Midsize sedans still comprise the largest segment of America’s auto industry, a title that could soon be eclipsed as crossovers continue to dominate new vehicle sales.
For buyers venturing into the new car market, there are 11 family-valued sedans to pick from. In descending sales order (2015 total year sales levels), they are: Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200, Kia Optima, Volkswagen Passat, Subaru Legacy and Mazda’s 6. Since the end of 2015, sales of the Chevy Malibu have increased dramatically, (new model) while the Chrysler 200’s sales have plummeted by an even larger percentage. The rest have remained relatively static in position, if not actual sales, as car sales are down in every segment so far in 2016.
We have all heard about the troubles at Volkswagen related to the diesel engine emissions scandal. Inevitably, consumers have been shy about visiting VW dealers. This has affected sales of all models, diesel-powered or not, which is unfortunate as the current crop of VW vehicles remain strong performers, nice drivers, and solid contenders in their respective segments.
However, VW’s sibling brand, Audi, has seen sales soar despite having similar diesel car issues. Audi has a strong crossover lineup; VW does not. VW’s two existing crossovers are decent products, the Tiguan and the Touareg, but they are older designs lacking some of the latest features.
This fall, VW will finally get the new Golf All-Road wagon to the States, a Subaru Outback-like wagon with AWD. Also coming soon, a midsize two-and-three-row crossover made in the same Chattanooga assembly plant that produced this week’s Passat SEL.
Midsize sedan buyers embrace four-door cars that have roomy interiors, placid drive dynamics, budget-friendly prices, while representing varied conservative, consistent, commuter efforts. Sedans haul people; your choice needs to meet your physical needs.
Two thoughts on that. Today’s midsize sedans are very close in size to pervious full-size sedans, averaging 191 inches long on wheelbases ranging from 109-112 inches, while trunk space ranges from 14-18 cubic feet. And while the emphasis remains for moving people, why do no midsize sedans have six-passenger capacity layouts with front bench seats and room for three? Only full-size pickups have front bench seats anymore, perhaps explaining why some buyers have moved from cars to pickups for taking the family all together.
With sales in the bottom third of a top-selling segment, what distinguishes the Passat from its rivals? Why did the Camry outsell the Passat 5-1 last year?
Some of it is obviously the marketing muscle and the established track record for the Camry. Toyota has three times the dealers that VW has in America and Toyota has pushed the Camry to the top of the sales charts after decades of enhancing a solid sedan with constant improvements that include resale and repair scores that lead the industry.
But the Passat is a sleeper in a class that really doesn’t have a lot of variables after the various styling initiatives are exposed. Hyundai and Kia proved that distinctive body styles could move some metal, as did Ford with its Aston-Martin-like Fusion face.
The Passat got the American treatment in 2011, with a larger sedan than its Euro-bred predecessor. Flowing lines, a happy front fascia and perhaps the roomiest interior in the class helped push the Passat to record sales levels and VW had a rosy outlook for its American-built car.
Then, some issues popped up, not the least of which is that over 20 percent of Passat sales were diesel models that have been sitting on dealer lots now for almost 10 months. While not as serious an issue as the airbag conundrum that is afflicting Honda, customers who wanted the best mileage sedan in America were not inclined to buy other Passat models despite the excellent performance of the turbo 1.8-liter four and the VR6 sedan.
Our SEL trimmed Passat — the middle of seven trim levels — featured the smooth and responsive 1.8-liter gasoline fueled four-cylinder engine. Although just 170 hp is the rating, the car whisks about with more vigor than several base-engined rivals and still rendered 35.2 mpg during its stay. The six-speed automatic never balked at hurried throttle inputs and like all other VW’s, the Passat is an Autobahn cruiser without parallel, thrumming down the super-slab without fuss. The ride is creamy without becoming too soft, while the interior spacial measurements give occupants plenty of room to kick back and enjoy the trip — front or rear.
This eighth-generation Passat also has added some important new features. Laser-guided adaptive dynamic cruise, autonomous emergency braking (the car will keep braking even after the initial impact, to help eliminate secondary impacts) blind spot detection with rear cross-traffic alerts, plus enhanced parking assist and camera aids all are new pieces. Add an upgraded Fender audio system plus a larger nav screen with increased APP-Connect smartphone functions, and the Passat joins rivals in the race to entertain you while trapped in traffic.
Traditional VW pieces also remain, small things such as heated washer nozzles, speed-sensitive power steering and a humongous trunk. The SEL moves the push-button ignition onto the console and provides keyless access.
Passat pricing starts at $21,340 with the six-speed manual transmission in S trim — among the lowest priced midsize sedans available. Our nicely equipped SEL — with heated leather seating, heated steering wheel, power sunroof — listed for $31,315 including the $820 destination fee. EPA mileage estimates for the 1.8-liter engine are 25/38/29. The Passat does not offer AWD, but perhaps it should be an option as the brand works to regain lost prestige, and customers. Similar Audi (and Subaru and Cadillac and BMW and…) models have proved that AWD sells in America.
The Passat checks many of the key boxes in the sedan derby. The VW deserves careful consideration for your next family sedan.