Another one bites the dust. Pour one out for the Passat. After three faithful decades as Volkswagen's midsize sedan, it's been announced that the venerable model will be shown the door by 2023. Its replacement? A crossover, of course. That shouldn't be too surprising: the Passat is just another data-driven casualty in a segment that is fast becoming an endangered species.
If the Passat has always whetted your whistle, there's still time to buy one before its lease on life is up. In anticipation of the end, the 2021 model slims down options and trims, but it remains quintessentially Passat: handsome, well-built, comfortable, predictable. It isn't the most modern or exciting midsize sedan available, but it has a decidedly Germanic touch that distinguishes it from its Japanese competition.
Unexciting styling, practical interior. After a thorough overhaul last year, the 2021 model doesn't exactly look or feel cutting edge. And if you didn't even recognize the new design as all-new, we're with you - the updated styling feels like a freshening, not an entire reworking. The plain-wrapper theme of its predecessor is an unfortunate carryover from the current model's predecessor. Some buyers will appreciate this, but we wish VW designers were given a bit more creative license.
The interior keeps time with the exterior. Open the door and you're greeted by a long, low-set dash that runs unbroken from the instrument binnacle to the base of the passenger-side A-pillar. The businesslike center stack is of the old-school design, a hard-edged waterfall design that connects the dash to the console. It houses the touchscreen and climate controls in a very straight-laced design.
Some newer cars have tried to move away from this traditional look by floating their touchscreen atop the dash, removing switchgear, and tucking any remaining buttons under the little outcropping that the screen is mounted upon. These have a visual appeal that's missing from the Passat but lack the VW's effortless, do-it-blind ergonomics. It follows decades of automotive tradition when it comes to the interior layout.
A nice heaping of sliver trim visually breaks up the interior, and the way VW camouflaged the air vents within the dash trim is a neat touch. The quality certainly isn't on par of early 2000s VW - when the brand set out on an ultimately fruitless quest to challenge the luxury marques - but is good enough for the price point.
Tepid powertrain, comfortable ride. As has been the case for years, the Passat doesn't offer anything under the hood that's worth bragging about. There's not even a V-6 in the cards anymore, as that was axed at the end of 2019. All power now comes from a segment-standard 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder.
In VW's iteration of the segment's quintessential engine, an entirely unexciting 174 horsepower and 206 lb-ft of torque gets sent out to the front wheels. You won't find all-wheel drive, an uprated engine, a performance-tuned suspension, or anything of the sort. The only thing that goes against the grain is the six-speed automatic that's now outmoded in this day and age of eight-speed automatics.
All told, the powertrain is largely inoffensive, though we take issue with the six-speed's tendency to rush out of first gear and then hesitate before grabbing any other cog. The 174 horsepower leaves the 3,300-pound Passat feeling rather languid at higher speeds, but the turbo keeps things feeling spritely around town.
Such a modest powertrain might suggest great fuel economy, but that isn't the case. Expect 23 miles per gallon city, 34 mpg highway, and 27 combined, figures that are decidedly mid-pack. You can get better mileage in sedans like the Honda Accord, Mazda Mazda6, Toyota Camry, and others.
The Passat's ride is comfortable for tootling around suburbia but lacks any sense of finesse or sportiness; the engineers that tune VW's excellent GTI clearly didn't collaborate with their colleagues tasked on the Passat.
Tough competition. For 2021, VW has cut out the luxury-minded SEL trim. We don't think there's much of a loss there; those who want their midsize sedan done up with luxury trappings are better off with choices like a loaded Mazda6 or Honda Accord, which feature posher materials and more elegant cabin design.
The lower trims provide a much better value, as has been the case for quite a few years with the Passat. For about $25,000 the base S includes everything you need and nothing extra: cloth upholstery, a 6.5-inch touchscreen with smartphone compatibility, 17-inch wheels, and LED lights.
The SE tacks on a few more features like heated seats, dual-zone climate control, and a power driver's seat, and the R-Design adds some sporty trim. We wouldn't go beyond the SE ourselves, which costs about $27,000.
That doesn't sound like much, but here's the rub: you can get better powertrains and more modern design in the competition for the same or not much more money. A base Accord, for instance, is priced like a Passat S but comes standard with features found on the Passat SE. For skinflints, the base Legacy gets all-wheel drive and the same feature set as the Passat S but costs $2,000 less than the VW.
And then there are options like the Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, and Chevy Malibu, all of which offer things like uprated engines, all-wheel drive, or other notable features like bigger touchscreens and ventilated seats. They round out the very stiff competition faced by the Passat, and we can't help but wonder - especially for a car so recently redesigned - what key differentiators would sway someone to bring home a Passat over the aforesaid alternatives. Without anything particularly novel to boast of, the Passat is overshadowed by its peers.
Final thoughts. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised the Passat is finding itself outclassed in this segment. It's likely VW was aware the end was nigh for their midsizer, and the redesign was a cursory one until its crossover replacement is ready for prime time.
For buyers still enamored by the VW badge, the Passat should be a faithful, comfortable companion to while away the miles. However, it's in everyone's best interests to cross-shop the rival midsize sedans, as they ultimately offer better performance, value, and technology.
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