VW Passat keeps putting fun into the family sedan

Though it has some drawbacks, the 2017 Volkswagen Passat SEL offers plenty to love in a family sedan.

2017 Volkswagen Passat 1.8T SEL Premium: Do we forgive Volkswagen for its sins yet?

Price: $31,815 as tested (no options on test vehicle)

Conventional wisdom: Edmunds.com likes the “big, easily loaded trunk, roomy backseat …, refined highway ride… and quick acceleration” but not the “small infotainment touchscreens, transmission's sluggish responses, and less engaging driving experience.”

Marketer’s pitch: “Midsize car. Family-size fun.”

Reality: The Passat is redemption.

Bare-bones: I love getting a test vehicle that’s just basic transportation. With no options on the Passat, I was able to see what a more standard-issue Volkswagen will offer buyers, although it was a great deal upscale from the $22,440 base model.

Driver’s Seat: One of the first things a driver will notice about the 2017 Passat SEL is the super-comfortable seat, supportive and well-shaped. Hours of driving can pass without fatigue or soreness from the leather-covered delights.

Passatry? Volkswagen admitted it received lots of “Jettarolla” comments about its revamped Jetta, and the Passat feels, at first, like nothing if not a light-steeringed Toyota Camry. A great deal of play in the steering at stoplights and super-light steering at intersections made me fear this would be a far more boring ride than the last Passat I drove.

On the road: Yet on winding roads I found the Passat to be a willing dance partner. The sedan exhibited a little bit of zig through tough corners, but it could still be a fun companion.

Up to speed: The 1.8-liter four-cylinder turbo will not wow anyone used to getting places in a hurry; 170 horses just don’t do the job anymore. A V-6 version adds 110 more. (Of course, the TDI is gone.) Sport mode on the transmission selector does make the most of the available power, but even then it’s not rocket-ship territory.

Shifty: The six-speed automatic transmission functioned well enough, although when it was in Sport mode, I found it downshifted early and a little harshly for my tastes. The shiftability function didn’t feel very connected to the vehicle, and rowing gears felt slushy. A six-speed manual might add some fun.

Friends and stuff: The rear seat offers plenty of room; the Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat and I actually crossed the Fairmount neighborhood in the back of a friend’s Passat recently, and it was comfy. The console intrudes on the middle seat, though, and the hump sits fairly high, which is odd for a front-wheel-drive vehicle. Cargo space is a generous 15.9 cubic feet.

Play some tunes: This is about the only disappointment from a bare-bones vehicle these days. The infotainment system’s tiny 6.3-inch display was best suited for keeping track of about two blocks on the map. But the stereo itself offered some of the best sound in Volkswagens I recall hearing. The Fender Premium Audio did everything advertised, and played some of the clearest notes I’ve heard without any adjustment of bass, treble, or anything else. Operation was fairly simple, with a knob for volume and another for tuning. The touchscreen worked fairly well but has no place to rest your hands. Apple CarPlay functions fairly well.

Baby buttons: Volkswagen has made the mistake of “upgrading” its cruise-control functions from the old stalk on the left side of the steering wheel. The new buttons are easy to operate, but to shoehorn these controls onto the wheel, some of the radio controls have shrunk to exceedingly small proportions and are hard to follow.

Night shift: Volkswagen seems to have the best map light set-up in the business. The light shines brightly enough to really make seeing in the cabin clear, yet it doesn’t interfere with the road view at all. The headlights are also clear and diffuse.

Fuel economy: Though the trip computer resets after long shutoffs, I averaged 33 on highway trips and about 28 on in-town trips, so we’ll call it 30 mpg. The Passat drinks regular unleaded.

Where it’s built: Chattanooga, Tenn.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports predicts the reliability to be worse than average, which is about where it’s been since the 2012 redesign.

In the end: Volkswagen has had its issues in recent years, among them reliability in general, but the Passat remains such a joy that I’d still give it some consideration among sedan choices.

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