There was a time when European cars, especially from Germany, performed so much better than what their makers exported to America that a short-lived “gray market” in Euro-spec cars sprang up here.
This caused huge headaches for dealerships, who were asked to fix cars their mechanics hadn’t been trained on, sometimes with parts they didn’t even have—never mind that these were cars they hadn’t made any money on in the first place.
This was in the 1980s, and everybody learned something. The buyers often got burned. The feds tightened up their import regulations. And European carmakers discovered that not all Americans wanted sluggish, soft-riding automobiles.
Now, a mere 30 years later, every homeboy brand offers cars that can rip up a mountain road (some of them fine-tuned at the Nürburgring, the Rhineland sports-car mecca), while the Euros are sending us cars that can ride as serenely as our land yachts of yore, but without falling over in the first corner.
There’s no better example of this than VW’s 2014 Passat, which sails fluidly across frost heaves, yet gives up nothing in handling and response. It is also one of the smallest-outside, biggest-inside midsize sedans we’ve come across. Add the Passat’s refined cabin and modernized electronics, its fuel-stinginess, reasonable pricing, three years of roadside assistance and a 5-star government safety rating, and VW has a highly satisfying alternative to the usual suspects from Korea, Japan and Detroit.
Our Passat was an SEL Premium model ($31,715) with a new 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder, gas-burning TSI turbomotor rated for 170 horsepower and 184 lbs-ft of torque. It is a big improvement over the previous 2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine. The high-tech Four is not only smoother-running, lighter and much more compact than the old Five, it is just as powerful and even more responsive—max torque arrives at just 1,500 RPM instead of 4,250.
The TSI Four is also astonishingly fuel-averse. On a 450-mile junket at an overall average of 53 MPH, the Passat squeezed 32.1 miles out of each gallon. Had we set the cruise control closer to the posted speed limit on the interstate, we would have beat VW’s claimed 34 highway MPG. This was with an ordinary automatic transmission with just six speeds.
(A 6-speed manual gearbox with a clutch is available. Oddly enough, so is the old 5-cylinder motor, in the least-expensive Passats. For now.)
What’s more, the car never felt underpowered, either on multi-lane or winding secondary roads. Keep this mind if you’re considering the optional 6-cylinder motor; the Passat doesn’t need 280 horsepower, and those extra ponies eat five or six more MPG. If you’re addicted to power, a Passat V6 with fewer conveniences can be had for about a grand less than this upmarket 1.8-liter SEL.
(However, recent experience with diesel VWs and their Audi sister-ships indicates that the Passat to have may well be the TDI SEL Premium—loaded luxury, 40 MPG and still just $34,000. If you’re willing to give up some toys and plush, the Passat TDI SE mileage king costs $27,500 and is rated for 31/43 city/highway MPG.)
In addition to the new motor, for 2014 VW gave the Passat a rear-view camera, keyless entry and pushbutton ignition on SE and higher models. The Passat still lacks the passive safety systems—blind-spot monitors, auto-braking, etc.—that have trickled down into this price bracket elsewhere, but it also got Car-Net.
Car-Net is a $199-per-year telematics package that brings the Passat’s dashboard electronics almost up to date. Car-Net groups its many features into four categories: Safe & Secure, Family Guardian, Remote Access and Diagnostics & Maintenance. These let us do everything from spy on our teenagers’ driving habits to booking a hotel room. The satnav can be programmed while the car is moving (good), but it has to be done manually (bad, at least for the driver) instead of by shouting out an address—but the Car-Net app lets us program a destination from a smartphone or a computer before we even climb into the car. This is a feature that Europeans might have imported back from the US in their own gray market.