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2017 Volkswagen Passat Test Drive Review
With a bit of refinement and some new standard features, VW offers its take on the classic midsize American sedan.
As Volkswagen continues to simplify trim levels throughout its model range, the Passat loses the SEL trim for 2017, with the SEL Premium remaining. The resulting content shuffle means every Passat trim above the base S now enjoys standard blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alerts as well as VW App Connect for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Additionally, every Passat now gets a standard forward-collision warning system with autonomous braking.
Look and Feel
The time of Volkswagen presenting a more economical way to experience European motoring has passed. Today’s Passat is a uniquely American offering, with a stretched wheelbase and widened stance that add up to class-leading backseat legroom and an expansive 102 cubic feet of interior space. But now seven years into its current generation, the aging Passat has been criticized for lackluster styling and unimaginative handling. A new GT trim is tasked with fixing that perception in 2018, but for now Passat lovers will have to be satisfied with some extra standard content.
The Passat starts with the base S, which offers 16-inch alloys, dual-zone auto climate control, auto headlights, a 5-inch touchscreen with reversing camera, cruise control, and the forward-collision warning system with auto braking. At $22,440, that’s a nice list of features. But if you want things like the previously mentioned blind-spot monitoring or VW App Connect for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, you’ll have to move up to the R-Line trim.
At $23,975 you’ll get the features mentioned above plus unique 19-inch alloys and “R-Line” bumpers front and rear, heated front seats with power for the driver, pleather, a larger 6.3-inch touchscreen with HD and satellite radio and heated side mirrors. That's a lot of extra content for a little jump in price, but the 19-inch wheels give me pause, as they'll do the ride no favors.
To avoid this, you can jump up to the SE for another $1500, which utilizes more reasonable 17-inch alloys and adds favorite features like keyless entry and ignition with push-button start, a sunroof, adaptive cruise, and rear air vents for backseat passengers. That's another big list of features for not a lot of extra money, though I do miss the R-Line styling here. To flesh out the features, a Technology Package will add LEDs front and rear with fogs, adaptive cruise, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, parking sensors front and rear, remote start, heated rear seats, auto wipers, an upgraded infotainment system with 8 speakers and navigation, hands-free trunk sensor, and 18-inch wheels. Toss a 3.6-liter V6 into the picture and you’ll gain adaptive cruise and the Park Distance Control system to find yourself just shy of 30 grand.
The SEL Premium retains the 1.8-liter engine but drops the adaptive cruise to instead add power for the front passenger seat and a driver memory system, real leather upholstery, power-folding mirrors, a Fender stereo, and a lane-departure warning system for $30,995. If you want V6 power with your SEL Premium, it’ll be another 3 grand.
I spent a week with the SE, powered by the 1.8-liter engine. With its $25,495 MSRP, no options checked, and an $820 destination charge, its final walk-away price landed at $26,315.
I’ve been extremely pleased with the new turbo 4-cylinders from Volkswagen. While a lot of manufacturers hide the power high in the rev range with their little turbocharged mills in order to disingenuously inflate their mileage numbers, VW has put out a series of engines that are a joy to drive. There’s torque available nearly immediately off idle, and power builds in a very predictable, linear fashion with none of the turbo lag that so often comes with these setups.
Because of this, the numbers can look bad on paper. The 1.8’s 23 mpg city and 34 highway with 27 combined isn’t going to win any awards in this segment, but it also delivers usable, real-world power. Many of the competition’s engines in this segment theoretically do better with regard to efficiency, but in real-world driving the numbers are hard to achieve. Here, the Passat lives up to its advertised performance, and I had no trouble achieving the 27 mpg combined rating, despite my heavy foot during the Bay Area’s ubiquitous traffic and hill climbing. I even kept the transmission in its Sport setting most of the time.
Beyond efficiency, the 1.8’s 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque are fun to whip around, pushing the Passat to 60 mph in a quick-for-the-segment 7.7 seconds. Where you might feel a little cheated is in passing power. Accelerating from 50-70 mph, the Passat takes longer than most of its competitors. Admittedly, this is something I noticed only when looking up the specs. I didn’t feel as though it were underpowered once during my week of driving, but numbers don’t lie, and it’s something you should consider.
And if you want more power, the 3.6-liter V6’s 280 hp and 258 lb-ft should take care of that in short order, propelling the Passat to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds but demanding a significant penalty in price and at the pump. With 20 mpg city and 28 highway for a combined rating of 23, you’ll find yourself paying between 30 and 35 grand for a car that’s delivering 20th-century fuel economy. Not that it wouldn’t be exciting. The 3.6 certainly transforms the Passat with all that power, though the GT version coming next year should prove doubly impressive. Additionally, the 3.6 comes with the DSG dual-clutch automatic, which can prove inelegant during low-speed gear changes for drivers inexperienced with a dual-clutch transmission. Given the ample power, much-improved efficiency, and significantly lower price of the 1.8-liter engine, my suggestion is to stay away from the 3.6.
Handling is steady, balanced, and stately. To be clear, this is not a sports car. It handles bumps and corners with ease and grace, but don’t come into this expecting to be wowed by the precision of German engineering in the suspension. It does the job well, but this is no sport sedan.
Form and Function
It’s hard to beat class-leading performance, even if it’s just by a few inches. VW knew this when it reworked the Passat for our shores, and the result is an interior that should be experienced even if the Passat isn’t on your shopping list. Comfortable, supportive seats with expansive room above and below mean that even at 6 foot 4, I had to move the driver’s seat forward quite a bit to find the right spot, and could still get into the back seat even with the driver’s seat moved all the way aft. Similarly, 15.9 cubic feet of space in the trunk puts the Passat near class-leading territory, with a low deck height and a large opening for easy loading.
The overall design of the interior gives off a classy and classic vibe that has come to be interpreted as boring in a design environment that too often equates “more” with “better.” Simple, logical, attractive layouts with quality materials and construction don’t go out of style, however, and the Passat delivers all of this in spades. That said, with such a large interior I do wish the rear air vents were standard across the lineup. I can’t imagine producing two separate consoles on the assembly line saves more money than just making every Passat equal.
The inclusion of a standard forward-collision warning system with auto braking for 2017 really ups the technology ante for the Passat. With a 5-inch touchscreen with reversing camera, auto headlights, and dual-zone auto climate controls already included, this positions the Passat very favorably for its starting price. But jumping beyond the S trim to get blind-spot monitoring and VW App Connect is what seals the deal for 2017. These were notable missing previously, and their inclusion here was long overdue. Moreso, the SE fitted with the Technology Package gets you nearly every bit of tech you could want without having to go very far up the trim ladder. That’s important, and a trend I hope continues.
I predict the most frequent complaint will be with the infotainment system and specifically the screen. The base 5-inch touchscreen is one of the smallest on the market right now, in any segment, and simply looks out of place in 2017. The 6.3-inch upgrade isn’t much better, either. Expect this to be one of the big improvements for the next-generation Passat.
For a midsize sedan, the important factors are space, ride, and, of course, safety. The Passat delivers on all three fronts, winning a 5-star safety rating from the government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), with only the front-impact protection test getting less than perfect with a 4-star rating. Independent tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found the Passat earning top marks in all categories.
Where I’d like to see an improvement is in braking. Testing with the 1.8-liter Passat saw braking from 60 mph happen in just over 120 feet, which is average at best. Go with the heavier 3.6-liter engine, and it’ll take a full 130 feet—worse than most of the competition and another reason to stick with the 1.8. Regardless, I’d like to see better numbers from the 1.8 as well, given the Passat weighs only a little over 3000 pounds.
If you’re not looking for a sport sedan or the flashiest example in the segment, I feel the Passat offers the best value for your dollar among the competition. Its classy styling, considered boring by some, will continue to look good long after today’s trendiest examples have started to feel dated. But with 2018 likely being the last year for the current-generation Passat, it might be smart to hold off for a bit to see what 2019 may bring.
Financing is attractive currently, with dozens of special rates for all trims through the end of October, and there’s a $500 student bonus offered through the end of the year. At any rate, VW has just announced it’s extending its warranty to 6 years and 72,000 miles for every 2018 model other than the e-Golf, another reason to perhaps wait until next year to do your shopping.
A CarGurus contributor since 2008, Michael started his career writing about cars with the SCCA - winning awards during his time as editor of Top End magazine. Since then, his journalistic travels have taken him from NY to Boston to CA, completing a cross-country tour on a restored vintage Suzuki. While his preference is for fine German automobiles - and the extra leg room they so often afford - his first automobile memories center around impromptu Mustang vs. Corvette races down the local highway, in the backseat of his father's latest acquisition.
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