly warm to it. So when we were told we’d have the use of a 2014 Passat for a week we weren’t quite sure what to expect.

What we got was the SEL Premium model with the 1.8 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that replaces the 2.5-liter five-cylinder from earlier models. VW says the more fuel-efficient will gradually be phased in on other trim levels. Speaking of trim levels the versions Passat vary according to what's under the hood: 1.8T, TDI or V6. The three main trim levels are S, SE and SEL, with a Sport trim set to join the lineup later in the year.

As mentioned, we had the 1.8 SEL Premium model which is near the top of the line. Belting out the tunes is a Fender premium sound system. Sure it sounds okay, but personally owning five guitars, three of which are Fender, we never could understand what the heck the Fender label was doing on the speakers. In addition, a premium navigation system and color touch screen that is easy to use and functional. Of course the system has Bluetooth capability and SiriusXM functionality. Oddly while there is an iPhone connection kit for charging, there was no USB port for those of us who don’t bite from the Apple. There is also VW's new Car-Net connectivity service, which has crash notification, roadside assistance and stolen vehicle location support. Remote vehicle access and an enhanced POI service are included for Navi-equipped cars and can be operated in conjunction with a smartphone.

Finally, on the SEL you get keyless ignition/entry, remote ignition, eight-way power front seats with driver memory functions, partial leather upholstery, wood-grain interior trim, and dual-zone automatic climate control.

According to VW, the nods to the American market coming out of the Volunteer State is more room on the inside. Cue the crickets. That’s it; a little more room than its European counterpart, nothing more. What we are left with is a European sedan that’s a bit bigger on the inside. Perhaps that’s why our first impression was, well, rather muted. The interior is functional and well laid out, but there is a great deal of plastic. There was also a very dark color scheme in our model that seemed downright gloomy.

Sadly once on the road there seemed nothing to liven things up. Our 1.8 liter turbocharged powerplant seemed able enough rated at 170 horses and 184 pounds of torque, but when mated with the six-speed automatic transmission there seemed to be an issue. On the road it seemed that the transmission was always shifting, as though it was lost and could not be found. To be honest, from the driver’s seat it was almost annoying. Sure the steering with the electric assist, which replaced the hydraulics, was nice, but we seemed to be in a constant state of shifting while in the city. We also found the premium sound system to be a great help in drowning out the engine and road noise that seemed to creep in the cabin.

In the end what we are left with is a plain, functional and still very European sedan. With VW’s history of quality and reliability there is no doubt that this is fine car. However, with the SEL Premium having a base price of $31,715 we can’t see wanting to have it in our driveway. With the base model starting out at $20,995, VW lovers can surely find a model that will make them smile. For the rest of us the VW Passat is nothing more than a European sedan that’s got a little more room. We could never hang our fuzzy dice or see our hula girl swaying. It’s as though, at least with the top of the line SEL Premium, VW is trying to make a European luxury sedan that might be affordable for the average American. While European luxury sedans do sell in America, Mercedes currently dominates that market. If we want a European luxury sedan we’ll save our $31,000 and wait for a Mercedes.

If we want to put a VW in the driveway, the Beetle or even the Jetta would be fine choices. Even the Passat with its diesel variant would be worth a look. With the top of the line Passat though it’s like VW is trying to play on Mercedes' playground, and that is somewhere they don’t belong.

The 2014 VW Passat SEL Premium
MSRP: $30,895
MSRP (As tested): $31,715
Engine: (as tested) 18.Liter turbocharged. Horsepower 170/ Torque 184 lb-ft.
Transmission (as tested): 6-speed automatic
MPG (EPA Rating) 24city/34 highway/28 combined
MPG (as tested in mixed conditions: 25mpg

Interior dimensions
Seating Capacity Five
Passenger Volume 102.0 cu. ft.
Cargo Volume 15.9 cu. ft.
Front Volume 53.5 cu. ft.
Front Headroom 38.3 in
Front Shoulder room 56.9 in
Front Legroom 42.4 in
Rear Volume 48.8 cu. ft.
Rear Headroom 37.8 in
Rear Shoulder room 57.0 in
Rear Legroom 39.1 in

Exterior dimensions
Wheelbase 110.4 in
Front Track 62.1 in
Rear Track 61.0 in
Length 191.6 in
Width 72.2 in
Height 58.5 in
Ground Clearance 5.4 in
Curb Weight 3,230 lbs

Basic limited warranty

3 years/36,000 miles (whichever occurs first) New Vehicle Limited Warranty. Wear and tear items and adjustments excluded after initial 12 months/12,000 miles (whichever occurs first)
Powertrain limited warranty (All models except 2011 and newer Touaregs): 5 years/60,000 miles (whichever occurs first) Powertrain Limited Warranty.
Limited warranty against corrosion perforation: 12-year, unlimited distance limited warranty against corrosion perforation (except Routan).

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