Is it timeless, or plain? That's the decision left up to buyers when faced with the Volkswagen Passat and a slew of four-door sedans, everything along the spectrum from the latest Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima, to the Nissan Altima and Mazda6, to the truly conservative wing it shares with the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
It's a placid, calm look--intentionally so, since VW thinks some of the latest efforts are overstyled, and won't stand the test of time. Nothing in the lines or surfaces suggests anything suggestive, and in context, that can make the Passat read a little dull. We're becoming more and more warm to its jewel-like details, especially the finely drawn grille, and to the references to the old VW Quantum sedans, too. At the same time, there's a common outline shared with today's Chevy Impala, and some starkness that obviously hasn't impacted sales. It's at its least convincing around the rear doors, stretched for the extra rear-seat space (the design's also deployed in China, where the Passat is a chauffeur-driven car). We agree that this Passat's styling will still look good when other designs will look very specific to a time and date, but it does run counter to an inherent flashy meme that runs through truly great cars.
The cabin's design is divided on a north-south axis. Above the shoulder line, the Passat wears nicer, more tightly grained plastics; the harder, open-textured stuff lives below. 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're seeing in some versions of the Taurus and Fusion. Here, it's all 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.