The midsize sedan segment historically hasn't been known for visual flash, but that has changed as of late, with models like the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord and even Toyota Camry now wearing more stylish sheet metal. For those who still prefer an understated appearance for their daily driver, fear not. Volkswagen's Passat is still here, and even with a wealth of useful midcycle updates for 2016, it's design is still a walk on the mild side.
Hard to tell
Upon seeing this Volkswagen Passat SE test car, I honestly had a tough time picking up on its new-for-2016 styling updates. They are there, though, with a new domed hood, chrome four-bar grille, slimmer headlights, revised bumpers, trunk lid and chrome trim around the windows.
The Passat's design remains clean and inoffensive, but firmly on the dull side of the spectrum. There are no swoopy body lines like the Malibu or Mazda 6. The front end doesn't stand out like on the Fusion or Kia Optima. It's just sort of there, taking on the mantle of the no-nonsense family sedan -- perfect for people who like to fly completely under the radar.
Hop inside, and there's a new dashboard, center console, steering wheel, frameless rearview mirror and chrome accents sprinkled about. Again, it's tough to pick out the changes, but the straightforward and roomy cabin design remains. Materials throughout are of high quality, and while the front seats are comfortable, they lack much side support. Controls for the dual-zone automatic climate controls are easy to use. Passengers in the roomy back seat also get niceties like heated (outboard) cushions, and a USB port to juice up their electronics when on the go.
As for the trunk, it's huge and capable of swallowing 15.9 cubic feet of stuff, which came in handy when carrying tons of video equipment for a shoot. The large trunk opening makes loading and unloading simple, and a new easy-open function is great when approaching the car with your hands full. Waving a foot under the rear of the car pops the trunk open when you have the key fob on your person.
Bigger dose of tech
While the Passat leaves something to be desired in the design department, it comes armed with a healthy arsenal of technology. The latest MIB II infotainment system is standard on all Passats, with my SE with Technology trim featuring a 6.3-inch captive touchscreen capable of pinch-zooming and swiping controls, which work great.
The new infotainment system features navigation, USB inputs and Bluetooth, with the latter capable of pairing with two phones at the same time. My car's MIB II system arrived loaded with VW's Car-Net program, allowing for the integration of Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink. Car-Net's security and service also lets owners connect to their car via a computer or smartphone app to locate it in parking lots, lock and unlock doors, view vehicle maintenance status, make service appointments and pre-load destinations into the navigation system.
To keep a watchful eye on younger drivers, owners can set now set geo-boundaries and speed alerts. If the car exceeds the speed limit or goes outside of approved areas, parents will receive a text or email message, giving them ample proof to dole out a stern punishment when the disobedient offspring returns home.
On the safety front, this midrange Passat SE with Technology trim features a rearview camera, an excellent adaptive cruise control system, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking and blind-spot monitor. Rear traffic alert with auto braking is also here to warn of vehicles approaching from the side while reversing with visual and audio warnings. If the driver doesn't brake, the system will automatically attempt to stop the car in hopes of avoiding a collision.
Beneath it all is a competent driver that offers good ride comfort and respectable handling abilities. The compliant suspension together with my tester's 17-inch wheels and taller-sidewall Hankook rubber are great over broken pavement common here in the Midwest. Yet the Passat doesn't feel floaty or suffer from excessive body lean through turns. It confidently tracks through bends with composure.
The common complaint about current Volkswagens and their light steering feel still applies to the Passat. There's hardly any weight tuned into the wheel, but at least response to inputs is quick.
With VW's Dieselgate issues halting sales of the Passat's TDI engine option, a 1.8-liter, 170-horsepower, 184-pound-feet of torque four-cylinder is the fuel-economy champion of this lineup with an EPA fuel economy rating of 25 miles per gallon city and 38 mpg highway. This base turbocharged engine works with a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission to deliver strong midrange punch that's excellent for passing maneuvers and expressway merging.
For those looking for more power in their Passat, VW does offer a 3.6-liter V-6 with 280 horsepower. Fuel economy certainly isn't as good as the turbo four (20 mpg city/28 mpg highway), but you wouldn't have to deal with any boost lag concerns, either. A slightly more athletic R model is also available with larger 19-inch wheels and a somewhat firmer ride.
A safe midsize sedan option
With a $30,325 as-tested price, my Passat SE tester never felt overpriced considering its sturdy underpinnings, competent handling manners, spacious and functional interior and long list of tech features.
The Passat's problem is that it has virtually nothing to set it apart from all of the other entries in this massively competitive segment. It can't lean on its looks, features or price, because most of the competition are in line or stronger in those aspects than the VW.
When the diesel engine was available, it had great torque and huge range between fill-ups to set it apart from the crowd, but today, there's sadly no telling when -- or even if -- a TDI model will return to the lineup.