Track Tested: 2013 VW Passat SE 2.5L 6A

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

When I reviewed the most recent Passat 1.8TSI I confessed to liking the car, even if it wasn’t anywhere close to being the G.O.A.T. Therefore, when one of my driving students told me that he’d been unable to source my first recommendation for a non-premium trackday rental — the Camry SE — and had been stuck with a Passat instead, I was not immediately concerned about our prospects for the weekend.

In hindsight, that was probably incorrect.

Until recently, most of the Passats sold in this country arrived with the 170-horsepower straight-five, pushing about 3,250 pounds through a six-speed automatic transmission. This was considered to be quite the dynamic package back when you could only get it in an Audi 5000 Turbo, but we live in an era where, ahem, the humble Accord Coupe can be had with 255whp and a 13.9-second quarter-mile. So this VW feels like the proverbial Poky Little Puppy at pretty much all times.

With tires that were worn-out on arrival, brakes that required some trackside bleeding just to be safely usable during the second day, and a pronounced inability to out-pull a Miata 1.6 on Summit Point Shenandoah’s uphill “ski jump”, my student and I weren’t exactly having hot times out there on the ol’ racetrack. It would have been difficult for him to find a car that was less suited for this sort of thing, even among the sad cafe of an Avis lot. Yet I come to praise the Passat, not to bury it.

The key virtues of VW’s aging big sedan remain present even when you’re doing 95mph down Shenandoah’s back straight. To begin with, the visibility is excellent and the beltline is low. This makes more difference than you’d imagine when a driver is just starting his trackday career. Being passed and passing (yes! that happened! We passed someone!) other cars at speed on a track is a profoundly disconcerting thing and it’s hard not to imagine there’s a charging Z06 Vette in every blind spot, even if your instructor has the mirrors and has assured you that he’ll watch for traffic. Therefore, the big greenhouse and good sightlines of this Passat are truly useful.

The same driving position that works so well for long trips is also comfortable for racetrack use, and it’s easy to get the seat and steering wheel in the correct relationship. All the controls fall readily to hand, as the old saying goes, and the efforts associated with those controls are predictable and reassuring. There wasn’t much grip to be had, but what there was could be clearly discerned. The same goes for the brakes — you knew how much you had left and there was usually a little bite available at the end of the travel.

As fate had it, I was driving a considerably more modern and feature-filled sedan at Shenandoah myself this past weekend and I was impressed by the Passat’s feedback and honesty when compared to that sedan, which shall remain nameless for the moment. As a tool for teaching the basics of racetrack driving — consistent brake pressure, single turn-in, unwinding the wheel early, providing predictable and minimal inputs — it really isn’t that bad. If everybody in the “Blue Group” had been driving a Passat, things would have been quite simpatico.

Naturally, however, no one else had a Passat. They had cars that went fast in a straight line, like turbo VWs, and cars that went fast in turns, like Miatas, and cars that do both, like the aforementioned Z06 in both C5 and C6 flavors. Compared to these cars, the Passat was pathetically outmatched and it wasn’t unusual for us to be lapped twice in a session by NISMO 370Zs and the like. It’s just too slow for anybody but the most committed and dedicated individual to use for this purpose.

Luckily for us, my student was both of those things and over the course of four full hours of track driving he improved tremendously, taking perhaps ten seconds a lap or more off his times. He did a good job of managing his brakes and his tires, he was thoughtful and interested when it came to making small improvments and keeping those improvements, and he was safe and predictable during his interactions with other traffic. Next time he’ll probably be driving something faster than a Passat and I’d like to think he’s going to have a lot of success in his future endeavors as a trackday driver and LeMons racer.

Though the VW was in no way rapid, and we had to pull the ABS/ESC/airbag fuse just to keep it from freaking out in Summit Point’s remarkable scale-model concrete Karussel, it was perfectly durable during the weekend. One thing stands out in particular to me: Because the Tiptronic gearbox was relatively slow-witted, and because most drivers find that shifting is a distraction during their first few days on-track, I did all the shifting for my student. Since it wasn’t my car (or, to be fair, his car) I made sure to grab second gear for every slow corner even if it meant zinging the engine to 5000rpm or above. Again and again I grabbed second gear, six times a lap, and every time that poor five-cylinder ran right back up to redline before automatically slamming into third about three seconds after I made the downshift.

This sort of thing is absolute murder on automatic transmissions, transverse-mounted low-torque-capacity transmissions in particular. I would have been nervous about doing it with all but the most recent Hondas, as an example. But the Passat just kept on keeping on.

Due to difficulty with my GoPro and phone I was unable to get laptimes to compare with other cars I’ve driven around Summit Point Shendandoah, from the Corvette C7 (1:39) to the Camry SE (1:54) but I’d say this was the slowest car I’ve ever run on the course by far. Still, it was trustworthy and usable and finished the weekend no worse for wear. Could you have done that with a Dasher or Quantum? Probably not. So my affection for the big Passat remains steady, though if you can afford to get any engine but this one, you’d be silly not to. Good car, big car, decent car. Let’s hope for VW’s sake that’s enough. But if you’re meeting me at the racetrack, would you mind being a sport and getting a Camry?

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • NeilM NeilM on Oct 09, 2014

    So you really think it's a good idea to take an off-the-lot rental car and use it for a track day? There are good reasons that the group for whom I instruct specifically disallows regular rental cars, where likely insurance non-coverage is only one of a longer list.

    • See 4 previous
    • Jack Baruth Jack Baruth on Oct 09, 2014

      @AlfaRomasochist They are good people... yes, it was with them.

  • Thabo Thabo on Oct 13, 2014

    Sorry to pee on the parade her but last year I rented a Camry SE on the advise of the famous Camry article. At the Portland Toyota dealership we rented it from, my wife asked my why we had to pay more and I told her that we just had to because of an article I read online - I was excited and she just shook her head. Well this is the first car I've rented in 6 years but I can say that in every perceivable way my $3000 junker 1999 D2 A8 was better. Tried to give it some cowbell on the highway, not the most stable beast at high speed. I know, German car fan boy with exploding $5k transmissions and $1000 fuel pumps. It didn't even fell that good in the turns, sorry. I really did like the red color though and the Nav system seemed to be nice, first time I used bluetooth too but now I have it in my Audi car of a $40 Amazon device. But I'm sure it's better on a track : ) Ok so perhaps one day when the D2 A8 throws in the welly I'll get a 2006 Acura RL or something toaster like (Come on the RL looks like a big Accord but I really like that car) but shite, this is a car forum where men (for the most part) talk about "cars".

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