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First drive: 2016 Volkswagen Passat

Burn the window sticker: VW's 2016 Passat feels far more expensive than it is

Let’s address the elephant in the room right out the gate – yes, the diesel debacle is ongoing, and it affects the Passat as well, as the TDI version of this model is off the table until the matter is sorted to the satisfaction of all parties involved. To their credit, VW reps addressed the situation briefly – as I’d imagine they do quite often at press programs these days – mainly to signify that they’re not pretending it isn’t happening, and also to announce that a VIN lookup site has been created so owners can check to see if their vehicle is affected.

With that said, VW is a very large automobile manufacturer, and it’s safe to assume that many products were already in the pipeline before the emissions news broke. So it’s understandable that, on the whole, Volkswagen is conducting the business of selling automobiles as usual until further notice, and that includes model refreshes like the ’16 Passat. Fortunately for potential buyers, the main theme of this latest Passat is providing more content for less money, and it results in a notably more competitive vehicle in a hotly contested segment.

There’s no denying that the overall look of the car is still decidedly Germanic reserve.

Although there’s an array of enhancements on-hand for the 2016 model, performance proves to be more or less identical to last year’s Passat. Mechanicals carry over from the 2015 model, with a 170 horsepower, 1.8-liter turbocharged four cylinder with a six-speed automatic playing the role of the Passat’s standard motivation and a 3.6-liter V6 that outputs 280 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, mated to VW’s six-speed DSG gearbox, powering the VR6 model. Fuel economy numbers remain unchanged as well, with the 1.8T yielding 25 mpg in the city and an admirable 38 mpg on the highway, while the VR6 offers 20 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway.

A new R-line model also joins the Passat lineup for the first time, adding a dose of sportiness to the sedan with unique rocker panels, a more aggressive front fascia with black accents, rear diffuser and a unique set of 19-inch wheels, though it’s worth noting that despite the more aggressive looks, the R-line offers no enhancements to the car’s driving dynamics.

It’s clear that making the Passat feel generally more upscale and stylized were the primary goals of Volkwagen’s designers when they approached the updates for this 2016 model. To that end, the MIB II infotainment system I sampled over the summer now makes its way into the Passat, including its support of Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Mirrorlink connectivity, along with VWs own suite of connected features and a much-need internal hardware upgrade across the board.

On the aesthetic front, VW’s designers have made a number of changes both inside and out, but don’t expect a stylistic revolution here. Although the hood, fenders, trunklid and front/rear bumpers are all new – essentially leaving only the roof and doors unchanged – you’d be forgiven for not immediately doing a double take when gazing upon the new Passat, even on models equipped with the new optional LED headlights. VW explains that the changes were made to yield a more dramatic flair to the car, even suggesting that the new hood design was inspired by American muscle cars. That may be the case, but there’s no denying that the overall look of the car is still decidedly Germanic reserve.

Related: VW combining automated valets and self-charging cars with the V-Charge project

Making every trim level in the model lineup feel more premium was clearly on the agenda for 2016 as well, with all models now getting a touchscreen display varying from 5 inches to 8 depending on selected options, along with standard USB ports rather than the much-maligned proprietary MDI ports of the past – a welcome change. The suite of safety features that VW highlighted at the ERL event earlier this year also make their way into the new model, including automated crash avoidance and park assistance features, while additional content like chrome trim, alloy wheels and other low-key features have trickled down the trim lines to make the model generally feel like a more upscale offering on the whole.

The changes are subtle but effective. The dash gets a GTI-inspired reshaping, and along with the new 8-inch MIB II interface found on the higher spec’d models, the Passat feels like a more expensive car than it actually is. That sense of luxury is somewhat negated on the 1.8-liter equipped models when you dip into the throttle though. Although the drivetrain can haul the mid-sized Passat around with competence, its high-strung, buzzy demeanor – particularly under load – feels somewhat out of place in a car with luxury aspirations that are otherwise mostly achieved, despite the sub-$30,000 price of the Passat lineup outside of the SEL and SEL V6 models.

True to VW tradition, the Passat’s relatively taut suspension tuning provided me with a reasonable level of entertainment on the back roads of Stowe, Vermont during our drive along the rain-slicked, twisty tarmac. Although the steering feels notably light on the Passat, the car continued to feel composed and confident when driven with a dose of verve, eager to respond to quick steering inputs while exhibiting minimal body roll yet also maintaining a compliant ride. Continuing with the upscale theme, minimal road noise makes its presence known in the cabin at speed, though more engine noise crept in through the firewall than I would have preferred.

Conclusion

Truth be told, the new Passat stays the course for most part in terms of the model’s primary mission, and while the changes made here quantifiably improve the car, VW’s approach of subtlety continues to keep the Passat in a state of relative anonymity while many competitive offerings continue to move in a radical direction, both in terms of style and drivetrain options. With the TDI out of the picture for the foreseeable future, the model lacks an option that can go head to head with the hybrid, plug-in and all-electric options available elsewhere, compounding the feeling that the Passat lacks some sense of occasion or cutting-edge modernity.

But for those who value responsive handling over wild instrument panel designs and premium fit and finish more than head turning silhouettes, take solace: Volkswagen has championed these values for decades, and continues to do so with the new Passat.

Highs

  • Comprehensive technology suite offered with MIB II system
  • Additional standard content versus last year’s model
  • Solid fit and finish
  • Taut suspension tuning

Lows

  • 1.8-liter motor buzzy under load
  • Updated styling still feels somewhat anonymous