The verdict: SUVs are hotter than goat yoga, but what’s trending the other way are sedans, and although the 2018 Volkswagen Passat doesn’t exactly excite, its consistent pleasantness won me over.
Versus the competiton: We pitted the Passat against eight competitors in our 2016 Midsize Sedan Challenge, which it won; it’s still strong two years later, but newer sedans trump it in fuel economy.
After a redesign for 2016, the Volkswagen Passat saw minor changes for 2017, and for 2018 it gets a new base engine and a sporty Passat GT trim level.
The Passat straddles sedan classes, competing against large cars like the Toyota Avalon and Chevrolet Impala as well as mid-size ones like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
We tested a Passat 2.0T SEL Premium, the highest trim level Volkswagen that can be had with the new base four-cylinder.
Pep Then Plod
The base engine is new this year, replacing a long-standing turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder rated at 170 horsepower. The new 174-hp, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder is perky with plenty of pounds feet of torque around town. It’s zippy from a stop, and the six-speed automatic transmission quickly snaps off, quick-shifting for peppy responsiveness at low speeds. The Volkswagen Passat’s powertrain loses a little luster on the highway, however. It’s sometimes slow to respond at higher speeds, holding high gears a beat too long. Passing and merging maneuvers often require a stomp on the gas pedal and some patience.
The Volkswagen engine sounds gruff both at idle and on the highway. It’s not loud, it just has a rough, unrefined tone. Otherwise, the Passat is relatively quiet in terms of road and wind noise.
The Volkswagen Passat’s four-cylinder gets an EPA-estimated 25/36/29 mpg city/highway/combined. That’s good compared with the four-cylinder version of the full-size Chevrolet Impala (22/30/25), but it trails mid-sizers like the Honda Accord (30/38/33) and Toyota Camry (29/41/34). A 3.6-liter V-6 is also available for the Passat, but it makes a sizeable mileage sacrifice; rated 19/28/22 mpg, it isn’t competitive with most V-6 rivals. In the past, we enjoyed the V-6 but deemed its 280 hp unnecessary for most tastes.
Overall, the new Volkswagen Passat’s road manners are predictable for a mid-size to large sedan. Its suspension is on the firm side, but I like it, and bumps are adequately damped. In terms of handling, it takes corners with confidence and composure and feels a smidge more athletic than other vehicles this size.
Handsome Cabin, Sensible Controls
This Volkswagen’s interior has a clean, unfussy design, and — like adding a couple of squirts of Sriracha to an uninspiring dish — the two-tone color combo goes a long way toward adding spice to this otherwise bland cabin. The chrome strips add interest, too, but the fake wood trim likely won’t fool anyone. It’s still handsome, though, and more convincing than others I’ve seen. Overall, most materials — like the leather-wrapped seats that are standard in the SEL Premium — feel high-quality and are sufficiently padded, but the knee-area panels could use more cushiness.
Matching the streamlined theme of the cabin is the Volkswagen Passat’s optional straightforward multimedia system. Although it seems a little small in the expansive dash, the 6.3-inch touchscreen is responsive, and the system is easy to use overall. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard with this system, providing onscreen navigation, and integration is seamless. This system is standard on all models except the base trim, which gets a smaller 5-inch screen and isn’t smartphone compatible.
One tiny Volkswagen gripe: Although I appreciate the tuning and volume knobs flanking the screen, using the tuning knob requires one too many steps. Just turning it doesn’t change the station; you have to push it after you’ve made your selection, which seems unnecessary.
In back of the Volkswagen Passat, there’s plenty of headroom and legroom for two adults on comfortable, lightly bolstered seats, but the middle spot isn’t really an option. It’s narrow, and legroom is crowded by a large center floor hump. As detailed in our Car Seat Check, two child-safety seats fit with ease thanks to easy-access lower Latch anchors and ample room.
Compared with full-size four-door sedans, the Passat comes in a smidge behind the Impala and the Avalon in terms of rear legroom, but it matches them for rear headroom. Against the mid-sizers, it bests the Camry in rear legroom but falls behind the Accord.
It’s a similar story for cargo room, where the Passat’s trunk is a smidge smaller than the full-size sedan competition. Against the mid-sizers, it offers a bit less room than the Accord but more than the Camry.
The rear seat goes down in a 60/40 split via trunk-area levers for more storage space, and there’s also a handy center pass-through for carrying long items.
The 2018 Volkswagen Passat earned top scores in most of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s crash tests, but its marginal score in the new passenger-side small overlap front test prevented it from earning the agency’s top award.
In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration testing, the Passat earned a five-star overall rating, the agency’s highest.
A backup camera is standard on all models, as is an automatic post-collision braking system, which applies the brakes when a collision is detected by the airbag sensors, helping reduce the chance of a secondary collision. Volkswagen’s Intelligent Crash Response System is also standard; it shuts off the fuel pump, unlocks the doors and switches on the hazard lights if the car is involved in certain types of collisions.
For 2018, optional safety features are newly and affordably available on the VW base model: The Driver’s Assistance Package ($495) bundles forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, as well as blind spot warning and rear traffic alert systems — all of which are standard on R-Line and higher trims. Newly standard on mid-level R-Line models is adaptive cruise control. A lane departure warning system and automatic parking feature are standard on the top Volkswagen Passat SEL Premium trim.
The 2018 Volkswagen Passat base price starts at $23,845 — much less than large sedan competitors like the Chevrolet Impala ($28,770) and Toyota Avalon (which starts high, at $34,395, though its base engine is a V-6). It even undercuts mid-size sedan competitors by a few hundred dollars; the 2018 Honda Accord starts at $24,460 and the 2018 Toyota Camry is $24,390; all prices include destination charges. VW also has the longest warranty of those brands: six years or 72,000 miles for bumper-to-bumper and powertrain, plus three years or 36,000 miles of roadside assistance.
What’s more, the Passat offers a lot of value even when safety options are added. Base models are often skimpy on safety features, and though many aren’t standard on the base Passat, they’re available for an affordable price.
The Passat doesn’t exactly deliver refinement or excitement — and it won’t win you any trendiness points — but it’s roomy, comfortable to drive and the Volkswagen Passat is a bargain.
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