Call it conservative or sober, or enduring, the VW Passat bucks the trend in family sedans to grab at eyeballs. It's the polar opposite of designs from Kia, Hyundai, Ford, even Nissan--and much more in lockstep with the traditional themes that play out on the Accord and Camry.
The Passat looks calmer, and that's one of its design objectives, VW says. Its stylists see the move toward "overstyling," and avoid it with the Passat's clean surfaces and minimal use of details and spare lines. Some of the cues are warmly rendered: the Passat bears more than a passing resemblance to the old VW Quantum, and its grille is very finely drawn, when studied up close. That kind of introspection doesn't help it snare attention, especially when the overall outline reads like the last-generation Chevrolet Impala. It still will look contemporary in a dozen years, but there's also an opportunity cost to playing it safe.
The cabin's straightforward design is mostly an asset, too. 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.
It's 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.