Optimism for a profitable year remains in supply-constrained auto market

Payne: VW wakes up sleepy Passat with GT model

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The sleepy Volkswagen Passat made a New Year’s resolution at January’s Detroit auto show: I’m going to live a little.

The VE Passat GT’s blacked-out grille, sporty lower gills and red streak across the face sends a message: Sporty car in your rear-view mirror.

So the German sedan raided hip brother Golf GTI’s closet, took an armful of hot-hatch clothes, and — Heiliger strohsack! — showed up in Detroit as a Passat GT.

Outfitted in white with lots of black mascara around the headlights and a grille outlined in red, the GT just popped. I can’t remember the last time I used “Passat” and “popped” in the same sentence. Three months later and Passat is keeping its resolution.

I just drove the GT to Hell (Michigan) and back, and it’s not only got the GTI’s zeitgeist, it does it with 50 percent more rear legroom and 60 more ponies from a growly V-6. Gott in himmel!

The GT is a welcome tonic for a sedan that has been a wallflower in a wallflower segment. Buyers walk right past sedans these days to dance with high-riding SUVs. Ute sales were up 24 percent in 2017. Car sales? Down 17 percent. So midsize mainstays like the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion have sexed-up their wardrobes with flashy new sheet metal and pricey V-6 sport models.

The special-edition Passat GT comes from good (if understated) stock. Take the Passat SE recently in my driveway. “S” for somnolent.

The V-dub all but disappeared next to the hot-hatchback Kia Stinger (the time machine from the memorable Super Bowl ad with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler) that I tested at the same time. Thin upper grille, slab sides, plain rockers ... zzzzzz. If it weren’t for the VW logo the size of Flavor Flav’s clock dangling from its grille, it could be anything.

But climb into the mid-size V-dub and it blossoms into one oversize value. There, I did it again: VW and value in the same sentence! That’s new.

Volkswagen has been a bit haughty in the U.S. market, figuring Yanks would pay a hefty premium for German engineering. But after swallowing some Dieselgate humble pie (and choking on mediocre sales), VW is suddenly the blue-light special brand.

Start with the six-year/75,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty that covers everything including drivetrain. Transferable if you buy a used Passat.

The SE is loaded for just $27,145: Heated seats, keyless entry, adaptive cruise-control, smartphone-app connectivity, all wrapped in a cocoon of air bags and autonomous braking should you ever do anything naughty. Sure, I would have liked a couple more things like a heated steering wheel and a phone cubby, but that’s like complaining that your 10,000-square-foot beach rental doesn’t have a toaster oven.

The $29,995 Passat GT is a bargain, too. Compare that to the similar, front-wheel-drive, 302-horse Camry SXE V-6 which starts at $35,845. The GT gets big, 19-inch tornado wheels, sunroof, two-tone leather seats and a growlin’ V-6 that you used to have to shell out $35,450 for in the top-trim SEL. Mated to a paddle shift-equipped, dual-clutch transmission that shames many luxury models, the V-6/6-speed tandem is the best team since the Bryan brothers.

The V-6 even belts out rev-matching downshifts I nearly missed because the interior is so quiet. And roomy. I swear it’s 10,000 square feet inside. The back seat swallowed my 6-foot-5 frame with ease. The trunk is deeper than Bear’s Cave with fold-flat rear seats that extend its utility.

Speaking of length, Passat’s 181/2-gallon tank will carry you nearly 700 miles on a fill-up in the base model’s turbo-4. That helps make up for its slight mpg deficiency (29 mpg) next to others in its class. With 106 more ponies, the V-6 will still travel over 500 miles.

Overshadowed by the GT’s mill, the SE’s 2.0-liter 4 got more power for the new year and was plenty peppy on Oakland County’s curvy lake roads. Which is promising, because Passat’s Chattanooga plant will soon get VW’s light-weighted MQB chassis that is the foundation for the nimble Golf.

Still, the big Passat’s older platform makes this chariot feel a size smaller on the road. Like 6-foot-9 Blake Griffin making a spin move for the basket from the top of the key, drivers can feel confident the sedan will go where it’s placed.

This is in contrast to VW’s big cool-for-school Tiguan and Atlas SUVs which depart from the sporty car formula for a more carpeted ride. While other manufacturers — BMW, Mazda — draw a straight line between their sporty sedans and SUVs, VW’s model lines offer different personalities.

The GT is also a welcome addition to Passat because the badge must justify itself against King Accord.

Honda’s 10th-generation, mid-size sedan set a new standard as 2018 North American Car of the Year. Toe-to-toe with the likewise all-new Camry, it beats its Japanese rival in nearly every measure.

That’s a tough crowd. Compared against Accord’s comparable, EX trim, Passat SE punches strong with its laundry list of standard features. VW has caught up with the focus group-obsessed Japanese in the ergonomic category where Germans once sniffed at Americans’ obsession with living in their cars. Was is das? Cupholders? Drinking is for das Bierhaus, not for sie car!

The Passat provides decent storage — despite the, ahem, microscopic forward cubby — and most impressively, a user-friendly infotainment touchscreen with radio favorites easily thumbed with a toggle on the steering wheel for less-distracted driving.

As noted, the gas tank gives outsize range. And like the Accord, the VW’s superb chassis engineering allows it cavernous interior and cargo on a sprightly, 3,200-pound chassis.

On styling and drivetrain, the Accord is superior to the Passat SE. Once a disciple of V-6 engines, the Honda now makes an astonishing 1.5-liter turbo-4 that not only bests the German’s blown 2.0-liter by 20 horsepower, but does it with better fuel economy.

The Accord’s lovely swept sportback doesn’t compromise headroom. Its huge front bug-catcher isn’t my cup of tea, but at least it has personality. All this and a Honda bottom line that is $500 below the budget-friendly Passat.

Which is where we came in. Into the vanilla Passat menu comes the Chunky Monkey Almond Fudge V-6 GT.

It’s in limited production as Chattanooga assesses its value to a Passat line updating to MQB. If GT proves as popular with Passaters as the iconic GTI is with Golfers, VW will keep it cooking.

I’ll take that as another New Year’s resolution.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Volkswagen Passat and Passat GT

Vehicle type

Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan


$23,845 base ($27,145 Passat SE as tested); $29,995 Passat GT

Power plant

2.0-liter inline-4 (base Passat); 3.6-liter V-6 (GT)


174 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque (turbo-4); 280 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque (V-6)


6-speed automatic


0-60 mph, 5.7 seconds (Passat V-6, Car and Driver)


3,274-3,571 pounds

Fuel economy

EPA fuel economy: 25 city/36 highway/29 combined (turbo-4); EPA fuel economy: 19 city/28 highway/22 combined (V-6)

Report card

Highs: Roomy interior; GT brings GTI-like pizzazz to Passat

Lows: Dated instrument display; GT can be thirsty under the whip


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★