Volkswagen had big hopes for its supersized Passat when it replaced the smaller Euro-spec B6 model back in 2011 for the 2012 model year. I tested and reviewed a base model with the old TDI turbo diesel and a top-line 3.6 that year, and while impressed with the styling, performance and roominess, I was a bit put off by its downgraded interior refinement.
After a first foray with the car my review comments included, “The dash, door uppers and inserts remain high-quality soft touch synthetic, but that’s about it for premium pliable composites as the rest of the cabin is less impressively finished in hard plastics, a disappointment when compared to most top-line models in the mid-size segment, and a downer considering just how well-made the old Passat’s interior was.”
To make matters worse, the replacement Euro-spec Passat B7 was a move up in every respect. VW followed this European-market sedan with a unique five-door Passat Alltrack (similar to our Golf Alltrack, but larger), a model VW’s Herndon, Virginia-based U.S. headquarters must now be lusting after considering how well Subaru is doing with its Outback, while the entirely new Passat B8, introduced in 2014, is such a styling knockout and appears so upscale inside that any knowledgeable American Volkswagen fan (the majority of which are quite well versed in the brand’s global affairs) will feel slighted.
After all, we had to wait until last year for a mild mid-cycle update to a Passat design that’s been in our market for seven years without much noticeable change. It’s still handsome in a conservative way, but compared to the Euro B8 or the stunning new Arteon four-door coupe, the Passat looks old as the hills. As you might expect, the car’s sales are considerably softer than its interior plastic these days, with the first half of 2017 resulting in just 35,137 units. All of last year was slightly stronger at 73,002 deliveries, but the model’s steady fall from its initial 2012 calendar year high of 117,023 units is evident when viewing the numbers in between, which totaled 109,652 units for 2013, 96,649 for 2014 and 78,207 for 2015.
This loss of favor is shared with some other mid-size sedans that have been shoved aside for the current crossover SUV trend, VW’s own 2018 Atlas hoping to alleviate some of the brand’s mid-size four-door pain, but the Passat never owned as much market share as its rivals and continues to be a minor player in the lucrative mid-size sedan game. At the close of Q2 2017 it sat eighth most popular, behind the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Hyundai Sonata, and Kia Optima, only beating the Subaru Legacy, Mazda 6, and the already cancelled Chrysler 200. In other words, VW will want to rethink its approach to the mid-size market when it comes time to replace this aging model.
For the time being it soldiers through the 2017 model year with a slightly refreshed uniform as of last year, plus some important updates inside, its most notable feature being a completely revised infotainment touchscreen boasting proximity-sensing pop-up switchgear plus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. S trim remains the Passat’s base model from just $22,440 plus freight and fees, with the lineup also including the $23,975 R-Line, $25,485 SE, $27,995 SE with Technology, and top-tier $30,995 SEL Premium, the latter two trims available with the base 1.8-liter turbo four as well as the 3.6-liter VR6 currently being reviewed.
VW shipped this car in Deep Black Pearl with an eye-catching Titan Black and Golden Oak interior that doesn’t appear to be available from the retail site anymore, the latter saddle brown color referring to the second hue of its two-tone interior motif, which is used for the door panel inserts, the ribbed leather seat inserts, and the contrast stitching found on those seats. The cabin is further upgraded with glossy gray-stained faux hardwood in classic American sedan tradition, and yes I say this last part with tongue firmly in cheek, as I’d rather be surrounded in the optional matte light oak woodgrain that looks and feels a bit more realistic. A generous dose of piano black lacquered plastic adorns key areas as does VW’s usual assortment of satin-finish and bright metallic accents, while a merely average color multi-information display that sits within the Passat’s classic analog gauge cluster is totally upstaged by the aforementioned infotainment system.
This new touchscreen interface is a considerable step up over its replacement and truly world class overall, thanks to stylish new graphics, quick response times from its superb mapping and guidance system, navigation being standard in SE with Technology and SEL trims while the useful backup camera is standard across the line. This said most competitors offer a 360-degree surround monitor in top trims, but the SEL’s standard 400-watt Fender audio system pumps out tunes with gusto, which is always appreciated. Smartphone setup was easy, while the audio streaming functions worked flawlessly during my weeklong test. Ditto for the dual-zone auto HVAC system, plus the front and rear heatable seats.
I wish I could leave it at that, but not all was rosy as far as VW electronics go. First off, the parking sonar is one of the most annoying of its type I’ve experienced. Even when in city traffic and coming to a stop behind another car, remembering to leave plenty of space ahead, or alternatively when someone pulled up in their lane alongside, it beeped as if I were parking. It was so bothersome I was forced to shut it off on multiple occasions, but fortunately when really needed, like backing into a tight parking spot, it turned back on automatically.
On the positive, none of the Passat’s other driver-assistance features caused such issues. In fact, the adaptive cruise control worked without fault, as did lane change assist, but notably auto high beams aren’t included in the upgrade, nor is autonomous emergency braking, so the Passat is a bit behind the class average when it comes to advanced safety systems.
It’s also one of the only cars I’ve seen with a “Poor” IIHS rating, albeit specifically for its headlights. Still, VW will want to address this issue quickly. Likewise, it only gets a “Marginal” rating (third worst out of four) for its small overlap front crash test on the passenger side, whereas all other crash tests result in a best-possible “Good” score. The IIHS gave it a Top Safety Pick rating just the same, whereas the NHTSA gave it a 5 Star safety rating.
Also problematic, halfway through my test week the passenger-side power-folding mirror decided not to power back out again, so I walked around the car and pulled it out manually. I soon learned such hands-on repair work wouldn’t solve the problem, as it merely flopped around uselessly on the way home, seriously hampering rearward visibility. Strangely, after “rebooting” the car it must have reset itself and therefore worked without fuss for the rest of the week, which leaves me wondering when this problem will rear its ugly head again.
As you can tell, life with the Passat wasn’t without drama, but the car is quite comfortable and plenty roomy front to rear, the trunk downright gargantuan at 15.9 cubic feet and fabulously versatile thanks to 60/40-split rear seatbacks plus a center pass-through, while its fully independent suspension’s ride quality is very good, albeit firmer than some peers. I don’t mind this, because handling is better than average resulting in one of the sportier mid-size sedans in the class.
Likewise, the optional 280 horsepower 3.6-liter VR6 provides plenty of jump at takeoff, followed up by wonderfully smooth and linear power delivery throughout its rev range. This is one of the more potent six-cylinder engines in the mid-size segment, and combined with the agile chassis makes for quite a sporty sedan. No, I’m not going to dub it with sport sedan status, but its six-speed dual-clutch auto is quicker shifting than some of the newer nine-speed units and therefore is much more engaging, enhanced considerably by paddle shifters behind the steering wheel spokes. It doesn’t hurt that the latter item is one of the segment’s best, a flat-bottom, soft leather-wrapped affair that’s ideally shaped for performance driving.
At the opposite end of the spectrum the larger engine is still reasonably efficient with fuel, eking out a claimed 20 mpg city, 28 highway, and 23 combined rating compared to the standard 1.8-liter four-cylinder that’s good for 23 mpg city, 34 highway and 27 combined.
Truly, the Passat isn’t without merit, which is reason enough for its small but loyal following. Nevertheless, contemplating its shortcomings makes me wonder how much further our aging American-spec model will slide down the 2018 mid-size sales chart with the arrival of the most compelling Camry and Accord offerings ever. Volkswagen will make improvements to the 2018 Passat, a 177 horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder replacing the base 1.8-liter unit for a 7-hp bump in power, but that’s probably not enough to garner much attention.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press