First drive: The updated Volkswagen Passat continues to be an appealing alternative to a premium SUV
What is it?
The Volkswagen Passat is a huge car – and not just in a dimensional sense. It’s been around since the 70s and has proved so successful that the 30 millionth example rolled off the production line in April.
So, while you might not have been paying attention to this mid-sized executive car, it’s been quietly racking up sales, driven largely by company fleets. The fact the estate outsells the saloon on these shores by two to one shows it’s even resistant to the SUV onslaught. (Even if sales have slowed thanks to consumers’ 4×4 obsession.)
This being a mid-life refresh, there’s nothing too drastic to report. On the outside, styling changes are minimal, something we’re getting used to as manufacturers overhaul engines to meet strict new emissions targets rather than spend time and money on a fresh face.
However, the Passat has become the first VW to get the firm’s new semi-autonomous driving aid called Travel Assist. It combines the latest adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist to maintain driving with minimal input from the driver. It’s particularly useful in stop/start traffic, but it’s a long way short of similar systems used by the likes of Audi and Mercedes.
The big news, though, is powertrain-related, with an updated plug-in hybrid model and new engines with particulate filters and cylinder deactivation included in the range to improve economy and emissions.
What’s under the bonnet?
The UK range will feature three petrols, four diesels and the petrol-electric plug-in hybrid. We got behind the wheel of the middle diesel, a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged unit making 237bhp and 500Nm of torque.
It’s an impressive bit of kit and suits the Passat’s character perfectly, despite having a disappointingly old school diesel chug. Out on the road, the decent torque figure means that briskly pulling out of junctions requires little forethought or commitment, while the surge of performance in the middle of the rev range makes motorway overtakes a cinch.
However, with economy figures of 40mpg and CO2 emissions of 156g/km, those focusing on low running costs might be better off with this engine in 148bhp guise. VW doesn’t have economy figures for that just yet, but expects it to be the UK’s best-seller when it joins the range later this year.
What’s it like to drive?
The Passat formula hasn’t changed for a long time. It’s a big, comfortable, practical family car that’s ideal for those who travel many miles on the motorway and need something with lots of space for kids and/or work equipment.
Therefore, it’s at its best when you follow blue signage to M roads and let the engine sink into a low-effort cruise. The ride is comfortable, soaking up road imperfections with little fuss. That all changes if you select Sport from the drive mode selector, though – this large load-lugger doesn’t suddenly transform into a thrilling B-road companion, it just makes cracks in the road annoyingly obvious.
Despite its size, it’s also surprisingly adept at inner-city life, too. Flick back to one of the other drive modes and that comfortable ride means potholes and badly repaired roads go largely unnoticed in the cabin, helped by efforts by VW to reduce body vibrations being transferred to the cabin. It’s all very relaxing.
How does it look?
Aesthetic upgrades might be few and far between, but even so, there’s no denying the new Passat is a handsome thing – particularly in R-Line specification, as our test car is, which means it gets a sportier, more upmarket look. The flat grey paintwork and black accents give it an air of sophistication, while we sincerely hope plenty of buyers are brave enough to go for the bottle green paint. It’s lovely.
Volkswagen told us that its market research says buyers perceive the Passat as a premium option, pitching it against heavy hitters such as the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. The bold, angular styling and deep metallic paint really help it feel like a genuine alternative – as does the interior build quality.
One thing to note here, though – we only had access to high-spec models at the launch and haven’t seen entry level models yet. The Passat does have a history of looking a little dull in lower trims, struggling more to wear its premium badge.
What’s it like inside?
If there’s one area that Volkswagen struggles just a touch when trying to fit in as a true premium alternative to the established players in this segment, it’s the cabin. The Arteon, for example, felt more like a bigger, high-spec Golf than a true premium limo for example. Great, but not special.
The same could be said of the Passat interior, which looks near enough identical to the Arteon, but given the fact that equivalent models should be less expensive it works better here.
There’s a lot of space inside, everything feels solidly put together, and there are plenty of high-quality materials, though scratchy plastics on the centre console are a little disappointing.
Meanwhile, Volkswagen’s infotainment system is up there with the best of them. It’s hard to find too much to whinge about.
What’s the spec like?
Again, UK specifications have not yet been revealed, but we know the trim levels will be SE, SEL and R-Line, with a limited-run estate-only R-Line Edition, which will be available at launch. Based on the standard equipment list at the international launch, even entry-level models should have plenty of kit.
Expect smartphone integration, LED headlights and taillights and safety equipment such as front collision assist to be included on all models. Travel Assist will also be standard across the range, so all Passat buyers will have access to VW’s advanced adaptive cruise control.
Expect the usual upgrades of styling kits, larger alloy wheels, more advanced safety and entertainment equipment, and more premium upholstery inside. A Dynaudio sound system will also be available as an option, which we’re told has proved hugely popular on other models in VW’s range.
With over 30 million built, it’s clear that the Volkswagen Passat has quietly built itself into a behemoth of the executive car market. As SUVs continue to eat into the sales of traditional saloons and estates, it’s a shame that models such as this could be going the way of the dodo.
With a capacious and well-appointed cabin, plenty of practicality, an excellent range of powerful and economical engines and a premium appearance, the Passat continues to provide an enticing alternative in this segment.
If you need the space and cover plenty of motorway miles, it really does cover all bases. It might just be strong enough to keep you out of that SUV, too.