VW’s Midsize Crisis: 2016 or 2017 Passat Review It’s not Willie Nelson driving the yellow Bug in VW’s 2017 Passat TV spot; True Willie Band’s Roger Hegyi does. The “On the Road Again” ad, nonetheless, tells a truth: VW’s revamped midsize sedan now has blind-spot detection, rear-traffic alert and forward-collision warning. The latter is standard equipment. This review examines the essentially similar 2016 Passat SEL Premium. It’s loaded with everything that’s on the 2017 version. With new gear, the Passat navigates a midsize sedan life-cycle crisis via driving aids. Improved occupant protection and a facelift are also part of the mix. Add to this an earlier power-train upgrade and you’ve got a family-friendly mode of transport. Background: Bad Timing for a Better Sedan? VW’s rebooted think-big sedan reminds one of an earlier era. During the 1950s for example, the low-priced three introduced flashy chariots called the Fairlane, Impala and Fury. VW’s playbook is similar in the sense that its flossier exterior houses high-tech 50s dream-car ideas that up the Passat’s price. Steep discounts, however, are available. The car I drove incorporated mechanical refinements: its 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder 170-hp mill replaced the 2012 Passat’s 2.5-liter five-pot engine. This switch means the Passat ekes out significantly more miles per gallon. New for 2016: exterior styling. For example, the hood now has nautical-like strakes, extra bling adorns the bumpers and lamps. Its bolder grille, topped by an accent bar that flows into the headlamps, looks sleeker. At the back, there’s a similar chrome strip across the trunk lid that flows into the rear lamps. There’s a newfound gem-like glint, further enhanced by the SEL’s squinty LED headlamps. But the ‘greenhouse’ remains conservative; it eschews fashionable fastback styling. Don’t fear the outmoded shape; ingress and egress are excellent. Interior trimmings are jazzier with jewelry-inspired metal-like accents topping the gray-toned wood-like inlays. The smart leather-wrapped flat-bottom steering wheel comes from the GTI. The tester’s vast sea of gray plastics, some pieces nicely coated, others faux leather grained, rate fair. Plus unlined storage bins and non-chilled glove compartment aren’t on par with a Golf. And the center armrest slides fore and aft but doesn’t ratchet upward. When the tab is $35,090, you expect finer materials. Fit is good, however. The paint job looks rich. Unseen: improved crash protection. VW’s Mark Gillies, says a reinforced unitbody ups occupant protection in offset impacts. With its forward-collision avoidance, the car earned an IIHS Top Safety Pick +. I couldn't confirm how well autonomous braking functioned. Yet, I was surprised that it usually did nothing when confronted with a possible forward strike. However, the warning did kick in when using the adaptive cruise control. ACC maintains a driver-selected gap in traffic or the desired cruising speed. An alert told me to apply the brakes, when it noticed a stopped vehicle ahead. The instrument panel’s pictographs are bright and logical making it easy to understand vehicle behavior. The Passat deserves kudos for clarity. Press start. The direct-injection engine springs to life. It’s mated to a conventional six-speed automatic transmission that sometimes shifts harshly, as though it were VW’s twin-clutch Direct Shift Gearbox. It’s not. I netted a decent 31 mpg overall with the trip computer indicating 36 mpg on one highway jaunt. The EPA says: 25 mpg city, 38 highway, 29 combined. Plus this turbo drinks regular fuel. And it’s tranquil as Temazepam in “D” churning about 2,000 rpm at 70 mph; 1,800 at 60. Front seat room is generous. The forward thrones have long seat bottoms and supportive backrests. Both front seats and the rear outboard positions are heated. Rear legroom is generous—on par with full-size cars. The bench’s bottom cushion could offer more thigh support, but three adults can climb in; the firm center position with a fold-down armrest is habitable. One bonus, padded front and rear door cards. Door inserts abutting armrests are also pliable. In contrast, the rear wheel arches and parcel shelf are hard plastic, as is the trunk lid liner. Passat Perks The Passat SEL is loaded with fantasy-car stuff—sans Dagmars and tailfins of course. For your bachelor pad road missile, there’s the optional Fender sound system. Its voice clarity impresses. Your ears get an extra treat: a tweeter at each rear door’s front edge enhances stereophonic exhibitions. Whether this woos your companion, I cannot say, but VW makes front-seat shenanigans difficult because the left one doesn’t fully recline. That’s a setback for long-distance drivers who nap at rest areas. The trunk-mounted subwoofer reduces cargo depth, although I must admit that those who checked out this ride were stunned—this is a VW? That’s what they’d say with high praise for the car’s comfortable confines and its generous aft stowage. For drivers, the Passat also sparkles. Its electronic power steering is responsive with some road sense—very nice by current standards. But the spooky Lane Keep Assist, which queasily moves the steering wheel in order to keep the car centered in its lane, feels strange. An instrument cluster icon turns green when the Passat sees road stripes. That means the LKA is operating. LKA nudges the steering wheel centering the car. It also will ask you to put your hands on the wheel when you try hands-off demonstrations. If this bugs you, it’s not simple to defeat; you must wend your way into an info screen menu. A dedicated button please. The Passat’s mild bobbing and controlled body roll will please most riders. Unlike earlier Passats, which exhibited lane-change tail wag, this one is frisky yet better planted. VW doesn’t say why. It could be the tire/wheel combo or a different stability program. VW’s latest Discover Media 6.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system with navigation is your access to the information highway. For example, the traffic ahead warning that’s triggered by satellite based radio info, chimes in regardless of whether you’re navigating via its mapping. That’s a plus. Bluetooth phone pairing worked well. I cannot say how well the Apple Car Play or Android Auto function, but VW offers this new level of phone connectivity. While you can use the stylish Audi-like frameless rearview mirror while parking, VW offers a step up, a combination of bumper sensors and rearview camera that it calls Park Pilot or park distance control. This helps you avoid expensive parking mishaps with aural beeps from corresponding speaker near the detected dent maker and visual markings on the infotainment screen. You must select reverse first to enable it. Look Ma No Hands: VW’s Parking Assistant This Passat parks itself too. It’s simple. Press the console mounted button once for parallel parking, twice for perpendicular, flip the turn signal corresponding to the open spot, and then drive past the gap. If Park Assist finds the space big enough, the IP info screen prompts you to select R, release the brakes and back with your hands off the steering wheel. The steering wheel twirls by itself. There are additional prompts for stopping, changing from reverse to forward and so forth. Nifty 50. It can un-parallel park itself automatically too. Again you must signal which direction you’re headed and follow the instructions. The system will position the vehicle and then let you safely take command before moving into traffic—a wise design. I found the parking wizardry spellbinding. So I was happy to discover that it made me look before entering the roadway. Drivers exit a perpendicular spot themselves; the car backs into “stalls.” Thus, you’ve got a view of what’s ahead. VW’s Will Gock confirms that should you forget to signal, the Passat opts to park on the right. If you don’t mind doing the rear-bumper Charleston, you can open the trunk lid by moving your foot behind the Passat. This makes loading the trunk easier when you hands are full. Sometimes the lid unlocked but didn’t fully open. The Passat SEL Premium’s additional features include a self-dimming rearview mirror, power front seats, rear cross traffic alert, automatic climate control, fog lamps with cornering aid, sunroof, 18-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers, keyless entry with pushbutton start, VW’s Car-Net telematics, and leather seating surfaces. Thus the new Passat has up-to-date gadgets that were once the provenance of the Lexus LS 460. VW offers the SEL’s driver-assist safety features on lower-priced trim lines. That’s a trickle-down economics of motoring that makes the Passat an attractive buy. Passat pricing starts at roughly $23,000 for starters; the tested SEL Premium is $35,090.