First drive: Volkswagen Passat

The Volkswagen Passat is not a glamorous car. Nor is it sporty or good looking. Or exciting or even particularly cheap. What it is is a safe, dependable, utterly inoffensive way of racking up motorway miles without ever standing out. A business commuter. A family workhorse.

That description is not meant as a criticism. Volkswagen, the undisputed master of middle-class market domination, has shifted 15 million Passats on the basis of this sturdy reputation since the car was launched in 1973.
So successful is the formula that any deviation from its middle-of-the-road ethos would be as troubling to its customer base as Waitrose selling bondage gear or Eamonn Holmes taking up crystal meth.

Fortunately the seventh generation of the Passat pulls no punches. In fact, it doesn't even take the risk of being a particularly new car – underneath the new skin it's pretty much the same model that has been rolling off the production line since 2005.

The new body comes courtesy of Volkswagen's obsession with its current design language. Hence the Passat gets the same nose which has already been rolled out on the rest of the German giant's broad range.

However, while most of the other offerings have been improved by the new family face, the Passat seems dowdier than ever. Perhaps this is because VW has already built a very attractive saloon in the shape of the Passat CC (the four-door coupe version) and it's hard not to summon up the image of that model when looking at its younger sibling.

The freshening up continues inside though, where the car gets a revised dashboard, new trim finishes and a gently updated centre console. It might not feel significantly different from its predecessor, but the interior is one of the Passat's undoubted strengths. Solidly handsome, edging towards upmarket (without exuding the implied sportiness of an Audi) and incredibly well laid out, the cabin feels like somewhere you could easily lose a long journey in.

It's no coincidence that the Passat drives in a very similar style to how it looks. This is a machine built to absorb family holidays and tedious business trips up the M1, and much of VW's work has been devoted to making the car a quieter, nicer place to be. Consequently sound deadening has been improved throughout and even the windscreen gets an acoustic film sandwiched between the glass.

The result is a much improved sense of refinement. To say the Passat wafts is an overstatement, but the car does exhibit a whisper quiet sense of transit. It's comfortable too (especially on the optional adjustable suspension) and never feels less than capable. Anaesthetised steering means the car fails to entertain, but there's plenty of grip to play with, and some decent pace is not out of the question if you pick the right powerplant.

Unfortunately that does preclude the new 1.6-litre TDI. In Bluemotion form the engine delivers the prospect of 68mpg and CO2 emissions of just 109g/km, but the small diesel lump makes you earn every drop of that frugality with its lacklustre performance.

The 2.0-litre TDI is a far better choice in either its 137bhp or 166bhp guises, but we'd go for the more powerful version simply because it makes motorway overtaking reasonably effortless. The petrol line-up isn't bad either with the 1.8-litre TSI probably offering the best compromise between economy and gusto.

Three trim levels will be available in the UK; S, SE and Sport. With fleet sales likely to dominate the Passat's end-of-year figures expect the SE version to be the volume seller. The standard spec list adds iPod connectivity, a DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity and even a fatigue detection system.

The latter is part of a range of safety technologies (some of them optional) which include adaptive cruise control, full park assist and even city emergency brake which automatically stops the car below 18mph if it detects the prospect of an unavoidable collision.

All these features have appeared on more expensive VW models prior to their introduction on the Passat range, and their inclusion signifies the brand's fixation with positioning the model slightly further upmarket. That will not concern the model's middle-aged buyers – indeed, they will welcome it – what will really impact on them is the strength of the opposition at the car's £18,470 starting price (and the £3k more you'll pay for a 2.0-litre TDI).

The mainstream opposition from Ford and Vauxhall is certainly to be respected, but VW will be counting on the Passat's superior interior quality and better refinement to snare the punters. That and the sterling reputation the model has for reliable, unflustered and inconspicuous service.

Beneath the new tinsel, the seventh-generation car remains a worthy testament to that mentality.
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