2016 Volkswagen Passat Fails to Stand Out in Shrinking Midsize Sedan Segment

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PassatVolkswagen has a problem.

It doesn’t begin or end with the refreshed Passat, but the middling midsize provides a convenient case study.

First, to address the dirty elephant in the room, there is no diesel for the 2016 model due to the ongoing unresolved 7-month-old scandal where VW used a software cheat to rig emissions tests for compliance on its turbo diesel models.

The fuel-efficient diesel was the Passat’s one big competitive advantage in an otherwise homogenous segment, responsible for more than a quarter of Passat sales, according to Autotrader, until people learned it was a big fat dirty lie.

If I sound bitter than consider what a VW dealer is feeling.

The world’s second largest automaker, which was poised to top Toyota as top dog in 2015, has struggled in the U.S. during a historic auto boom. Audi and Porsche had buoyed VW Group here, but so far in 2016 sales are down nearly 14 percent, according to Business Insider. Volkswagen market share is down to 1.7 percent, barely edging out Mazda.

Even without the diesel scandal, the refreshed Passat is indicative of the slowness of VW to adapt to a rapidly changing market. If you can overlook that VW whiffed on the crossover craze, or take exception because of the outstanding 2015 Golf, then you can’t mistake that the updated Passat is just plain boring.

Nearly every other automaker has aggressively restyled their midsize of late, with the exception of the redesigned Hyundai Sonata, which in its toned down state is still more distinct than the Passat.

That’s a shame for a nameplate over 40 years old that, until the 2009 arrival of the CC and the larger 2012 redesign, was one of the most distinct and luxury-leaning mainstream midsize sedans available.

Volkswagen obliged on the tech and safety update the Passat so badly needed, but otherwise left it the same. The hood gets a slightly raised middle portion, the front fender is more defined and the lower grille appears different. VW says only the roof, doors and sides haven’t been changed, but you’d have to look really hard, even side by side, to see the changes.

The powertrains remain the same, without the TDI diesel. There is an available 3.6-liter V-6 engine, though we tested the 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder with the six-speed automatic in the SE with Technology trim. The TSI (turbo stratified injection — aka direct injection) engine makes a grumpy 170 horsepower and a sunnier 184 pound-feet of torque at just 1,500 rpm. The car jumps on throttle without much lag, though the naturally aspirated Mazda6 and Nissan Maxima are far better inside and out. The six-speed automatic is smooth and quick, barely noticeable.

“Why do they put sport mode in all these family cars?” The 9-year old asked.

I shifted the gear stick into sport mode to show instead of tell but there was no answer forthcoming.

The fuel economy of 25 mpg city, 38 highway is good, though. We shouldn’t need an asterisk with those numbers. In our mixed commutes averaging 46 mph over 100 miles, the Passat averaged 36.5 mpg, which is above average for a nonhybrid.

The cabin has a bit more fit and finish to restore some of the upscale feel absent from the exterior, as it should in the near top of the line SE trim with Technology. Wood trim covers the dash and center stack, which houses a small touch screen that is the big improvement over the outgoing model. The second-gen modular infotainment platform (MIB) uses a standard 6.3-inch screen. It’s narrow but functional, yet overall feels like an older system that was once cutting-edge. The large icons on Apple CarPlay (we didn’t test available Android Auto) make the system easier to execute. Voice commands were very good.

Advanced safety features such as adaptive cruise, forward collision avoidance, and a blind spot monitor complete the 2016 technology trim level.

The Passat gets a new steering wheel, flat-bottomed instead of round, with simple redundant controls that let the driver change radio functions, make phone calls, and check vehicle info on the display between tachometer and speedometer. Functionality is intuitive, and the natural placement of the buttons keeps it simple.

Heated rear seats pleased the back-seat passengers, and folding armrest with cup holders made a nice divider between the warring factions.

There is plenty of room and good visibility in both the front and rear. The trunk fits a hockey bag and plenty of kid gear. The ride is quiet and comfortable, and combined with the highway fuel economy (and dealer desperation discount) makes a marginal argument to include the Passat on the shopping list.

2016 Volkswagen Passat SE with Technology at a glance

Vehicle type: midsize sedan

Base price: $28,410 (excluding $820 destination)

As tested: $28,410

Mpg: 25 city, 38 highway

Engine: direct injection 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Parting shot: Necessary technology upgrades don’t make the middling midsize any more necessary

(Source: TCA)