The snow covering the 2016 Volkswagen Passat parked in front the Vermont hotel was a fitting reminder of the winter of VW’s discontent.
Never mind for a moment the diesel doldrums the company is currently embroiled in, Volkswagen was already on thin ice in the States.
Just as its bread-and-butter Jetta and Passat models were Americanized in hopes of better sales through lower prices, rivals suddenly paid attention to their German counterparts and made cars that were decidedly upmarket. The Ford Fusion is basically more German than the Passat Americans get. And after initially strong sales, the Tennessee-built Passat has languished.
While the looks have only just changed for 2016, the Passat has been consistently refined since it went on sale four years ago. In the face of a host of new or revised rivals – and with its unique selling point in the class, the TDI, currently out of the game – does the power of German engineering finally shine through to elevate America’s Passat?
Plenty of people were underwhelmed when the wraps came off of the facelifted Passat last month. We were promised a radical change “from the A-pillars forward” and got a lot of new parts that look basically the same as before.
It doesn’t help that the state animal of Vermont is actually a Passat, because it was increasingly likely one of us was going to try to get into someone’s actual gray Passat rather than one of the cars provided on the drive by VW. I found the previous car handsomely conservative and this new one is just that.
The new R-Line model is a sharp addition, with more aggressive details in the front bumper and side skirts, along with 19-inch wheels on each corner. We didn’t get to drive any R-Lines, but it’s my pick because it has by far the best wheel selections of the 2016 Passats. The rest look like more ornate and tackier versions of the old wheels, cheapening the look.
Still, it’s a small detail relative to the larger problem I’ve always had with this Passat. It still looks a lot like a Jetta. While the front end is more distinctive than before, you’ll be tempted to take out a tape measure to make sure it’s a Passat you’re sitting next to in traffic.
As before, the Passat is vast inside. Rear legroom is comically generous and the front seats are wide, yet supportive. You have to get used to how high those seats are mounted, especially in relation to models like the Golf and Jetta. But you’re treated to good headroom and possibly the most amount of glass area on a sedan made today.
VW added their latest infotainment system that benefits from Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink, and it’s all straightforward for the most part. But the navigation display still looks pretty dated. The new gauges are “GTI-inspired,” according to the company, however, all but the top SEL Premium cars still use the old black-and-white dot display that’s basically from a 2006 Passat. I think it’s what video games in the ’80s looked like.
New on the Passat is nearly every form of driver assistance technology. A backup camera is standard on every car, and SE and higher get standard automatic emergency braking. A Technology Package, optional on SE and standard on SELs, adds features like blind-spot monitoring and lane keep assist. Once I figured out how to activate it, the systems are about as sophisticated as most in this price range. The wide availability of the systems is commendable (especially the automatic braking), but VW is largely playing catch-up here.
Fit and finish is fine, but the quality of the materials is fine for the class, on par with Camry and Accord. But the new “wood” trim looks so fake it could be wallpaper. You never know what part of the dash or door panel is actually going to be soft to the touch, either.
The most important part of the Passat’s interior, however, is that it’s extremely comfortable and capacious. As a place to put five adults it succeeds. It would make a fabulous long-distance runner. Even more fabulous were it not for a certain certification problem.
Conspicuous by its absence from the lineup in Vermont was the Passat TDI and its 2.0-liter turbodiesel engine. Long story short, its arrival is very much in the “to be announced at a later date” category.
VW only made 1.8T models available for drives, although the V6s were around for short drives. Just as well, because the German brand admitted that the six-cylinder car with its sweet 280 horses makes up just 3-5 percent of Passat sales.
The 1.8T is likely the pick of the bunch anyway. This engine, with 170 turbocharged horses mated to a six-speed automatic, is seriously impressive in everything VW slots it into. There’s hardly any lag from a dead stop, with the conventional automatic able to eliminate the acceleration hesitation common on DSG-equipped models. And there’s torque everywhere for good passing.
Yet driven enthusiastically on Vermont back roads, the trip computer indicated 30 mpg, and highway fuel economy estimates are up to 38 mpg this year without changes to the gearing, according to VW. It’s everything the Fusion Ecoboost models want to be.
Along with the 1.8T, subtle suspension revisions implemented since the car was originally launched have been among the significant revisions to German-up the American Passat. It’s no sports sedan, but when has the Passat ever been? Instead it’s extremely comfortable and the steering works well at speeds higher than 50. It’s quiet inside too, minus some wind noise coming through the door seals. I’ll chalk that up to the pre-production status of the cars I drove.
When compared to the latest members of the Golf family, however, the age of the Passat’s platform starts to show. The Golfs are more solid, yet more effervescent in the drive. Even when you move past their superior interior quality, they feel more substantial.
Imagine if they made a Passat on the same platform as the new Golfs. Oh, wait.
If this was the car VW brought out in 2011, the Passat would be a complete hit. Despite the continued signs of cost-consciousness, this car is a nice combination of Germanic attributes with American midsize sedan demands.
A Passat 1.8T S costs about $23,000, which is unusual for VW because it’s actually good value when compared to best-sellers in the class. Automatic climate control, USB and a backup camera are all standard, and you can add the LED headlights for $1,245.
But move up the ladder and things quickly get expensive. An SE with Technology is the cheapest way to get blind-spot monitoring and starts at more than $29,000. An SEL Premium is $35,000, still with the 1.8T and the only way to get parking sensors and the self-parking function. Then there’s the rare SEL Premium V6, which is going to stay rare at close to $38,000. That’s about $2,000 more than a Honda Accord Touring, which is also too much money for the level of quality and driving dynamics.
There’s a lot the Passat does right, and the revisions for 2016 keeps it competitive. But aside from its vast rear legroom and perky turbo engine, there isn’t an overwhelming reason to pick it over a Mazda 6 (my favorite midsize sedan), let alone the established Accord or Camry or Fusion.
Still, the Passat has a place if you want fuel efficiency with strong performance, with some of the old VW character finally resurfacing. It could work if you loved your Passat from a decade-or-so ago and want something pretty similar to replace it.
That’s what the 2016 Passat feels like, a brand new 2004 Passat. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.
(VW flew me out to Stowe, Vermont, where winter comes very early and mixes with leaves falling off trees. They introduced me to a rabbit crêpe, which is way better than it sounds. I fed a carrot to a donkey, too.)
Photos: Zac Estrada/Carscoops