In Europe, they make fun of the Volkswagen Passat Americans drive. Their suspension and materials are superior, they argue.
Relish that superiority, Europe.
That doesn’t change the fact the ‘Merican Passat remains one of the best all-around midsize family sedans in ‘Merica.
I spent a week with a 2017 VW Passat and pretty much fell in love with its practicality and handsome good looks — but mostly its practicality.
Some people have criticized this generation of the Passat for being too understated. It takes on Volkswagen’s corporate low-and-wide styling, so the grille and headlights aren’t as attention-grabbing as they used to be in previous generations. I would argue they’re more attractive because they look like they’ll age well. Time will be the ultimate judge of that.
But I don’t need time to judge the 2017 Passat on how well it handles hauling kids and groceries. That’s the primary objective for most of the midsize sedan segment in America. The Volkswagen Passat excels at it.
There’s an enormity of interior space here. Front legroom and headroom are 42.4 and 38 inches, respectively, while rear passengers get 39.1 and 38 inches. Thirty-nine inches of rear legroom: an impressive measurement. Consider the Nissan Altima clocks in with three fewer inches of rear legroom than the Passat, while Honda Accord (38.5 inches), Mazda6 (38.7 inches), Subaru Legacy (38.1 inches), Chevrolet Malibu (38.1 inches), and Ford Fusion (38.3 inches) fall short. Midsize sedans are truly a game of inches — or fractions of an inch — at this point.
Where Volkswagen does better than others is in the packaging of that interior space. There’s no crazy interior trickery going on. The rear bench seat is wide and flat, offering a not-too-low perch upon which an adult could comfortably ride for long distances behind another adult. The roofline doesn’t sweep downward at the rear to invoke thoughts of sportiness, so loading kids into car seats is easy and adults don’t bump their heads getting in and out. For those riding in the front bucket seats, the dashboard is as unobtrusive as the door cards. There’s a lot of space here, and Volkswagen does its best to utilize every inch possible.
During my week driving the VW, some people said they found the interior design boring to look at. I asked them: Are you interested in driving the car, or looking at the dashboard? I found the design simplicity lent itself to ease of operation. No confusing button layouts (here’s looking at you, Ford), no distracting trim. The Passat’s game is simple, logical design. Germany, thy name is pragmatism.
Here is where I mention the Passat’s pragmatically enormous trunk, by the way. The trunk offered 15.9 cubic feet of space for hauling whatever I wanted, whether it was a week’s worth of groceries or my youngest son’s stroller and stupid-large diaper bag — or all three of those, at the same time.
Practicality is all well and good, but without a good driving experience, many men — myself included — won’t care about the car. Good thing the Volkswagen Passat is so pleasing to drive.
Under the hood of my tester was a 170-horsepower, 184 lb-ft turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels through a six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission. Gone from the Passat lineup are manual and DSG transmission options. I mourn the passing of the manual transmission. The DSG I’m less emotional about.
The automatic did a great job reading my throttle usage and predicting my needs. As denoted by the Tiptronic brand name, there was a manual gate to the right of “D” in the shift pattern. I never felt the urge to use it. The little 110-cubic inch turbocharged engine gets a pat on the back for having a fat torque curve that peaks starting at just 1,500 RPM, making it easy for the car to climb hills and execute drama-free passing without cycling through several gears.
Steering was electrically assisted and a bit numb, as most electrically assisted steering systems tend to be. The Passat’s handling, however, didn’t leave me wanting more. Almost nobody buys a front-wheel drive midsize sedan to take to track days or to impress the guy in the sports coupe at the stoplight. That said, the Passat has a solid chassis that absorbed bumpy Tennessee backcountry roads without undue jarring of teeth for those in the cabin, but it also maintained a fun-to-drive nature in the curvy stuff. Unlike some in its class, driving the Passat on twisty two-lane actually can be fun. It’s no mere interstate queen — though it will certainly gobble up miles in that setting if you want it to.
My 2017 Volkswagen Passat tester was an SEL trim that featured VW’s top-end infotainment system. It included a touchscreen, a 400-watt Fender Premium Audio system, satellite radio and navigation, and Android Auto.
Pairing a smartphone to the head unit was easy as pie. Once initialized, Android Auto proved super-simple to load. All I had to do was plug in my smartphone via USB cable, and Android Auto would start automatically when I started the car.
Volkswagen’s latest touchscreen design known as MIB II is easy to use, again, because of simplicity of layout. Flanked by twin dials on the lower corners — one for volume, one for scrolling and other tasks — it also features tactile buttons along the upper portions of each side. Those buttons will switch the screen to all the different modes, such as navigation, radio, and phone. Steering wheel controls were intuitive, as well, and largely negated the need to reach for the dashboard once I learned how to use them.
Safety technologies got notably improved for the 2017 VW Passat, with forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking now standard across all trims, according to Volkswagen. Also standard on all trims is VW’s post-collision braking system, which will automatically apply the brakes after a crash to prevent or lessen the severity of secondary collisions. Also equipped on my tester was adaptive radar cruise control, a rearview camera, lane departure warning system, and park distance control.
The 2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8T SEL Premium I tested had a VW-suggested retail price of $34,270. Optional equipment (limited to a set of VW’s excellent all-weather “Monster Mats”) and an $820 destination charge brought the total to $35,325.
That price put the Passat 1.8T SEL Premium in competitive territory with several of its midsize sedan contemporaries that I don’t find nearly so nice to drive or so well designed inside and out. A similarly equipped Nissan Altima 2.5 SL with similar options would carry an MSRP of $33,695, but it would feature a less-engaging transmission — a CVT — as well as a vastly inferior infotainment experience. A Ford Fusion Platinum carries very similar levels of equipment to my Passat tester, including an upgraded Sony audio system and a moonroof, but it also has a higher starting price by at least $1,000.
The Passat beats the Fusion on fuel economy and is competitive with most of the rest of the segment — the Nissan Altima’s 38 MPG highway rating enabled mostly by its elastic-feeling CVT. We experienced 28-29 MPG in real-world driving comprised mostly of country two-lanes and a daily in-town slog.
I briefly found myself shopping in this segment when I learned I was going to be a father a second time. Most of the choices either bored me so much or were so expensive with any level of equipment that I didn’t even test drive them. I did drive a Nissan Altima 2.5S, but I hated its front seats. I have driven the latest generation of Toyota Camry in similarly basic trim, and it was an utterly depressing thing to drive. More pleasant to drive is the Chrysler 200, but that car is more or less out of production at the time of this writing, and it was too expensive for my under-$25K budget anyway. Meanwhile, base model Passats at my nearest VW dealers can be found for $20K or less. That puts mid-trim Passat SEs within striking distance for my budget.
So if I were shopping this segment again, would I go German? Having spent a week falling in love with the 2017 Passat SEL Premium, I might!
Disclosure: Volkswagen of America provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.
Lyndon Johnson is a husband and father of two who has now spent more of his life as a journalist than as a non-journalist. He serves as assistant editor at his hometown weekly paper in rural Tennessee and freelances in the automotive journalism world.