2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline Road Test Review

By : Trevor Hofmann
  If your car consistently sits in 9th out of 11 competitors you’ve got to ask the tough questions, which is what our review of the 2017 VW Passat does. Is its styling not provocative enough to lure would-be buyers away from rivals? Its 170-hp turbo four not quick enough in a midsize market that offers up a 325-hp Ford Fusion? Last year’s mid-cycle update was mild at best, with optional LED headlamps, some nice interior updates, much improved infotainment, etc, while the Passat continues to deliver good fuel economy and sizeable space. See it now.......
                   
                   
                   
                   
                   
                   
               
 
The mid-size family sedan segment doesn't play fair, or so it seems. There's a total of 11 mainstream volume branded players
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
on the Canadian market and most offer sizeable proportions, decent performance, good fuel economy, ample standard and optional features, impressive safety, and reasonable style, but the most successful is nearly 10 times more popular than the bottom feeder.

The oddity here is the poorest selling Mazda6 is one of the more accommodating, best to drive, most efficient, safest, and arguably nicest looking, while the bestselling Toyota Camry is certainly some of the above albeit comparatively boring and bland, so obviously looks don't play as big a role in sales results as other factors. After 11 months of the 2016 calendar year the sales chart shows the following results in Canada: 14,848 Toyota Camrys, 13,513 Ford Fusions, 12,952 Honda Accords (sedan and coupe), 10,868 Chevrolet Malibus, 9,647 Hyundai Sonatas, 7,458 Nissan Altimas, 6,680 Chrysler 200s, 4,615 Kia Optimas, 3,823
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
Volkswagen Passats (including the CC four-door coupe), 2,820 Subaru Legacys, and 1,898 Mazda6s.

Except for the Malibu, which will most likely move up two places over last year's results when 2016 comes to a close thanks to an impressive redesign, and the Altima that was successfully redesigned for the 2017 model year and has therefore seen a stronger take-rate and gained one place over its rivals, all other mid-size models appear to have lost ground this year, which probably has at least as much to do with their respective brands' crossover SUV sales growth as it does with other market factors. Some models, such as the Sonata and 200, have driven headlong off a proverbial cliff, while the subject of this review, the Passat, has seen
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
its sales slowly dwindle back to lacklustre 2010 levels since the new Chattanooga, Tennessee-built New Midsize Sedan (NMS) version arrived in 2012.

Back then the Passat found 8,019 new buyers, while 2013 was almost as good with 7,909 Canadians stepping up to VW's cause. Ditto for 2014 when the Passat achieved 7,520 deliveries, but strangely in the year it received an admittedly mild mid-cycle makeover, the 2015 calendar year sales total only reached 5,838 (and this had little to do with Dieselgate that became Volkswagen's worst nightmare in late Q3). So far this year the number is only 3,823, with December possibly needing a nationwide Boxing Day extravaganza to break 4,000 units.

What
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
went wrong? The adage "too little too late" comes to mind, with the larger North American-spec Passat forced to survive four years before its 2016 facelift, which when it was applied was about as shockingly dramatic as the Fed announcing for the umpteenth time that it may possibly implement a moderate rate hike sometime in the near future (ok, Chairwoman Yellen upped the key interest rate by a fraction on December 14 for the second time since the 2008 financial crisis, but you get my point).

Only diehard Passat fanatics will notice the 2016 model's "striking" new front and rear designs that included a wider, stronger grille, slightly narrowed headlights that now come with full LEDs in Comfortline trim and above, a mildly reshaped front bumper, sharper hood creases, more angled taillights, and other subtle rear end
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
updates, although to be realistic the once impassioned yet now disenfranchised Passat fanatic gave up on the car when the Euro-spec B7 never made the trip across the Atlantic and have since poured tears all over their laptops in lamentation of the stunning B8 introduced to all but North Americans in 2014. Alas, the current Passat isn't the type of car that enthusiasts pine for, unless forced to pick between one of its three current trim levels and an equivalent Camry or Sonata when the company's paying.

Those trims would be Trendline+, Comfortline and Highline here in Canada (they have totally different names south of the border, which makes no sense from a marketing bleed perspective), the base Trendline and top "line" Execline have been discontinued. The Passat can still be had with a big silky-smooth narrow-angle
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
3.6-litre V6 (dubbed VR6 in VW-speak) in Highline trim, but most opt for a more fuel-efficient four-cylinder model, which more often than not also ends up on VW's press fleet.

Yes, the first of this new-generation Passat arrived to yours truly in 2012 Trendline+ TDI trim (RIP to a wonderful albeit naughty engine), followed quickly by a 2012 3.6 Highline, after which I tested a 2013 2.5 Highline (a sad replacement for the previous base model's engine), 2014 TDI Highline, 2015 1.8 TSI Highline (the first of a new era), 2015 TDI Highline (with more power), and now this 2017 1.8 TSI Highline.

To be clear, the old base 2010 Passat (the Passat sedan and wagon were discontinued
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
for 2011 with only the CC available) was powered by a 200 horsepower 2.0-litre turbo four capable of 207 lb-ft of torque, which was replaced by a 170 horsepower inline-five with 177 lb-ft of torque in the 2012 NMS version, this engine replaced yet again with a new 170 horsepower turbocharged inline-four with 187 lb-ft of torque for model year 2015, so performance has dropped since the original yet gained slightly in this most recent version, while the old B6 iteration's six-speed manual was initially replaced by a five-speed unit in the NMS and then, as noted earlier, cancelled altogether this year thanks to a two-percent take-rate for the latter in the U.S.

Most of the above changes were enacted in the name of fuel economy, the base Passat now five-cycle rated at 8.6 L/100km combined city/highway, although I'm not
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
sure how realistic this number is in the heavier Highline, being that the little engine works fairly hard to get the big luxury sedan up to speed, especially in hilly areas. My tester's real-time dash indicator averaged 14.9 L/100km over my weeklong test of mostly city driving, with its best highway result being 9.3. Also, the gas gauge dropped from full to 7/8ths after a half-dozen highway miles, which had me concerned that it wasn't completely filled when picked up, so therefore I wasn't able to get a true reading from my own calculations. In other words, your guess as to real-world fuel economy estimates is as good as mine, and I'm not about to give VW the benefit of the doubt, especially after the automaker admitted to understating the fuel consumption of some cars last year (that was on top of its emissions rigging scandal). At least it runs on regular unleaded like all of its peers.

Fuel economy aside, the Passat is an honest looking four-door sedan designed for conservative minimalists, which usually works
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
well for me. Compared to a full-tilt Optima SXL Turbo that'll have you imagining you're piloting a $300k Bentley Flying Spur, a Fusion Platinum that delves pretty far into Lincoln MKZ territory, or a Malibu Premier that's hardly short of its own near premium flair, the Passat seems starkly utilitarian at first glance, especially when VW doesn't even bother to fill any of the chrome-trimmed button blanks around the gear lever in this top-tier Highline (if that's some sort of design feature, VW needs to change it as it makes owners look like they're not willing to spend for more options).

Fake button misgivings aside, the Passat appears purposefully understated in a world
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
that's being conditioned to like massive gaping grilles, creatively styled LED signature DRLs, flashy diamond machine finished alloys with painted pockets, LED accent lighting with programmable colours, acres of soft pliable synthetic surfaces, fully configurable colour TFT gauges, big screen infotainment, touch sensitive switchgear, electromechanical parking brakes, cooled front seats, panoramic glass sunroofs, yet more premium-level luxury and convenience features like auto-dimming side mirrors, heatable power-adjustable steering wheels, auto high beams, auto start-stop, rear sunshades, etcetera, and this Passat 1.8 TSI Highline is missing much of the above.

Instead it's a simpler looking mid-size family sedan that does some things very well, such as snake its way through fast-paced corners while ensconced in comfortable, supportive, nicely trimmed leather seats mounted within a large, accommodating
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
five-place interior. The rear seats are almost as comfortable as those in front, delivering excellent lower back support and a nice big, fat armrest at centre housing cupholders and a lidded storage bin.

As much as I could imagine its limousine-like legroom making for a comfortable chauffeur-driven conveyance, the Passat's standard leather-wrapped steering wheel is easily my segment favourite thanks to its sporty slightly flat-bottomed shape, grippy crisscross stitching, nice comfortable thumb spats at the 9 and 3 o'clock positions, and beautifully thin spokes, their switchgear of the highest quality. The only thing that could make it better would be paddle-shifters attached behind, but that would've required more options than VW provided.

The
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
dual analog gauges framed within that steering wheel's circumference are large and easy to read, the high-resolution colour infotainment touchscreen on the centre stack a bit small at 6.33 inches (those extra three hundredths the equivalent of telling people I'm actually five-foot-eight-and-a-half inches tall when to them I'm short either way) as up-to-date as anything in the class with innovative proximity-sensing digital buttons that pop up when fingertips get near, pinch and swipe functionality, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink capability, etcetera, while the two-dial dual-zone auto HVAC interface just below is once again a masterstroke in user-friendly simplicity.

There's no space-saving rotating dial or confusing set of buttons in place of the gear
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
lever either, just a regular leather and metallic enhanced shift knob and boot next to the usual PRND and S for Sport, or alternatively you can flick it to the right to swap cogs on your own. A nice metal engine start/stop button gets things going, after entering via keyless access, while an actual hand-operated parking brake releases you on your way. Some might scoff at this bit of classic old-school tech, but I for one would take it over the foot- operated type in a heartbeat, although now that there's no manual model one of the newer electric units would modernize the driving experience.

As noted, the Passat's six-speed automatic is standard and concurrently two- to three- gears short of newer more modern gearboxes, but this tried and true performer will likely be more reliable than some of those fancier creations, and a lot more fun to utilize than any CVT (Altima, I'm talking to you).

While
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
the engine isn't powerful on paper it reacts well enough on the road thanks to reasonably strong torque that comes on early in the rev range, while it's also smooth for a small displacement four-cylinder. Along with a comfortable, well-sorted chassis the electric power steering is quick to react to input and precise, while all Passat models deliver excellent highway stability making it a superb long-distance tourer.

Once settled inside it's easy to appreciate the interior's tasteful elegance, but in the German sense of these words. I'm not going to call it austere because it's much nicer than that, but as noted you'll need to be into minimalist decor to appreciate the look VW was going after. Last year's upgrade actually jazzed things up
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
with semi matte-finish faux hardwood inlays across the dash and doors that look to me like white oak, plus some nice textured metallic trim, yet more satin-finish aluminum-look accents throughout the cabin, and even discreet splashes of piano black lacquered plastic here and there. The dash, door uppers and inserts remain high-quality soft touch synthetic, but that's about it for premium pliable composites as the rest of the cabin is less impressively finished in hard plastics, a disappointment when compared to most top-line models in the mid-size segment, and a downer considering just how well-made the old Passat's interior was.

It's not bereft of features, mind you, my testers powered driver's seat featuring three-way memory that also positions the side mirrors, both front and rear outboard seats three-way heatable, the former standard across the line and the latter
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
items part of Highline trim. As noted its front strut suspension, four-link rear setup, and electric power steering makes for a more enjoyable drive than many of its peers, although I wouldn't go so far to say it's more capable through the corners than an equivalent Accord or Mazda's very capable 6. It's biased for comfort and to that end delivers a nice compliant ride and a quiet, refined experience inside, with front and rear seating that even allows large folks to stretch out and a trunk that's downright gluttonous in its ability to gobble up gear at 450 litres (15.9 cubic feet).

Its 60/40-split rear seatbacks are standard, plus a centre pass-through lets rear passengers enjoy the warmth of those aforementioned heatable rear cushions while skis or other long items are loaded in between. These come as part of mid-grade Comfortline trim, but before I get ahead of myself I should run down a few
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
highlights of each trim level. The base Trendline+, at $25,745 plus freight and dealer fees, includes 16-inch alloys, auto on/off headlamps with a coming and leaving home function, heated power-adjustable side mirrors, remote start, rain-sensing wipers with heated washer nozzles, a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, a leather-wrapped shift knob and handbrake lever, a trip computer, an analog clock, Bluetooth, dual-zone auto climate control, a less capable albeit still proximity-sensing version of the aforementioned 6.33-inch infotainment system dubbed "Composition Media", a rearview camera, voice activation, satellite radio, a USB port, heatable front seats, an alarm, and more, plus an anti-doze Driver Alert system that's new on many new VW models this year.

Above
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
that the $30,745 Comfortline gets those heatable rear seats along with standard LED headlamps, LED daytime running lights, fog lamps with static cornering lights, LED taillights, 17-inch alloys, power-folding side mirrors with reverse tilt, proximity-sensing keyless access and an easy opening trunk that only needs a wave of your foot under the rear bumper, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, upgraded "Discover Media" 6.33-inch infotainment with aforementioned "App-Connect" smartphone integration, two SD slots and an extra rear USB port, a powered glass sunroof, an eight-way powered driver's seat, emergency autonomous braking, lane assist, blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and more; while the $35,745 Highline (did you notice these are all exactly $5k apart?) removes emergency autonomous braking, lane assist, and blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert (making these optional) and adds 18-inch alloys,
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
a colour multi-information display, a Homelink garage door opener, navigation, 400-watt Fender audio, leather upholstery, front sport seats with 14-way power including lumbar support and memory on the driver's side, plus more.

Feel free to build a Passat on VW's website to see available options in each trim, my Highline featuring Platinum Grey metallic paint and a black interior (VW offers two flat paints, five metallics and one pearlescent, all of which add no cost), while changing to Cornsilk Beige or Moonrock Grey interior colour schemes won't cost you a penny more either, but are dependent on the exterior colour chosen. I admit the car is a lot sportier looking in Fontana Red metallic and considerably classier in Reef Blue metallic with a Cornsilk Beige interior, although that's a tough one to keep clean.

If
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
I were choosing a Passat for my own I wouldn't have difficulty opting for the available $1,350 Driver Assistance package due to its adaptive cruise control (astute readers will notice that adaptive cruise control used to be standard Highline fare), while its front and rear parking sensors would no doubt come in handy too. This is also where VW adds back emergency autonomous braking, lane assist, and blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert.

The only other option is the $2,190 R-Line package that adds sportier looking 19-inch alloys, a subtle exterior aero kit, aluminum foot pedals, paddle shifters, R-Line aluminum doorsills, and of course R-Line badging, plus available two-tone black and brown leather upholstery when matched to the right exterior colours, but it removes the full LED headlamps while pushing the price up to $39,285 plus fees, a lofty window sticker considering you can buy a smaller and less equipped albeit
2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8 TSI Highline
Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
much more appealing Quattro all-wheel drive-equipped Audi A4 for $38,500. Incidentally, the R-Line package can't be had with the 3.6 VR6, a shame considering that engine's quicker shifting six-speed dual-clutch transmission, although it's probably because the $2,000 upgrade would push the price over $41k.

Of note, the Passat earns an IIHS Top Safety Pick with all the above mentioned optional front crash prevention, although many of the Passat's mid-size four-door competitors can be optioned out to achieve the Insurance Institute's coveted Top Safety Pick Plus rating, something not possible with the Passat due to its "Acceptable" and not "Good" small overlap crash test.

Acceptable seems to be a good word to sum up the Passat, now in this generation's fifth year, when most competitors introduce an entirely new model, despite that subtle mid-cycle update. It probably looks good to serious VW fans, but as mentioned many of those are now choosing sportier alternatives to fulfill their performance requirements. Unfortunately styling that doesn't really stand out hardly draws attention to the many positive Passat attributes pointed out in this review, so hopefully Volkswagen will incorporate some of the dramatic details from its 2015 Sport Coupe Concept GTE into more than just its next generation CC, a car that will continue to be a minor player at best.
©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)
 
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