Road test: 2016 Volkswagen Passat

The facelifted family saloon is more than just some car.

The 2016 Volkswagen Passat is spacious, and comes with a new infotainment centre with touchscreen interface. Courtesy Volkswagen
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It’s a little bit worrying when the region’s motoring media is being briefed by a car-company executive about the attributes of a new model, and one of the main things he highlights is the design of the rear-view mirror. If having a “frameless” mirror is news, surely it means the rest of the car is going to be a bit of a letdown.

Not so the new Passat. And the reason the now-famous mirror is being made a fuss of is quite simple: this is a car that’s here to make life easier for its owners, and the designers have even gone to the trouble of making sure that grimy fingerprints can quickly and effectively be removed from the glass of its mirror. It isn’t a highlight – it’s simply an example of the lengths Volkswagen has gone to in what, in these parts and the United States at least, is marketed as a bargain model.

Europe gets a completely different Passat, and it’s a rather handsome machine. It won the prestigious European Car of the Year award in 2015, and to be honest, you would be proud to park it outside your office every day – it smacks of premium German engineering, but the one we get, err, doesn’t. What we get is basic transportation dressed up as something nice, manufactured in the US. And you know what? That’s just fine. Because “our” Passat brings a bit of class to the masses, who might otherwise be unable to afford such a large, well-built family car.

It might not be as cutting edge as its European namesake, but it’s actually a larger car, and this “facelift” newbie features some rather enticing details that you would struggle to find elsewhere with an entry price of just Dh87,823. The exterior has been spruced up with new lamps, front and rear, along with some subtly effective new chrome detailing. It isn’t a huge visual departure, but it’s enough. Inside, the developments are less obvious, and the dash architecture is familiar to any Passat owners from a decade ago, but once you start prodding around, you find plenty of evidence of progress.

Aside from that rear-view mirror (which is actually a really good idea), there’s a new steering wheel and a new (standard) infotainment centre with a swipe touchscreen, which perfectly interfaces with an iPhone or ­Android handset. Bluetooth connectivity is also standard. The materials used to trim the cabin are a mix of soft and hard ­plastics, but the overall impression is that this is a car that costs much more than it does – which might be enough to tempt buyers from their default choice of a Toyota Camry.

Seats are cloth-covered in the base “S” model, and the more you spend, the more luxury you get for your dirham, although I’m not sure “leatherette” screams premium these days. That said, there’s a welcome feeling of spaciousness, particularly in the rear quarters, and there’s a cavernous boot that will make family outings and shopping trips much easier to cope with.

Occupant safety was obviously at the top of the agenda when engineering this Passat – there’s a new Automatic Post-­Collision Braking System that, in the event of an accident, assesses the extent of damage, and if the airbags have been deployed (of which there are plenty), immediately cuts the fuel supply and applies the brakes so the car won’t roll away. As for thoughtful features that you might not have previously considered, how about a boot lid that’s impossible to close if you have left the vehicle’s keyfob in with your shopping bags? A nice touch that could potentially save its owner a major headache.

Under the bonnet is where the new Passat shows its age, however. Its 2.5L, five-cylinder engine produces a measly 170hp, teamed up with a six-speed automatic gearbox. This translates into performance that isn’t electrifying, but it’s perfectly adequate for what the car will be used for in the main. On the plus side, it’s quiet and refined, while the transmission goes about its business without you even noticing it. There’s a “Sport” mode, but from what I can tell, the only thing it does is make the engine louder. It certainly doesn’t turn the Passat into a Golf GTI.

The suspension is basic but perfectly damped, with road imperfections smothered away in a manner befitting much more expensive luxury cars. There’s little in the way of body roll when cornering, and the steering feels just the right side of light when on the move, weighting up at pedestrian speeds, but never so that you find it a struggle.

So is the new Passat just some car that’s capable yet unremarkable? In some respects, yes, but it’s greater than the sum of its parts, and offers looks and a feeling of solidity that its Japanese rivals can’t hope to match. I’m tempted to buy one myself as the family runabout – at that price, what could go wrong?

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