Surely a 25 percent price drop shows up in the cabin; the interior of a car is a bean counter's playground, and the stakes are particularly high for the Passat. This is Volkswagen's domain. A sizable portion of VW's reputation has been built on the exceptional materials and superb fit that helped justify the brand's premium pricing. Can VW retain the high-dollar feel at a low-dollar cost? The competition has been closing the gap lately.
A clinical poke of the dash reveals it's not the squishy-soft rubbery goodness that we've been spoiled with, and the climate-control knobs spin with a grainy, sandy resistance rather than polished-stone fluidity. Run your fingertips through the glove box, and you'll discover that it's no longer lined in upscale flocking. Yes, the neurotic, detail-obsessed Wolfsburg faithful will find plenty of evidence of cost cutting, but beyond those micro-level details, the Passat's interior is extremely well done, and it feels -- at least in range-topping SEL trim -- as solidly constructed and smartly designed as the prior car. The usual no-frills design and no-nonsense control layout is refreshingly easy to use among the increasingly complicated center stacks we're faced with. The new Passat certainly doesn't feel $7000 cheaper inside -- but then, the interior isn't the only place VW banked some green.
More savings were reaped under the hood, where a prop rod stands in for the old car's gas struts. More significant, the excellent turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder has been scrapped -- direct injection and turbochargers are expensive. In its place is the good but decidedly less excellent 2.5-liter five-cylinder. As a result, output falls from 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque to 170 hp and 177 lb-ft.
Those new numbers fall right in line with the base engines of the competition, but the character of VW's five-cylinder is unique. The rorty engine revs willingly and is smoother than many large-displacement four-cylinders. The optional six-speed automatic transmission (a five-speed stick is standard) is generally well mannered but occasionally schleps through downshifts. Disappointingly, there's no fuel economy to be gained from giving up power. Paired with the automatic, the 2.5-liter makes the same 22/31 mpg city/highway as the turbo 2.0-liter did in the previous Passat. There will still be savings at the pump, though, due to the switch from premium to regular gasoline.