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Review: 2013 Volkswagen Passat S

We put the five-cylinder Passat through its paces to see how the entry-level end of the spectrum lines up.

Design a product specifically for the North American market and you're faced with the task of pleasing a whole lot of buyers - from those looking for luxury to those a bit more price conscious. Volkswagen realized this early on with its latest Passat, a model engineered for (and built in) the massive United States market.

While we've heaped a good deal of praise on the higher-spec Passats, both those using the automaker's high-mpg turbodiesel and its high-power V6, one Passat we've never investigated in depth is the entry-level S model, with base five-cylinder engine.

Have they made some hay with this new version of their venerable sedan or are they asleep at the wheel? Hop in with Leftlane as we take a look.

What is it?

A four-door, five-passenger family sedan, the latest Passat is the sixth-generation version of VW's mid-sized offering. Built in a new Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant, it differs from Passats sold globally in that it was engineered specifically for the tastes of buyers here. In addition to having better cupholders than its European siblings, that means it has a larger back seat and a number of other cues designed to make it more competitive in the largest segment of the new car market.

Our test model was the base Passat S equipped with VW's 2.5-liter five-cylinder. Fuel injected, it produces 170 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque. Though not a high tech unit, it shows up in everything from Beetles to (with some turbo bolt-ons) the Audi TT-RS. Five cylinder engines are rarity these days, in part because they tend to offer something closer to six-cylinder power and six-cylinder fuel economy - in the Passat, look for middling 22/31 mpg in a class where 35 mpg or more is commonplace. Most Passat Ss will feature the six-speed automatic seen in our tester, although a six-speed stick is standard.

In addition to our base S model, the Passat is offered in mid-level SE, and top of the line SEL versions. Such upgrades include increased content like improved audio, available navigation, leatherette seating and a moonroof. Technically, there is a cheaper Passat available since ours was the S with Appearance Package model, which brought with it alloy wheels and the automatic for $2,100 extra.

For those wanting more, there's the 280-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 and the 40 mpg-plus 2.0-liter turbodiesel.

What's it up against?

The previous Passat was not exactly a go-to midsize choice. Once niche in nature, it is now in a better position to compete with the Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Honda Accord.

How does it look?

Designing too much concept into a vehicle can result in premature aging. Witness some of the Asian offerings, for example. On the other hand, three-box design can be just that: Three boxes stacked side by side to make a whole.

Our Passat S has a basic look to it that doesn't push any new ground. Looking like a German version of the outgoing Ford Fusion, it manages to check all the boxes in an effort to not offend.

The result is a no-frills look that should hold its age and value well for the life of the product cycle. Devoid of any extra bling, it is rather conservative and buttoned up in appearance. This car is so stripped that it doesn't even have letters on the rear flank to show what trim level it is.

If bling is your thing, step it up to the next trim level for additional chrome accenting around the vehicle's exterior.

And on the inside?

Our base interior did not mean that it was lacking in quality. With the exception of a touch screen audio system available on higher trim levels, the interior was well-designed and very business like in a Teutonic sort of way. Cloth fabric seats covered the manually operated driver and passenger front chairs, which offered good support (but minimal bolstering) for long stints behind the wheels. It even has black rubber floor mats instead of carpeted mats as seen in many of the Asian Pacific cars. We couldn't help thinking that we were driving a car from Enterprise Rent A Car.

Nicely outfitted, it is really the rear seat in the Passat that takes the blue ribbon for space and comfort. The interior room is fantastic! We would be exaggerating to say it offered limousine-like legroom, but you would be awfully hard-pressed to find a family sedan that offers as much in the second row.

At the end of the day, the Passat is about offering reliable, slightly more interesting than average transportation at an affordable price. The base radio is not SiriusXM-equipped, but it is complete with Bluetooth audio streaming and hands-free mobile device functionality.

But does it go?

The Volkswagen Passat S is still, at roughly $24,000, a price leader, all things being relative But that doesn't mean that VW needed to scrimp on power. With a 0-60 mpg sprint of around 9 seconds, this sedan is a leisurely contender. We'd be willing to forgive the limited power if it was a bit more fuel efficient, but we averaged around 24 mpg during our week. That's not great.

At least the six-speed automatic's manumatic-functionality made for quick getaways. The Passat's interior has a very upscale quietness about it, but the five-cylinder does have the pipes to send out an aggressive flutter under pressure.

For 2014, Volkswagen will phase out the 2.5-liter five-cylinder in favor of a 1.8-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine with, presumably, more power and better fuel economy.

Handling is nicely modulated with good, direct steering as well. Not overly boosted, it features typical VW-style competence from its rudder. The suspension provides an average ride that we think is very typical for the family sedan segment it resides in. Not particularly soft or hard in its ride quality, it had minimal amounts of wallow, and offered a confidence-inspiring feel. Providing good handling and quick lane changes, it is a competent performer. The brakes were a tiny bit grabby, but not as bad as some rivals.

Why you would buy it:

Teutonic flair with a Southern accent. And you could move into the back seat if you needed to.

Why you wouldn't:

Rivals offer vastly better base four-cylinders than this five-cylinder.

Leftlane's bottom line

If you must own a German-inspired family sedan but don't want to pay the extra coin involved in putting an Audi A4 or Mercedes-Benz C-Class in the driveway, Volkswagen has your chariot right here. It's just a shame that an otherwise desirable vehicle is burdened with a lackluster engine.

We'd opt for the turbodiesel, but it runs about $3,500 more - and it'll take a long time to recoup that in fuel savings.

2013 Volkswagen Passat S Appearance Package, base price $22,945. As tested, $23,740.

Destination, $795.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.

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