First Drive: 2016 Volkswagen Passat [Review]

The 2016 Passat is here with a new look and some new tech.

Volkswagen's Passat has been refreshed for the 2016 model year, bringing with it segment-matching tech and some packaging overhauls along with updated styling. Is this enough for it to stand out in a crowded midsize segment? VW invited us to Stowe, Vermont to find out.

Multiple personalitiesWhen the enthusiast thinks of Volkswagen, it's usually in the context of an alternative—a German-enough take on the segment in question that is just different enough to be satisfying on spec alone. After all, 15 percent of Germany's population is in some way involved in the automotive industry. It's kind of what they do.

In an increasingly global economy, is that enough to stand out? The Passat is an ostensibly German car that is built in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Its equivalent in Germany is not. In fact, it's an almost entirely different car, built exclusively in Lower Saxony (which is not, for those of you who slept through geography, on an American continent).

What's worse is that the Passat's remaining key differentiator is currently in limbo. For the first time in several years, no TDI clean diesel engine is available, leaving the midsizer with just two engines: the 1.8L, 170-horsepower turbo-four and a 280-horsepower V6—the latter's unique "VR” configuration no longer a noteworthy factoid if VW's marketing department is to be taken at its word.

Two conventional engines mated to relatively conventional six-speed automatics (the VR6's dual clutch being less of an outlier these days) packaged into a conventional five-seat, four-door, silver box: This is the new normal for Volkswagen, at least until the TDI fiasco is resolved. With the diesel out of the picture, at least for the immediate future, Volkswagen must hang its hat on the fact that the Passat is the only midsizer with a standard turbocharged engine. It's not the most powerful standard engine or the most efficient or the smallest or the biggest, but it is the most turbocharged.

New suitIf you're familiar with the looks of the 2015 Passat, you'll feel right at home with the refresh. In the front, you'll find a new lower bumper with sculpted, protruding fog lamp surrounds. The hood is similarly more muscular, with subtle "power bulge” ridges adding character and framing the now-more-upright VW logo. Squint, and you'll note that the grille now has four horizontal chrome bars rather than three, and there's a fifth in the lower grille just for good measure.

In the rear, the hexagonal license plate recess is gone and the rear reflector markers have been moved to their own recesses along the base of the trunk line.

Elsewhere, the new Passat looks essentially the same. However, for those who want a little more visual flair, the R-Line appearance package is now available and that nets you unique several unique visual cues, including 19" wheels, a front bumper, grille insert, rear bumper and side sills. Also for the first time, LED lighting is available for an additional cost across the top of the range.

And a new hangerWe were hard-pressed to spot the interior differences between the 2015 and 2016 Passats at first glance, but if you know what you're looking for, there are some key upgrades. First-off, 2016 models come standard with VW's new MIB II infotainment system, which includes USB connectivity for the first time—no more proprietary iPhone cables here.

There are visual differences to be found outside of the entertainment features, too. The center stack has been redesigned slightly around the new screen, and a new horizontal trim split has been added across the dash, à la BMW and Mazda.

The packaging has been shuffled around a bit as well. Base models (sorry, Volkswagen, you do have base models) come with what Volkswagen claims is roughly $1,300 worth of additional standard equipment, but at the same MSRP (now that the auto is standard). So if this stuff sounds appealing, you get more of it for your money. Cool? Cool.

The biggest news here is that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are both available on all but the most basic of the base Passats, and we were able to test and verify both (iPhone 6 and HTC One M8) in practice despite sketchy reception on the rural roads of northern New England.

On the roadPart of what differentiated Volkswagen in the past was Germany's penchant for building cars that tended to be worthwhile to drive. And while it's still the case that the Passat will not leave the enthusiast buyer completely in the cold, the reality of the situation is that the differences between manufacturers in this regard have shrunk so drastically over the years that it's hard to build a case on handling and responsiveness alone. Even cars like the Mazda6—widely regarded as the segment's dynamic top dog—don't enjoy an entirely decisive advantage.

That's bad news for Volkswagen, as the Passat's dynamics, while fundamentally sound, are not particularly noteworthy. The ride is relatively soft, the tires not particularly responsive on-center. These combine for a not-inconsiderable amount of slack in the steering that must be taken up before the Passat takes a set into a curve. It's entirely competent, but not much of a stand-out in that regard. Without driving them immediately back-to-back, we'd struggle to point out the Passat's dynamic advantages over a similarly-optioned Sonata or Accord, and that's assuming there are any to be found. We're skeptical.

We spent all of our time behind the wheel of 1.8L "TSI” models. Volkswagen only brought two VR6-equipped examples out of some 18 that were available for evaluation. They were in high demand throughout the day and we decided that, rather than trying to fight our way to the front of the line, we'd simply spend our time with the cars people are going to buy.

It's a sad reality, but in terms of sales numbers, the VR6 was actually over-represented in this sample. In the real world, take rate on the 3.6L is below 10% according to Volkswagen's product planners. Will the absence of diesel bump that up a few ticks? Only time will tell. It could be quite a while before TDI models reappear on Volkswagen dealer lots, and they have to sell something in the meantime.

The good news is that the 1.8L is a solid carry-over, and while the absence of diesel may be bad news for dealers, it's only a piece of the larger puzzle.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe 2016 Passat is a competent, class-competitive offering that has finally caught up to the class when it comes to technology.

2016 Volkswagen Passat, from $22,440.

As tested: SE, $26,280 SEL Premium: $34,270

Photos by Byron Hurd.

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