American cars of the late 1990s and early 2000s had a lot of things in common. They were spacious on the inside, had huge trunks, and, in their best trims, sporty looks, a relaxed suspension tune, and a potent V6 engine. The Volkswagen Passat GT is all of those things roughly two decades late.
Priced at just under $30,000, the Passat GT is a reminder of what family cars used to be. But it’s also a reminder of just how far the mid-size sedan segment has come. To customers that miss the good ole days, the Passat GT is a dream, but it’s not as sharp, pleasant to drive, or well equipped as a modern Honda Accord, Mazda6, or Toyota Camry.
Starting at $29,995 and staying there thanks to the total lack of options (standalone or packaged), the Passat GT sits in the heart of the mid-size sedan segment. That price is downright acceptable compared to similarly powered rivals from Japan. A Honda Accord Sport with the 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder and 10-speed automatic starts at $30,310, while the only other V6-powered family sedan on the market, the Toyota Camry, requires $34,400.
Well, the Volkswagen Passat looks like a sedan. The German brand's ultra-conservative styling does little to excite, even when it wears the Passat GT's unique features.
We like the standard 19-inch wheels, even though with the Passat's unchanged suspension, the sedan looks like a German donk. Standard LED running lights, a subtle lip spoiler, a black roof, and the aforementioned red grille surrounds complete the GT's look.
The cabin is fine. Just fine. The GT gets a leather-wrapped steering wheel with paddle shifters and two-tone leatherette seats, but aside from those changes, it's hard to pick the Passat GT out from its less sporty siblings. And as with those cars, it’s not nearly as nice or exciting a place to sit as an Accord or Mazda6.
Like the Volkswagen Atlas we reviewed a few weeks ago, the Passat earns kudos for its space and then loses some for its poor material quality. This is a very spacious sedan, and is a welcome respite from mid-sizers that sacrifice rear headroom for a sexy roofline.
Space in the four main seats is ample, particularly in the back, where we stuffed three grown men with only a small amount of complaining. There's 39.1 inches of legroom, which means the Passat is on par with most large sedans, rather than its traditional mid-size rivals, while even taller passengers will tolerate the second row.
As we'd expect from a VW with sporty intentions, the front seats feel appropriately bolstered. These aren't GTI thrones by any stretch, but they blend long-haul comfort with plenty of support. The backseats weren't as supportive (naturally), but with all that legroom it was hardly a bad place to sit.
Along with all the cabin space, the Passat offers up 15.9 cubic feet of cargo space. That was enough for us to make a Memorial Day run to Home Depot during the day, and then load up with camping chairs for a bonfire at night.
But like the big Atlas SUV, material quality throughout the cabin is disappointing. Plastic is the dominant material, with soft-touch sections on the dash contrasting with some awful trim that looks like a bad artist's interpretation of carbon fiber. We do like the piano black accents, the little bits of metal on the shifter, and the two-tone look for the seats (although they're only leatherette), but these touches are too spread out to really coalesce into something that feels German.
The Passat is an older product, so it misses out on some of Volkswagen's newest bits of technology. While the infotainment system has Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, the 6.3-inch touchscreen display is a generation behind the more functional, more attractive setups in the new Tiguan and Atlas. The Passat GT also misses out on the 400-watt Fender audio system available in SEL Premium trims.
Also missing is the excellent Volkswagen Digital Cockpit. Instead, there are traditional gauges and a small, monochromatic display in the center. It all feels terribly old fashioned for a vehicle being sold in 2018.
Volkswagen's 3.6-liter VR6 engine continues to be a charmer. Its sound is a reminder of how charming a V6 engine can be compared to today's buzzy four-cylinders. Power delivery is smooth and predictable, with little drama in the torque curve.
VW lists the Passat GT as carrying 280 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque – which is available at a turbo-like 2,500 rpm – and we've little reason to doubt it. There's certainly enough torque to overpower the front tires. That happened a little more often than we intended, as throttle tip in is on the slower side.
Also on the slower side is the six-speed dual-clutch automatic. Outside of Sport mode, it takes a lot of pedal to elicit a downshift, which at highway speeds makes the Passat feel more sluggish than it actually is. Properly motivated, though, this is a likable transmission. Kick it into Sport and upshifts are quick, whether via the console shifter or the paddles on the back of the steering wheel. We just wish this immediacy were present for downshifts in everyday driving.
Handling is yet another poor spot for the Passat, although only because it's so focused on ride comfort. This car is very softly sprung, bounding up and down on undulating roads. It rolls through bends, too, while the chassis and light steering fail to translate these motions to usable feedback. But again, this is a family sedan, and in terms of sheer ride comfort, the Passat GT is pleasant. We'd happily churn through large swaths of pockmarked roads, letting the cushy suspension manage the imperfections.
The Passat GT comes standard with forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking and blind-spot monitoring. But if you want stuff like adaptive cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert, or lane departure warning, you'll need to look elsewhere. Still, the Passat has plenty of airbags, including side curtains for front and rear passengers. The Passat enjoys a five-star overall crash rating from NHTSA, although a marginal ratings on the passenger side in IIHS' small-overlap front crash test and headlight tests prevent it from earning a Top Safety Pick title.
Like all other V6-powered Passats, the GT returns an EPA-estimated 19 miles per gallon city, 28 highway, and 22 combined. Those numbers lag behind some of the Passat's turbocharged rivals, like the 2.5-liter Mazda6 and the 2.0-liter Honda Accord (26 combined mpg), which is understandable. But the Passat's numbers compared to the new V6-powered Camry is more troubling – the Toyota is on par with the Mazda and Honda on the combined rating, and is nearly as impressive on the freeway, returning 22 city and 32 highway.
The Passat's price, though, is a strong point. At $29,145 and totally free of options, it's a real value compared to the aforementioned rivals, which all crest $30,000. The Passat is a particular value compared to the V6 Camry, which starts at over $34,000. You'll be getting more active safety equipment by going with the Toyota but missing out on the Passat's sporty touches. And you'll be driving a Camry.
Gallery: 2018 Volkswagen Passat GT: First Drive