On the Road Review: Volkswagen Passat SEL Sedan



What are your favorite VW memories? Joy-riding in an old Beetle? Filling a VW bus for a concert? Getting a GTI onto three wheels? Feeling the rush of a VR6 Scirocco? Discovering that a Jetta is more fun to drive than any other compact, entry-level car?

Perhaps no other automotive brand has seen as many highs and lows in the American marketplace as Volkswagen. Certainly no brand has generated the vast memories and unique cultural moments as the many interesting products that have visited from German, Mexican and even American assembly plants.

Today, Volkswagen is on the cusp of joining the crossover boom with two more five-door models, a subcompact model for the Chinese and U.S. markets plus a midsize, five-passenger version of the new Atlas, as sedan sales continue to plummet.

The pending midsize Atlas will be built in Chattanooga — alongside the Passat — as the slide in car sales affords additional assembly plant space. This was not the plan when VW spent billions developing the all-new Chattanooga plant five years ago in an attempt to boost car sales with an American-ized Passat less costly to build than in Germany.

For 2018, VW takes another run at Passat success with a new standard engine plus added safety gear. The Passat remains one of the roomiest midsize offerings in the market — with a huge trunk and limousine-like rear seat — while retaining the vast majority of the handling dynamics that once made this Audi-derived four-door the driving envy of the segment.

In a concession to fads more than driver demands, the high-end SEL Premium version adds many of the driving electronics that are supposed to make us safer on the road, while data suggests these “aids” numb us to our responsibilities and paying as much attention as we should. While everyone appreciates the smart-ness of emergency braking assist (which worked superbly here), plus blind-spot detection, parking sensors front and rear, as well as 360-degree cameras that are all boons to better, more efficient driving, the jury remains deadlocked on whether or not dynamic cruise, lane departure, lane keeping and other semi-autonomous aids really improve everyone’s safety if not operated with continuous human oversight.

The recent Tesla and Uber traffic deaths suggest no, as the electronic sensors failed in each instance; in the case of the Uber-autonomous incident, all three of the car’s computer sensors failed to detect the pedestrian, while the human sensor didn’t react at all either. Both are serious setbacks for an industry that is full of more promise than fact at this point.

With pricing starting at $23,845 for an “S” trim, and rising to $32,500 for our SEL Premium model, the Passat remains a transportation value within the typical sedan ranks. Under the hood, a 2.0-liter turbo-four replaces last year’s 1.8-liter engine, gaining a modest 4-hp, (174 hp peak) while EPA ratings remain the same at 25/36/29-mpg. We consistently matched the EPA highway number in our Reflex Silver SEL with a bladder-busting fill-up range of 670 miles. That is just two fill-ups from Maine to Florida. The 280-hp V-6 engine remains optional for all but the S trim and new R-Line trim, while standard on the new GT model.

While the original VW Beetle was an “everyman’s car” the latest Passat is an all-over-the-world car with the six-speed automatic from Japan, the turbo-motor from Mexico, various systems from Germany, and assembly completed in Tennessee. Styling remains familiar; VW has not rushed to alter the car’s American-themed design.

Drivers will embrace the Passat’s efficient and clearly recognized buttons, knobs and switches, while the 6.5-inch info screen features gesture activation of certain functions and icons that then disappear when not utilized. Dual zone climate, push-button ignition, plus clear navigation details populate the SEL’s upgraded interior. Apple and Android functionality are also added, along with Sirius terrestrial radio augmented by Fender speakers. Both front and rear seats are heated; alas, not so for the leather clad steering wheel.

An effortless driving machine that gobbles up miles with grace, the latest Passat is predictable and likeable. The cabin is comfortable and quiet (until the pace tops 70 mph), plus the turbo-motor is smooth and eager (if not as swift as one might expect). The caveat is buyers are finding these features, plus AWD and more space, in a new crop of crossovers that are changing everything we once knew about family cars.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.