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2016 Volkswagen Passat: First Drive Review

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author photo by Doug DeMuro November 2015

It's been more than 4 years since the first-ever American-made Volkswagen Passat went on sale to major fanfare, and in that span of time, the midsize-sedan segment experienced major changes. Nearly every rival has been redesigned or heavily revised since 2012. Many have added a host of high-tech features and distinctive new styling.

While the Passat has watched many of these changes from the sidelines, that's no longer the case: The revised 2016 Volkswagen Passat is finally here, boasting several important updates over last year's model in order to gain lost ground. We recently had the chance to spend some time driving the latest Passat before it goes on sale later this year, and here's what we thought.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Catch a quick glimpse of the Passat from the outside and you might wonder exactly what, if anything, has changed compared to last year's model. We don't blame you: Although Volkswagen insists virtually every panel is different, the latest Passat looks a lot like the old model to us. In fact, the only real changes we can see are updated taillights, updated headlights, new wheel designs and a revised hood.

It's the same story inside. While Volkswagen insists the Passat's interior has been updated, we can only find the occasional small example of this, such as slightly revised controls in the center stack and various materials that seem a touch nicer than the outgoing model. If you're familiar with the old Passat, though, we suspect you'll have no trouble getting acclimated to the new one.

But styling doesn't tell the whole story. While the Passat may not offer the most exciting design among today's midsize sedans, it now boasts all the latest safety technology and gadgets to directly compete with its top rivals.

There's forward-collision warning with automatic braking, for example, along with lane-departure warning and blind spot monitoring. There's also newly available adaptive cruise control feature. The Passat boasts a Parking Steering Assistant feature that can help guide you into a parallel or perpendicular parking spot. The Passat's infotainment system has been dramatically updated with additional app connectivity, improved usability and, for iPhone users, the highly sought-after Apple CarPlay system.

Under the Hood

The 2016 Passat also makes two big changes under the hood. The most important is the removal of a diesel engine option from the sedan's lineup -- a powertrain that has accounted for around one-third of Passat sales since the latest model went on sale in 2012.

Not surprisingly, Volkswagen says the engine was dropped due to the brand's recent diesel emissions scandal, which revealed that the automaker had been cheating diesel emissions regulations in the United States and around the world. While Volkswagen promises the diesel will be back eventually, shoppers interested in getting an extra-efficient midsize sedan sometime soon will probably be better served by Passat rivals such as the Honda Accord Hybrid, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid.

The Passat's other major mechanical change? The sedan's optional 280-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 engine now gains a lightning-quick dual-clutch automatic transmission as standard equipment, replacing last year's traditional automatic. The new transmission is a huge step up and we're seriously impressed with it. Unfortunately, the Passat's far-more-popular 1.8-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder still makes do with the usual 6-speed automatic. It's a smooth, agreeable transmission in its own right, but hardly as impressive as the dual-clutch.

Really Improved?

With only mild changes to the sedan's interior and exterior styling and few updates under the hood, has the 2016 Volkswagen Passat really made a big enough leap for us to recommend it over last year's model? We spent a day driving around in the car and pondering just that question. In the end, we think the answer is yes.

Here's why: In the past, our primary gripes about the Passat didn't relate to its generous interior volume, its reasonable pricing, or its pleasant and predictable driving experience. Instead, our complaints mainly centered around its lack of technology, which is an issue Volkswagen has clearly remedied with the new model. While we (and many buyers) long for the fuel-saving diesel, the rest of the car is certainly more appealing than it was before. No, it isn't the most exciting car in the class, and its humdrum styling certainly won't turn the most heads but if you're looking for a roomy, value-priced family sedan (now with extra technology!), the Passat deserves a spot on your shopping list.

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Certified 2015 Volkswagen Passat Wolfsburg Edition
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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2016 Volkswagen Passat: First Drive Review - Autotrader