Volkswagen wants you to see the new Passat as an island of placid, timeless design, and when it's parked side by side with the competition, it holds true. When it's on its own, though, the Passat can appear a little distant and plain.
Each time you read the Passat's side view and study its surfaces, you'll see echoes of some distant VW--mostly, of the old Quantum sedans, and maybe the Chinese-market Santana. There's a common outline with the Chevrolet Impala, and it's nearly the same size but far more cohesive than the Honda Accord. No matter what, you notice the starkness, compared to the Sonata and Optima and Fusion and Altima, and it can read a little dull. The long glass in the rear doors flattens out the shape in an unflattering way, but the clean take is expertly detailed up front, and almost Volvo-like at the rear pillars. VW thinks this look still will look good in a few years when flashier themes have waned, and we're inclined to agree--even if that runs counter to the American idiom.
The cabin's prime assets are divided on a north-south axis. Above the shoulder line, the Passat wears nicer, more tightly grained plastics; the harder, open-textured stuff lives beneath that line. There's an admirable straightforwardness in the controls, something Volkswagen's managed to preserve since the mid-1990s while sister brand Audi's gone totally off the function/form reservation. The dials are big and readable at a glance, with thin chrome bangles to set them off the dark backdrop. Woodgrain or metallic treatments panel the broad dash, and the ancillary controls have logical dials placed in logical places. Part of the new Passat's frugal, traditional take means there's little of the complexity of, say, the Sonata's dash to rein in, and none of the iPad homages we'll get in some versions of the 2013 Ford Taurus. It's buttons and switches, right where you expect them to be, like a swig of automotive throwback Pepsi, circa 1994, right down to the handbrake on the center console.