First Drive: 2016 Volkswagen Passat

Such is the level of competition in the mid-size sedan segment that it's possible to build a thoroughly competent automobile, unleash it on the market, and cause barely a ripple. This is especially true in Canada, where smaller cars have long called the tune and affordable family four-doors are increasingly displaced by crossovers and SUVs of various shapes, sizes and price points.

It's possible to build a thoroughly competent automobile, unleash it on the market, and cause barely a ripple.

This may well be the fate that befalls the 2016 Volkswagen Passat, whose recent refresh of what was already a very decent automobile seems unlikely to win over anyone not already infatuated with the German brand's mojo. Agreeable in all respects, and with a few tweaks to its styling to go with a renewed investment in driver and infotainment technologies, the Passat is hobbled by the lack of its killer app – the now-suspended TDI turbodiesel drivetrain – and a strange reluctance to accord the model with the same underhood advancements that have been afforded higher volume members of the VW line-up.

Playing To Its Strengths

Lest I paint too dark a picture of the 2016 Volkswagen Passat's future, let me first tell you what the sedan does well. The Passat has been gifted with a suitably huge cabin whose plus-size dimensions are most readily appreciated from the rear, where legroom is abundant and a healthy roofline keeps things airy on longer trips. All versions of the car benefit from revised interior trim, which remains simple in design but upgrades higher trim levels to tasteful wood grain and tactile metal inlays on the door panels and dashboard.

Seat heaters for forward occupants become standard as soon as you hit the second rung on the Passat order ladder, while genuine leather upholstery, heaters for the outboard occupants out back, and of course a moonroof and a hands-free trunk feature reveal themselves the pricier the vehicle gets. Volkswagen has affixed new front and rear fascias to the car in an effort to sharpen its appearance, and LED headlights make their debut for the current model year. Enthusiasts can further hone the looks of the Passat with the R-Line package, which provides a sportier appearance for the sedan by way of a mild body kit and unique 19-inch rims to replace the 16, 17 and 18-inchers offered elsewhere in the lineup.

Android Auto hands-on in the 2016 Honda Accord

The Volkswagen Passat also sees two notable infotainment and communications updates for 2016. The first is a next-generation version of the car's touchscreen interface, which no longer holds you hostage to extended load times after turning the key, and which features a passable navigation option to go with its revised menus and logic. The head unit also supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, two software interfaces that replace factory infotainment functionality with a limited implementation of their respective operating systems (while simultaneously bricking your mobile device in the process). As you can see I'm not a fan of either, but that doesn't mean these features won't find their audience. More groundbreaking – and part of the requirement for enhanced cell phone integration – is the acknowledgement of 21st century data standards by Volkswagen, with honest to goodness USB ports installed in the Passat for the first time in its long and noble history.

A Little Too Relaxed

In testing the Volkswagen Passat's unchanged chassis on the curving mountain roads of rural Vermont, I was pleased to discover that its comfort-first character hadn't been overlooked for 2016. The sedan's handling never felt overwhelmed by the sharper corners on the two-lane roads that dominated my drive route, but it would be a stretch to assign anything approaching sportiness to the Passat's largely feedback-free experience. Serene and unflappable, the VW makes an agreeable daily driving partner in the majority of on-road situations.

When it comes time to pass, however, the Volkswagen's relatively modest underhood means present a sticking point. Standard with the Passat is a turbocharged 1.8L motor that produces 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, numbers that VW fans will note are identical to those offered by the same engine when it's outfitted to the much-lighter Volkswagen Golf. Also note that the same 1.8T is rated at 199 lb-ft of torque with the 170 hp in the Audi A3 and 200 lb-ft in the US-market Golf specs, and Volkswagen reps have previously suggested this is a more realistic output. Although no Goliath, the Passat's 1,503 kg are resistant to being hustled by way of the car's six-speed automatic transmission, which meant a lot of hanging out behind box trucks and farm equipment while waiting for a safe passing zone to open up (the base version of the car is also available with a five-speed manual gearbox).

Volkswagen does produce a peppier turbocharged four-banger that would undoubtedly fit in the Passat's engine bay: the 2.0L unit offered by the GTI, which generates 220 horses and a considerably stouter amount of torque. Unfortunately, sticking it in the mid-sizer presents something of a problem for VW when you consider that the Passat's flagship trim level, the Execline, is matched with a 3.6L V6 that somewhat embarassingly barely matches the 2.0L's torque figure (in addition to its 280 horsepower). Only a small sliver of buyers even sniff near the Passat Execline, but protecting the crown has effectively robbed the car of a much better base motor.

I mentioned earlier that the TDI edition of the Passat is nowhere to be found for 2016, due to the scandal surrounding the revelation that Volkswagen deliberately duped emissions tests with its turbodiesel engines. A full 40 percent of Passat sales last year were diesel models due to the drivetrain's hard-to-beat combination of fuel efficiency and torque, which leaves an enormous hole on the Volkswagen spreadsheet that's only exacerbated by the negative PR of being dubbed an “eco-cheat” and worse by the media and disgruntled TDI owners.

Competent, But Not Compelling

The 2016 Volkswagen Passat offers a fresher face, a cleaner, more upscale interior, and (in addition to safety features such as adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning and automatic braking, automated parking, and lane keeping assistance) enhanced technology to keep drivers entertained and in touch. Unfortunately, the comfortable car is saddled with a merely adequate four-cylinder engine and a V6 option that (thanks to a near-$40K price tag) few will ever order. The absence of the Passat TDI is felt almost as strongly as the build-up of can't-sell-it diesel-powered inventory at VW dealerships across the country, and without this signature drivetrain it’s hard to recommend the Volkswagen over competitive fare like the Ford Fusion, the Toyota Camry, or the Hyundai Sonata. By all means test drive the Passat, but make sure it's one of, not the only, member of your mid-size sedan short list.

Pricing: 2016 Volkswagen Passat
Trendline: $23,295
Options: Automatic – $1,400
Trendline: $25,695
Comfortline: $29,295
Options: Technology Package – $1,390, R-Line Package – $3,290
Highline: $33,795
Options: R-Line Package – $2,590
Execline: $38,295

Fuel Consumption:
1.8L turbo: 9.4 L/100 km city / 6.3 L/100 km hwy / 8.0 L/100 km combined
3.6L V6: 11.9 L/100 km city / 8.5 L/100 km hwy / 10.4 L/100 km combined

Such is the level of competition in the mid-size sedan segment that it's possible to build a thoroughly competent automobile, unleash it... 11/5/2015 9:12:20 AM