What is the best selling Volkswagen of all time? Beetle, right? No. Ok, the Golf? Wrong again. It’s the Passat. As an American, I was shocked at this news. While the rest of the world was happily snapping up Passats, here in North America VW’s mid-size car has lived in relative obscurity, save for a small but dedicated cult following. How was this possible? See, the Passat was a little bit smaller, a little bit pricier, and rode a bit firmer than the Accords and Camrys we were buying in droves. That was enough to relegate the Passat to the sidelines this side of the Atlantic. VW realized that if they were ever going to be competitive here, there was no option other than to build us a Passat that suited the tastes of the North American mid-size car buyer.
And in 2012, VW did just that. With a brand new factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, VW rolled out a Passat especially for North America. The Garage was quick to check out this completely different Passat, but that was five years ago. It was time to check in, and see what is new with the Passat. Almost shockingly, remarkably little. For 2016, the Passat received an exterior refresh. Although the hood, front fenders, front and rear bumpers and trunklid are completely new, it will take a sharp eye to notice any noticeable difference. While most of the Passat’s competitors have introduced completely overhauled cars since the Passat went on sale, VW stuck with a mild refresh. Depending on your tastes, that can be a good or bad thing. Uncomfortable with the stigma of a ‘boring’ midsize car, the competition is leaning towards swoopier, edgier styling. In contrast, the Passat, with its simple, broad styling forgoes today’s fads in favor of a classy, clean look. Exciting? No, but over time the Passat’s no nonsense styling will likely stand the test of time.
The design philosophy of keeping it simple carries over to the interior. Gauges are large and easy to read. All controls are simple and intuitive to use. This works fine if austerity works for you, as nothing more than a sliver metal band sweeping the dashboard is all there was to break up the black and grey interior. While simple enough to use, the newer cars from the competition offer larger and slicker infotainment systems. What the Passat does have going for it are the things buyers want in a mid-size car-chiefly a large, roomy cabin with excellent visibility. It is comfortable with plenty of room for four adults to ride in comfort. In fact, when asked to recommend a car this size, and I’m told they have two growing teenagers, the exceptional rear seat room puts the Passat at the top of the list. Buyers are also treated to a large trunk. Add in excellent build quality and a quiet cabin at speed, it is these areas where Passat is clicking off all the right boxes.
The other notable change from its 2012 introduction is in the engine bay. Gone are the 2.5L inline five and 2.0L four cylinder turbo, replaced with a 1.8L four cylinder turbo rated at 170hp, paired to a six-speed automatic. That may sound like a modest amount of grunt for a car this size, but the Passat feels quick and never strained. Fuel economy is EPA rated at 23/34 MPG city/highway. Respectable numbers, but the Passat’s economy figures trail the competition. VW continues to offer a 2.8L VR6 rated at 280hp. Since the four cylinder seems to offer all the motivation most buyers will ever need, unless you really have to have a six, I find it hard making an argument for the extra cost and the hit you will suffer at the gas pump. Currently no diesel is available while VW continues sorting out the TDI scandal. With ride comfort taking priority, buyers expecting a German sport sedan driving experience are going to come away disappointed.
The Passat is offered in four trim levels. Our test car was the top-spec SEL Premium. Standard equipment includes 18″ alloy wheels, LED headlights and taillights, foglights, power folding side view mirrors, rain sensing wipers, power sunroof, dual zone auto climate control, power heated front seats, leather interior, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, park assist, blind spot monitor, navigation, Fender premium audio, and VW Car Net for smartphone integration. Including destination, our Passat carries an MSRP of $31,815USD, which is a reasonable price for this class of car thus equipped.
VW’s experiment worked. By building a mid-size car featuring the qualities North Americans want, the Passat has been a success. What works in Wolfsburg was never going to work in Waco. It may not offer much in terms of thrills, but the Passat offers a great little engine, comfortable, roomy interior, a generous trunk, quiet comfortable ride at a fair price. In other words, what North Americans always want in a mid-size car. Is it truly a German car though? Well, think of it as a car built in America with a German accent.