Editor's note: This review was written in January 2016 about the 2016 Passat, but little of substance has changed for this year. To see what's new for 2017 click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years. To read the full review of the 2016 Passat, click here.
When it was introduced, the current-generation Volkswagen Passat sedan won Cars.com's top award, the Best of 2012. The midsize-priced, full-size sedan aged well, and the 2015 took third place against nine competitors — most of which had been redesigned more recently — in our $27,000 Midsize Sedan Challenge. For 2016, Volkswagen's product planners left well enough alone and improved only what was necessary. Mostly.
Though mechanical changes are few, VW dropped the manual transmission this year, leaving conventional and dual-clutch six-speed automatics for the four- and six-cylinder engines, respectively. The 2012-2015 Passat TDI got caught up in the diesel emissions cheating scandal. For now, the 2016 TDI version is on hold because VW withdrew its 2016 diesel models from consideration for EPA certification, pending legitimately clean operation. No word on timing for that model's release.
Trim levels have changed and now include the 1.8T four-cylinder in S, SE, SE with Technology, SEL and SEL Premium versions. A new 1.8T R-Line slots between the S and SE in price. The six-cylinder comes only as the V6 SEL Premium. I drove three versions.
Exterior & Styling
One common complaint about the 2012-2015 Passat was that its styling was modest, even boring, and VW has taken steps to address that with an updated nose and tail for 2016. The front fenders are more shapely, and the hood is creased and domed. The VW badge no longer creeps up into a cutout in the hood; a thick header piece separates the leading edge of the hood from the headlights, badge and grille. The grille now has four horizontal bars in place of three. The headlight clusters are slimmer, and the front bumper is more intricately sculpted. Creases are sharper, and all the chrome from higher 2015 trims now appears across the 2016 lineup, including the doors and window surrounds. LED headlights are available on all trims.
The rear enjoys a similar treatment, including a reworked trunk lid, taillights and bumper. Overall, the Passat's styling changes are an improvement, but it will probably go widely unrecognized as a new car. The version most likely to be noticed is the affordable new R-Line, which is the most ... exaggerated, with more pronounced rocker panels, black accents on the front and rear bumpers, and 19-inch wheels.
How It Drives
With the exception of discontinuing the manual transmission, VW wisely didn't mess with the gasoline powertrains or the ride and handling for 2016, though fuel costs for both engines have fallen.
Even with a turbocharger, the base 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine might seem small for a car of this size, but its horsepower and especially its torque output compare to competitors, and the VW is admirably lightweight. Combined with a responsive six-speed automatic transmission, the engine gives plenty of off-the-line power, and passing power is also on tap at a moment's notice. Drivers who want a sportier experience can easily activate Sport mode by sliding the gear selector past Drive to the S position. It holds onto lower gears farther up the rpm range, but the difference isn't dramatic, mainly because Drive mode is nice and responsive to begin with — not the case in some cars as automakers struggle for higher mileage.
The four-cylinder 2016 Passat boasts EPA-estimated mileage increases of 2 mpg on the highway and 1 mpg combined for 2016, resulting in a 25/38/29 mpg city/highway/combined rating. For people who prefer the feel of a conventional six-speed over a continuously variable or nine-speed automatic transmission (both of which are proliferating), it might be worth the consequence: a slight mileage sacrifice. However, another midsize sedan with a conventional six-speed automatic, the 2016 Mazda6, is top-rated at 32 mpg combined.
With its base powertrain, the newly redesigned 2016 Chevrolet Malibu also has a six-speed and gets 31 mpg — matching base versions of the Nissan Altima and Honda Accord, which use CVTs. You can get even higher mileage in some models by paying extra, as in the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima (32 mpg combined in Eco versions).
VW says the mileage improvements result from underbody aerodynamic changes, an air conditioning compressor that can be decoupled from the engine, and an alternator change that cuts wasteful drag by 85 percent. These steps shouldn't alter the driving experience, and in my experience they didn't seem to.
The Passat's six-cylinder's rating is unchanged at 20/28/23 mpg, but it now accepts regular rather than premium gas, itself an improvement that puts it on par with the class. As upgrade engines go, however, the Passat six-cylinder's combined mileage is still 2 to 3 mpg lower than many competitors. I think it's a sacrifice you need not make. Yes, the six is more powerful and sounds great, and it works well with its dedicated six-speed dual-clutch automatic, but the mighty turbo-four is enough for the vast majority of buyers.
Regardless of engine, the Passat has a sporty feel due to its precise steering and firm suspension. Because it's a well-executed firm suspension, I enjoy it, but I can see how a shopper might find it too firm, so pay attention if you test the car. Bear in mind that larger wheels (and thus shorter tire sidewalls) typically firm up the ride further. The standard 16-inch wheels, previously steel, are now aluminum alloys. The lineup also offers 17-, 18- and 19-inch wheels. The "sporty" R-Line is strictly an appearance treatment; the mechanicals are the same. If I were looking for an overtly sporty sedan with styling to match, I'd opt for the Mazda6.
The Passat's lack of optional all-wheel drive is notable, though common in this class. For those who require all-wheel rather than front-wheel drive, the Legacy has it standard, and it's optional on the Ford Fusion and Chrysler 200.
Along with the outside, the 2016 Passat's interior gets a more liberal sprinkling of chrome and a "redesigned" dashboard that's little more than the old one plus a textured chrome trim strip across its expanse, separating the upper section from the lower one. The steering wheel is updated with piano-black spokes and chrome — small steps that make a better overall impression.
In the past we criticized the low-resolution, monochrome display between the gauges on all but the SEL trim level, but apparently our protestations haven't registered; it's still there on most trims. The SEL Premium's display has 21st-century pixel sizes and adds color, but still uses it too sparingly.
By and large, the Passat's interior quality is strong in the lower trim levels, where some competitors skimp. It's when you get below knee level that the Passat's materials get a bit hard and plasticky, and that's not always the case anymore in this class. The S trim level has cloth seats, the R-Line can have cloth or V-Tex leatherette (imitation leather), which the SE has standard, and the SEL adds real leather. How convincing the leatherette is seems to depend both on the beholder and the interior color. The black upholstery didn't impress our editors, but I thought the beige stuff looked more authentic.
Two of my main complaints about previous Passats have not been remedied: The driver's seat needs a tilt adjustment for the bottom cushion and the steering wheel doesn't tilt down low enough. These characteristics bothered me just as much now as they have in the past. The Passat is so roomy these tweaks would put it over the top. The backseat is huge and high enough off the floor that your knees aren't raised as they are in so many other cars, and heated rear seats are now included in many trims, starting with the SE with Technology. This is truly one of the best backseats in the class.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The Passat was way behind in connectivity and entertainment technology, and for 2016 VW really stepped it up with the release of in-dash MIB II, the next-generation Modulare Infotainment Baukasten (that's German for modular infotainment platform). There's now a device-agnostic USB port — replacing the long-standing Apple-only connector — accompanying the standard Bluetooth audio streaming and cellphone connectivity. The color touch-screens have faster processors for quicker response, starting with a 5-inch screen in the S and a 6.3-inch in the SE and higher.
For those who select the onboard navigation option, which comes in the SE with Technology and higher trim levels, you can now input a destination via a Google-style field: Rather than go back and forth between city, street and address fields, you just type in the whole address for locations within 100 miles. The system also learns frequent destinations and can auto-complete entries — a touch of smartphone functionality.
The 6.3-inch touch-screen recognizes when your hand gets close to it and presents more onscreen buttons (something we saw first on the Cadillac User Experience screen). What this does is allow the map to make full use of the screen when you're not poking at it. Granted, 6.3 inches isn't huge, but once you take into account the cluttered displays some cars' larger screens have, the size comparison is much closer.
The Passat now allows two phones to be connected via Bluetooth at the same time, in case you carry a personal and a work phone, for example. The hands-free system will work for an incoming call from either device.
Most important for 2016, the Passat offers Apple CarPlay, Google's Android Auto and a third, European-centric system called MirrorLink that works with a limited number of phone models from Samsung, Sony, HTC and Fujitsu. To clarify things, or perhaps to complicate them, the Volkswagen system that enables these third-party features is called Car-Net App-Connect. CarPlay and Auto don't require an in-dash system that already has "native" navigation, which would essentially charge you twice for navigation functionality. (The Sonata is a competitor that does this.) The Passat SE without navigation supports the smartphone interfaces, so you get onscreen navigation by connecting your phone via a USB cable. Though the base Passat S also has a touch-screen, its 5-inch size doesn't meet the minimum size and resolution standards for CarPlay, so it and the other two smartphone interfaces aren't offered on this trim level.
With CarPlay and Auto, it's easy to see how automakers could dump embedded navigation altogether. Though Apple Maps remain a turnoff for many iPhone users, both it and Google Maps on the Android Auto system worked quite well for me. On the downside, smartphone-app-based mapping doesn't do so great when you don't have a cellular signal, as I was reminded near the Canadian border. In metropolitan areas, that's never been a problem for me. Google Maps now offers to download and store more map data on the devices of willing users — a way of emulating comprehensive in-dash navigation maps — which could help in this regard if you can spare the storage space on your phone.
Though subscriptions are required for SiriusXM satellite radio and Travel Link (sports scores, weather, news, etc.) after a three-month trial, the VW navigation option includes four free years of real-time traffic from SiriusXM Traffic, which gives it some of the immediacy of smartphone apps.
Note that the SEL trim adds Fender premium audio, which isn't an option on lower trims. Pity; it's a premium system that would be worth paying extra for, if priced right.
Volkswagen modified the 2016 Passat's front-end structure, which has improved its score in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's small-overlap front crash test from acceptable to good (from a possible good, acceptable, marginal or poor). The new forward collision warning option rated well enough to earn the Passat IIHS' highest designation, Top Safety Pick Plus. As such, it joins 10 other models in the institute's Midsize Moderately Priced Cars class. Even the lower-rated cars in this class are strong performers.
Advanced safety options used to be a glaring Passat omission, but they're here for 2016. When I first read of the Passat's standard Post-Collision Braking System, I thought I was being had, but it turns out the system does indeed lock the brakes after a collision. Initial crashes are often followed by secondary ones, and that's what the feature attempts to prevent or lessen. A significant sensor reading, not only a full airbag deployment, will activate the braking.
Fortunately, the 2016 Passat offers precollision braking, too (standard on SE models and up), in the form of forward collision warning with automated braking. Unlike most vehicles, the Passat SE with Technology and higher trims will also brake when in Reverse if the driver doesn't heed the warning from the rear cross-traffic alert system. The Technology trim also adds blind spot monitoring.
A backup camera is now standard on all Passats, and the car's visibility to the rear is also better than normal thanks to a low trunk line.
Only if you step up to the SEL Premium will you get lane departure warning and prevention. I found the system's steering action nice and subtle, and you can choose to get a vibration warning through the steering wheel rather than automatic steering. This trim also adds an enhanced blind spot warning system, called Active Blind Spot Monitor, that will resist if you signal and attempt to steer into an adjacent car, rather than just issuing a warning. (I wasn't able to test this aspect due to a preponderance of two-lane roads.)
Sadly, the aggressiveness of the various safety systems isn't as adjustable as it is on some cars — apart from the forward collision warning and adaptive cruise control, which allow you to select the following distance. The cruise works only down to 12 mph before driver intervention is demanded, unfortunately. Some systems go to a stop.
If any of these aids annoy you, deactivating them requires many steps using steering-wheel buttons and the display between the gauges. Hard buttons on the dashboard would be much better.
See all the Passat's safety features listed here.
Cargo & Storage
The Passat's trunk volume of 15.9 cubic feet is on the larger side for this class, though the differences aren't dramatic. The Malibu and Accord measure practically the same and the Sonata has 16.3 cubic feet (see these models compared). The Mazda6's trunk is slightly smaller, at 14.8 cubic feet. The Passat's trunk space and opening indeed seem large, but the trunk lid hinges intrude somewhat into the cargo area. A 60/40-split folding backseat is standard, and the SEL adds a center pass-through.
Cabin storage is mixed. The glove compartment is quite large, but the door pockets are only so-so and the compartment under the center armrest is small for a car of this size. The front cupholders have spring-tensioned fingers to hold cups in place, which seems a higher-quality approach than the rubber blisters many cars' cupholders have. It's the little things.
Value in Its Class
The 2016 Passat starts at $23,260 including destination. That's roughly the same as the base 2015 with an automatic transmission, but with added features. Alloy wheels and a backup camera, previously options, are now standard. Volkswagen long got away with premium prices, but that's not the case anymore. Since its 2012 redesign and the start of domestic production in Chattanooga, Tenn., the Passat has been competitively priced. It now starts just a few hundred bucks more than the Accord, at least on the sticker.
The diesel scandal has definitely affected VW's image and its sales, and though there are few cash-back incentives as I write this, it would be wise to keep an eye on offers in your area here. Seek out some deals as VW and its outlets struggle their way out of the crisis.