In what turned out to be the worst timing of all, VW were ready to launch the 2016 Passat in the very week that the Dieselgate story broke. Needless to say, the new model got very little publicity. But in fact the changes were fairly minor in nature. It was not one of those cars which I received, but a 2015 model, with over 32,000 miles on the clock and more than a few rental car scars from 18 months of service, which had started out in Texas, the state whose plates the car bore. Even so, it did sport the key difference between this Fontana Red coloured car and the previous darker red model I had sampled, which was the engine. Out had gone the long-lived 2.5 litre 5 cylinder unit in this car and the smaller Jetta, to be replaced by the 170 bhp 1.8 TSi unit that is familiar to Europeans. The rest of this Passat, though, will not be quite so much what they are expecting, as it is a US designed and US made model. The Passat has never sold that strongly in the US, being perceived as too expensive and too austere for a nation that values visible appeal over depth of engineering substance, so when VW facelifted what is now the previous generation Passat for the rest of the world, the US market car diverged into something built specifically for America. Physically larger than the European car, it was also made significantly cheaper by removing expensive things like independent rear suspension. It seemed to be what the market wanted, as, fresh from being declared Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year” for 2012, sales increased significantly, to around 117,00 a year. Still a fraction of those achieved by the Camry, Accord, Malibu and Fusion, but a worthwhile increase on previously. Ironically, now I read lots of complaints from Americans that they get a “cheap-ed out” model, bemoaning the fact that they cannot have what they believe is the vastly superior European and Rest of World model. This will give product planning some sleepless nights, no doubt as they contemplate the model’s future direction.
So, the American Passat, then, sharing much of the DNA and many of the components of the one the rest of the world is familiar with, but in its own enlarged and softened style. Open the door and look in the cabin, and you would certainly identify this as a Passat, as the cabin architecture is very like the last generation European model, even down to the angled inlay that goes across the full width of the car. Apart from this trim, in a sort of grey plastic, the rest of the interior was all black, and a bit sombre, something which endows a certain Teutonic feel to it, I guess. There are two large dials, for speed and revs, with smaller round gauges for fuel level and water temperature inset in their lower portions, under a single cowled binnacle, which look just like those you find in any Volkswagen. Although small compared to some cars, they are clearly marked and easy to read. There is a digital display area between the dials, with information presented on three levels, with the middle part configurable by pressing the button in the right hand column stalk end, again just as you do any many recent VW Group cars. The centre of the dash contains an analogue clock between the air vents, below which is the audio unit, which looks decidedly old-school by today’s standards, with no touch screen, and a single colour of display. There is an information line across the top, and the rest of it is simply there for the radio, which lacked XM Satellite function in this entry level spec car. It is operated by the traditional set of buttons and control knobs below the screen. Below this are the three rotary dials for the air conditioning. Twin column stalk, marked up just they are with other VW Group cars, are for wipers and indicators, and the cruise control is operated by a micro-switch on the top of the left hand stalk as well as a button in the end of the stalk, which is rather fiddly to operate. Lights function from a rotary dial on the dash to the left of the wheel. There are audio repeaters on the steering wheel boss. The wheel, in this version is plastic. Indeed, there is a lot of plastic in the cabin, and plenty of it is rather hard to the touch, though it all fits together nicely, and the design is uncluttered in appearance.
Unlike the previous test Passat, which was in SE spec, and quite well equipped, this was an entry level model, and that was obvious inside, not just from the plastic-moulded steering wheel, and the absence of features such as XM Satellite radio and a rear-view camera, but the cloth seats (that SE had leather) which had manual adjustment. There may well have been a lumbar adjuster on the side of the driver’s seat, but whatever had been there was gone, leaving a tear in the upholstery and evidence of a metal part in the seat backrest frame. Despite this, I was able to get comfortable, and with a wheel which had a height adjuster as well as in/out. the driving position was good.
Rear seat passengers should have nothing to complain about. as the benefit of this being a physically larger car than the other market’s Passat is that there is more space in the back. A lot of space, so even with the front seat set well back, there is a generous amount of legroom. With the front seat set well forward, to suit my driving position, this car will rival those of the class above, or even beat them for available space. There is ample headroom and the car is wide enough for three adults to sit comfortably across the seat. There is a drop down armrest, with the increasingly provision of two cupholders in its upper surface.
The boot is a good size, too, with width depth and length a plenty. The rear seat backrests fold forward to create even more length if required. Inside the cabin, there is a modest glovebox, a small cubby under the central armrest and an unlidded area in front of it, a recess in front of the gearlever, a cubby over the driver’s left knee which has a big lid but is quite small inside, and there are bins on all four doors. There are no map pockets on the back of the front seats in this model.
Although towards the end, the 5 cylinder 2.5 litre engine had its critics, it certainly gave the Passat some much needed character, and as well as the distinctive sound that you get from the odd number of cylinders, it endowed the car with a peppy performance. The characteristic noise may have gone, but the new 1.8 Turbo unit is not a bad substitute, as it also gives the car decent performance for the class, and as you put your foot down and the turbo kicks in, there is a pleasing sound of “woosh”. There’s a standard 6 speed automatic gearbox, which helped matters, making smooth gearchanges, and always seeming to be in the right ratio. The Passat had no trouble coping with the hills up to the north east of Phoenix, which bring lorries to a crawl as they labour up, with burst of acceleration available on tap when you spotted a gap in traffic and need to press on out of the way. Economy was impressive, I drove 160 miles, and put in 5.3 gallons at the end, which computes to 30.1 mpg US or 36.06 mpg Imperial. Not quite as parsimonious as the last Altima I drove, but a decent result for a day of climbing hills and lots of stopping and starting to take photos.
The US Passat is deliberately a lot softer than the rest of the world cars. Whether you approve of that will depend on personal taste. The steering is OK, it has some feel to it, so better than a Toyota, for sure, and the handling is OK, in a predictable, safe sort of way, though understeer is evident from fairly modest speeds on bends taken with only limited gusto. Endowed with high-ish profile 215/60 R16 wheels, the ride is on the soft side. Arizona’s roads are generally well surfaced, so tauter suspension here would not be a problem, but in the neighbouring State, where many of the roads are in poor condition, this may endow some benefits. The car did not feel wallow-y, though, so the softness was not overdone. There were no issues with the brakes, US Passats have a conventional pull-up handbrake lever fitted between the seats. VW was one of the first to adopt a cursed electronic handbrake in Europe, where many of the cars sold are manuals and it is a nuisance whereas here, with more than a hint of irony, in a market where the handbrake will barely be used as most of the cars are automatics, you get something which is actually usable! I was surprised to find that a problem with visibility, which amounted to a bad blind spot to the left of the driver, with cars alongside completely vanishing for a worrying distance. Other than this, even though there were no assistance features like a rear-view camera or parking sensors, positioning the Passat and manoeuvering it was not unduly difficult.
Until the suspension of sales of the TDi model, there were three different engines offered in the 2015 Passat. The 1.8 litre turbo engine powers the 1.8T S, 1.8T Limited Edition, 1.8T SE w/Sunroof and Navigation, 1.8T Sport, and 1.8T SEL Premium. The TDI models – TDI SE and TDI SEL Premium – have a turbocharged 2.0 TDi diesel engine and the top of the line 3.6 litre six cylinder unit was only available in the 3.6 SEL Premium model. The base Passat, as tested here, came with six speakers, an auxiliary jack, Bluetooth, and audio controls mounted on the steering wheel. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but some 1.8T S models may have a six-speed automatic transmission. Upgrade to the 1.8T Limited Edition and you get synthetic leather seating, push-button start, heated front seats, an eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Infotainment upgrades include a touch-screen display, satellite radio, a rearview camera, and eight speakers. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard. For the 1.8T SE w/Sunroof and Navigation, in addition to what comes with the Limited Edition trim, there is an upgraded driver display, sport seats, a six-CD in-dash changer, navigation, and a sunroof. The 1.8T Sport: has the six-speed automatic transmission as standard, along with a rear spoiler, aluminium pedals, and paddle shifters. Some Sport models were sold with the five-speed manual transmission. Top of the 1.8 T line was the 1.8T SEL Premium, which included leather-trimmed seats, seat memory for the driver, an eight-way power-adjustable front passenger seat, a Fender premium audio system, navigation, and remote start. Cheaper of the two TDi model was the TDI SE, the spec of which included not just the now infamous diesel engine with either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic transmission, but also synthetic leather upholstery, heated front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and phone controls, a touch-screen display, and a rearview camera. There were a number of cars sold with additional packages which could include a sunroof, navigation, push-button start, and fog lights. The TDI SEL Premium built off the TDI SE model, adding leather seats, rain-sensing wipers, navigation, a Fender premium audio system, wood grain trim, and an eight-way power-adjustable front passenger seat. At the very top of the range was the 3.6 SEL Premium, which had all the standard equipment from the 1.8T SE model along with navigation, a Fender premium audio system, partial leather-seating surfaces, push-button start, an iPod cable, and wood grain trim. VW made notable upgrades to the trim and spec for 2016, so an entry level model in 2016 year guise will not seem quite so stripped out, but in 2015 guise, it did feel rather lacking features you would expect to be standard.
Was this the “best car in the class”? Honestly, I don’t think so. There’s nothing really wrong with it, apart from the blind spot, and the very meagre trim levels, which you could alleviate by upgrading to an SE or above, but standards in this class are very high now, with most of the latest entrants leap-frogging the competition. I’ve driven most of them, with the exception of the latest Honda Accord, 2017 model Chevrolet Malibu and the recently revised Kia Optima, and whereas 4 years ago, I would have walked to the end of the line to pick the VW, I don’t think I would do so right now. The latest Sonata is good, and that probably means that the closely related Optima will be, and the Fusion – with the right engine – impresses, as does Mazda’s 6. I would not actively try to change out of a Passat, and the Dieselgate protesters are just pursuing their own money-grabbing agenda by black-listing VW, as it’s not a bad car, but just no longer the best.