REVIEW: 2016 Volkswagen Passat 1.8T S – Subtle Satisfaction

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The 2016 Volkswagen Passat 1.8T S has that special something.

What is it? 

Although the compact crossover has surpassed the midsize car segment in overall sales, the Accord/Camry segment is still where the best bang for the buck resides for five-passenger people movers. Automakers have poured untold billions into making their midsize cars the best they can be in all respects.

For its current generation, VW’s Passat was de-contented, and its production moved to Tennessee so it could come down-market and compete with the segment leaders, all of which are built in the US. Though its sales don’t yet match the two big names, the Passat may well be the best car for the money in this ultra-competitive segment.

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Pricing and trims

The Passat starts at $23,260, and that’s what our test vehicle costs. A top-spec 4-cylinder Passat tops out around $32K, and the V6 can touch $35K. There are a total of about six Passat trims, one to match all the popular Camry and Accord configurations you can imagine – except the hybrids.

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Our bone-stock Passat 1.8T S had no options and lacked many of the high-end features many of us want in our vehicles. However, as we will explain, it does not mean that this is not a desirable car. On the contrary, by stripping away the option packages VW gave us a glimpse of the Passat’s true strengths.

Safety

Our Passat 1.8T S had the required-by-law airbags, stability control, and anti-lock brakes and that was it. No cross traffic alerts, no blind-spot monitor and lane-keeping assist (yeah!) and no forward collision prevention and auto-braking. That makes it a Top Safety Pick for 2016, but our tester does not earn the higher “+” designation.

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Higher trims offer all the goodies we mention above, but we will leave those for a later review if we test a loaded Passat. We do need to mention the car’s only demerit we found when testing. If you look at the IIHS summary above, you will see a red P as in Poor for the headlights. Most of our driving in the Passat was at night and indeed, the headlights are sub-par.

Performance

One of the strengths of the Passat is its drivetrain. The 1.8-liter turbocharged gasoline engine is just right for its mission. There is no turbo lag in normal driving, and the engine’s 170 horsepower feels adequate. Like VW’s now infamous diesels, the engine in this car has strong low-end torque. The Passat is tuned to pull you around at low RPMs.

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This turbocharged engine is responsive. When you want a burst of speed to pass or merge onto the highway the car has enough, but in normal cruising, the engine is lugging the Passat at less than 1500 RPMs. With a 29-mpg EPA combined rating, the Passat tops the Camry by 2 mpg.

Most importantly, VW has ditched its misguided past requirement for premium fuel. This Passat 1.8T S takes regular unleaded, just like every one of its peers in the segment. The Passat’s engine is very smooth, quiet, out of the way, and you will love it.

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VW has wisely stepped back from using dual-clutch automatics in its mainstream cars, and the six-speed automatic in the 1.8T S is perfect. There isn’t the gear-hunting you can find in seven-, eight- or nine-speed vehicles, which trade enjoyment for a thimble of fuel. Nor is there any CVT weirdness to become used to (though I am a personal fan of good CVTs). Best of all, there is a Sport Mode which helps the Passat hold revs and enhances its sportiness when you want that.

Ride and handling

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Like most cars in its segment, the Passat 1.8T S offers an excellent around-town and highway ride. Bumps are smoothed over, and the 16-inch tires are wonderfully “high-profile”, which means more comfortable and less likely to be damaged by a pothole.

Steering is sharp, and the wheel can be spun easily when maneuvering in a parking lot. The Passat feels planted, and though I hate the cliche, the German focus on chassis excellence comes through. We had a Toyota Camry just before this tester and the Passat was more satisfying over the road.

Seating

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Being the base model our Passat 1.8T S had cloth seats with manual adjustment. However, there was lumbar support and the seats felt great. With no heat, the cloth was welcome on cold mornings, as opposed to “leatherette” or even leather. We won’t pretend we didn’t miss the power operation and heat of the mid-trim and higher grade testers we normally get. These are great base-model seats, but not great seats.

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The rear of the Passat 1.8 T S is roomy and legroom is plentiful, even for adults. Although the Passat has the same overall legroom as the Sonata, one of the largest sedans in this class, the Passat allocates about 4 more inches of that total to the back seat, making it feel super-roomy.

Cargo

The Passat 1.8T S has a large, roomy trunk. At 15.9 cubic feet, it is about a half cubic foot larger than the top-selling Camry. Underneath is a compact spare tire and a kit to change a tire. There is also a small area to the left that can hold a bag without it flying around back there when you corner. When one pushes the fob or uses the button inside the Passat to open the trunk, it pops up fully open.

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Infotainment and controls

The base Passat 1.8T S has a tiny little touch-screen to operate the audio, phone, backup camera, and Bluetooth functions. It is all you need and not a bit more. What functions are available are simple to use. Syncing our phone was a snap. There is no Android Auto, no satellite radio, and no app integration for Pandora or other music streaming. But one can use the Bluetooth connection for basic operation of these. We did, and we missed the apps mightily.

If you want more, VW will provide it in higher-priced Passat trims. Our understanding is that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are coming to the 2017 model year Passat, but we are not sure if it will be found on all trims. Well worth asking your dealer if you consider a base Passat. One thing that was clear to us is this Passat has great sound quality. It easily tops the JBL unit in our recent Camry test car.

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Overall

The Passat 1.8T S has that hard to define quality that we look for in a car. It is easy to use, rewards you if you like a car that gives you a feeling of competence on the road, and the engine and transmission are gems. We liked the base model so much we created this special story with all the details on what one does and does not get. Check it out if you want to learn more about the 1.8T S trim.

At just $23K this is a lot of car for the money. By the pound or cubic inch, it is tough to beat this car’s value.

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Base model cars have much to offer a budget-minded shopper. However, if your future is bright and you think you may be trading the car in a few years, consider a higher trim. The monthly payment and the overall difference in price once you trade the car in may be so small you can handle a more expensive trim without much pain. However, if you need a bare-bones, large five-passenger sedan for as little money as possible, you will be very happy with the Passat 1.8T S.

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2016 Volkswagen Passat 1.8T S

Base price: $23,260

Price as tested, $23,260 including $ 820 destination charge:  

Options: None, Nada, Zip, Zilch

Likes:

  • Perfect engine and transmission
  • Ideal balance of comfort and handling (for a family car – commuter car)
  • Value

Dislikes:

  • Needs apps and smart phone integration (cured on 2017)
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John Goreham

John Goreham