Reporter's Notebook: Farewell, Passat
Of course, things change. The market changed. No longer were mid-sized family sedans attractive to families. Consumers choose the SUV instead.
For over a decade, Volkswagen demonstrated that it could produce vehicles in the USA again. After closing the Westmoreland, Pennsylvania plant in 1988, the German automaker took their time to return back to our side of the Atlantic with a sprawling facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
After opening for business in 2011, the first product that came out of the new assembly line was the Americanized version of the Passat. The sleek European model was set aside for a new platform – the New Midsize Sedan – and some compromises for the entry into a competitive segment for the time.
Of course, things change. The market changed. No longer were mid-sized family sedans attractive to families. Consumers choose the SUV instead. They were bigger, more spacious, and offered a lot of cargo space.
Obviously, Volkswagen followed suit. While touting the qualities of the bigger Passat, they started production of the Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport at the same Chattanooga facility. The response to the mid-size SUVs grew along with sales trends across the industry.
The result was obvious. The Passat became irrelevant to keep on producing and selling in this country. Therefore, Volkswagen announced that the 2022 model year would be the mid-size sedan’s last in North America.
As of right now, the Passat is no longer assembled in Tennessee. The last units at Volkswagen dealers will be the last mid-size sedans sold by the brand in the USA.
Upon this occasion, I took some time to reflect upon my work with the NMS Passat. Before I do, I must acknowledge why this car was important to cover for my outlets – including here – and the legacy it will leave behind.
The legacy of this sedan began when Volkswagen introduced the first Passat in this country as an act of revolutionizing the company’s image worldwide. The Dasher, Quantum, and Passat found customers to keep this mid-sized family car in the lineup for 48 years. For flipping Volkswagen from a lineup of air-cooled, rear-mounted, flat-cylinder engine vehicles to water-cooled, in-line (and narrow-angle V) engine vehicles, the Passat simply helped change the company’s fortunes for almost five decades.
My NMS Passat journey began in 2013, with a quick run in a five-cylinder model from a friend’s dealership. It was part of a “flight” of Volkswagen models – a sampling of key models. I remarked how big the cabin was – perhaps the best rear seat room in its class at the time.
I also noticed how quiet it was. And it would be a good long distance cruiser. All of this from a short stint in a 2013 Passat.
A year-and-a-half later, a succession of Passat sedans showed up for a week’s work at a time. In 2014, I had a 2015 TDI version. Right before the “dieselgate” hit the fan. Had I known that I was emitting more fluorocarbons into the air than tested, I would not have praised it so much. That was how good the TDI was.
That was followed by a 2016 1.8-liter turbocharged Passat. That year saw a mid-cycle refresh that was subtle, but necessary. It also came right on the heels of a comparison win at Cars.com, where the court of public opinion – i.e. social media – had a Karen-like fit over the result due to the “dieselgate” scandal place in the news cycle.
The turbocharged engine was not a compromise. Rather, it was complimentary. I found that to be true in subsequent Passat drives prior to the bump in displacement to 2.0-liters. While one no longer can achieve diesel-level fuel consumption in a Passat, it still returned great economy and range.
Later in 2016, a 2017 VR6 model showed up. I picked it up at an off-site airport parking lot near Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport when arrived back from the Midwest Automotive Media Association annual festivities in Chicago. It was as frozen as I was. Then, it came alive. The VR6 engine was quite the throttle monster – and a smooth operator at that!
It was also the most luxurious Passat I ever reviewed. The SEL trim on the 2017 VR6 was sumptuous. Granted, I never drove a Volkswagen Phaeton when they were around, but I’ll bet this is as close as I could get to one. Maybe. It was still a spacious sedan with a bit of oomph.
In 2018, the Passat received the aforementioned 2.0-liter version of the TSI turbocharged engine. The one issue that was brought up was that the power bump was only four horsepower from the 1.8-liter TSI. This was at a time when horsepower was on the climb across the segment.
While this tester wore the SEL’s leather upholstery, my main concern with the 2018 Passat was fuel economy. It did average 31.4 MPG – the highest in a non-diesel Passat. At least there’s some truth about the race towards efficiency, even as horsepower and engine displacement continue to increase.
The last Passat arrived at the beginning stages of the COVID-19 Pandemic. The 2020 SEL arrived with a new skin and a few updates here and there. The larger screen and improved infotainment system helped its cause. Yet, I wondered if this was enough to keep the Passat relevant in the marketplace.
One thing this 2020 Passat SEL did was to help me relieve some stress I had during this pandemic. An overnight drive into Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin proved how good a cruising sedan the Passat was. The space alone still was a selling point. As was the fuel economy – this time reaching an average of 33.4 MPG.
All of these Volkswagen Passat sedans have one thing in common: They yielded positive experiences for me. They never ran out of interest compared to other vehicles I worked with in the past eleven years. That is a testament on how well Volkswagen thought out this car for our market.
There are still some that wished Volkswagen would have imported the B7 Passat from Germany instead. There are some who wished they would have sent the B7 down the Chattanooga assembly line rather than the NMS Passat. Yet, we have to realize that Volkswagen wanted to gain back ground in this market that it lost in previous years. To do so, they had to match what consumers in North America wanted at the time and deliver something relevant for them.
I have mixed feelings about the end of production for the Volkswagen Passat. Granted, it was one of the most comfortable, efficient, and nice-to-drive sedans in its class. While it was engineered for America families, there was still an essence that made it a Volkswagen.
However, Volkswagen also sells a mid-size car that I love as much as the Passat – the Arteon. Yes, it’s a hatchback. It has a lower roofline and does not offer the Passat’s spacious rear seat room. And, it costs a lot more. However, it is a proven long distance cruiser with a bit more performance from its 2.0-liter turbocharged engine.
Naturally, Passat owners would wind up trading in their beloved sedans for the Tiguan, Atlas Cross Sport, and Atlas. That is what the market has dictated since the proliferation of the SUV. Yet, we lose another sedan to this trend in the marketplace. That's our reality right now.
I will miss the Volkswagen Passat. My moments with this mid-size sedan certainly yielded plenty of bandwidth over the past eleven years.
All photos by Randy Stern