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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 12/10/15. The 2016 Volkswagen Passat test drive on Thursday, December 10, 2015.

Fast facts

' Model: 2016 Volkswagen Passat 1.8T SE

' Exterior color: Reflex Silver Metallic

' Interior color: Moonrock Gray with Quartz piping

' Engine: 1.8-liter turbocharged, four-cylinder

' Horsepower: 170

' Transmission: six-speed automatic

' Fuel economy: 38 mpg highway, 25 mpg city

' Dealer: Village Volkswagen of Chattanooga, 6001 International Drive

' Sticker Price (as tested): $27,420

Remember the heady days in 2011 when Motor Trend magazine named the Chattanooga-made Volkswagen Passat its Car of the Year? Praised for its functionality and value, the redesigned-for-North America 2012 Passat was a big hit with members of the automotive press and consumers.

Alas, buyers of midsize cars are a fickle lot. In short, they want it all: durability, safety, performance and a dash of styling. The conservatively-styled Passat soon had some stiff competition from a dashing new Ford Fusion, a crisply-designed new Honda Accord and a refreshed Toyota Camry. As domestic sales of the Passat began to flatten, VW took a further sales hit this fall after the company acknowledged emissions software irregularities in some models and put the popular Passat turbo-diesel (TDI) on the shelf until a fix is found.

Well, the home team clearly needs to put its rally caps on, and the newly redesigned 2016 Passat delivers a host of upgrades which should translate into new sales momentum. The new Passat boasts improvements in design, comfort, technology, safety and, perhaps most importantly, value.

The 2016 Passat, which starts at $22,440 in base trim, has new sheet metal — including a striking new face — a tastefully upgraded interior and a much-improved new telematics system.

Meanwhile, VW has managed to keep the cost of mid-trim Passats squarely in the sweet spot for family sedans. Our well-appointed SE tester, provided by Village Volkswagen on International Drive in Chattanooga, has a sticker price of $27,420 before dealer installed options. Meanwhile, a fully-optioned V-6 model can top $36,000. A new R-Line trim, positioned between the entry-level S and mid-level SE, offers some sporty embellishments at a reasonable price.

Equipped with a smooth 1.8-liter turbocharged, four-cylinder engine, the bread-and-butter choice for this generation of Passats, our test car makes 170 horsepower and returns a remarkable 38 miles per gallon in highway driving, 25 mpg city. A 3.6-liter V-6 is also available.

STYLING AND FEATURES

Volkswagen says every exterior body panel on the 2016 Passat is new except the doors and roof. Most of the design tweaks are found in the forward third of the car. They include a new sculpted hood, a more angular headlight treatment and a bold, new grill. The result is a much sharper-looking design front to back, albeit one that remains conservative enough to age gracefully.

Our Reflex Silver Metallic tester also has attractive 15-spoke wheels and new chrome-work on the rear that accents the horizontal flow of the new design. The result is a razor sharp profile, in contrast to the softer lines of the outgoing model.

Inside, VW has significantly upgraded the materials in the Passat to near-Audi quality. Our tester has Moonrock Gray leatherette seating surfaces with Quartz piping. The front seats are heated. A new dash design includes an easy-to-read instrument cluster and a nifty new, 6.3-inch touch-screen with swipe functions like your smartphone. A sporty new steering wheel and a frameless rear-view mirror both add to the car's premium feel.

VW's new Car-Net interface supports Apple Carplay and Android Auto so the Passat can communicate seamlessly with most smartphones. The Standard MIB II infotainment system also has USB connectivity, an important upgrade.

Inside, the Passat — a true five-passenger sedan — feels roomy, with loads of shoulder and hip room. It also has expansive rear-seat legroom that is the envy of the class. Two-tone door and dash panels add to the upscale vibe. Our SE tester includes a sunroof, satellite radio, adaptive cruise control and forward collision warning. All new Passats have a clever feature that continues to apply the brakes during a crash even if the driver becomes incapacitated.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

The 1.8-liter turbo-charged engine in our Passat tester proved to be strong and responsive during our mid-morning test drive on Chattanooga highways. While it might not have as much off-the-mark torque as the Passat TDI or the Passat V-6, the gasoline-powered turbo is still lots of fun to drive.

It's sounds like a cliche, but there really is a noticeable difference in the driving characteristics of most German-engineered cars. The Passat's electronic steering is taut, and handling is precise. At highways speeds, the Passat also has one of the quietest cockpits in the segment, which means a lot if you do much long-range driving.

Visibility is excellent in all directions, and it was easy for us to find a comfortable driving position. On the curving back roads around Chickamauga Dam, the nibble Passat was in its element.

BOTTOM LINE

In the case of the new Passat, the bottom line really is the bottom line — the price. For about same price as cars from U.S., Japanese and Korean carmakers you can own a German-engineered, American-made driver's delight. And now that the Passat's infotainment and safety technology has caught up with the segment leaders, look for Chattanooga's first-born VW model to have the wind at its back for a change.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

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