What is it?
The new, eighth-generation VW Passat – which has quietly become a very important model for Volkswagen. Only a handful of cars have ever had the lasting popularity to break through the 20 million mark on cumulative worldwide sales. Volkswagen’s made three all on its own.
In Europe, we’d recognise two of those three as genuine automotive institutions: the Golf and the original Beetle.
If you’d pick the Passat as Wolfsburg’s third sales titan, you’re smarter than me. In China, they would; North America, perhaps. Us Europeans may not realise it but, on the back of huge success in those markets in particular, the Passat (and its derivatives) has now become the fastest-selling VW on the planet.
Success breeds confidence – and the new eighth-generation Passat, which is coming to UK showrooms early next year, though orders open this month - reeks of it. This is still a deeply conventional, conservative, evolutionary car, as you’d expect of something so established – but it’s ambitious.
VW’s intent is clearly to present the mature European markets with a genuine alternative to a fully-fledged, premium-branded compact executive option; something that asks them to trade just a touch of brand cachet for the sort of quality, refinement, comfort, technology and space that better sets a car apart.
This time around, VW’s versatile MQB platform forms the basis of the car – and brings with it some telling gains. On average, 85kg has been saved from each version of the Passat in the jump between generations, while the car’s interior and exterior designers benefitted from the opportunity to stretch the wheelbase while simultaneously making the car shorter, lower and wider.
Cabin length is up by 33mm, and rear headroom by almost as much, and available boot space grows too.
What's it like?
The car feels as spacious as almost anything in the class now – and yet it’s actually shrunk. And, as ever, it’s as solidly constructed, generously appointed and meticulously finished as even the best premium saloons.
The Passat’s cabin isn’t one to delight you with colour or a theatrical flourish, but instead to gently soothe with its simplicity and substance. From the climate control knobs to the trip computer and multimedia buttons, every rotor and switch feels solid, intuitively placed.
The boldest feature is a grille-aping spar running the full width of the dashboard that turns the air vents into a unifying styling theme.
Elsewhere, the satin chrome trims are tastefully deployed and every single above-the-knee moulding is soft and tactile. Every storage cubby is flock-lined. The doors close with the kind of ‘whump’ that could seal a space shuttle’s airlock. This is a Passat alright – done with even greater commitment to the car’s familiar ideals.
All versions come as standard with conventional instruments, but a few months after launch VW will offer the optional 12.3-inch Active Info Display of our test car, with its configurable dials and handy multimedia screen nestling between them. A head-up display is also optional, while the upper-trim 8-inch Discover Pro infotainment system atop of the centre stack carries plenty of new functionality such as app-mirroring for Android smartphones, and live traffic and Google Earth functionality.
This is a car fitted with every active safety system VW has, that’ll actually reverse-park a caravan or trailer for you if you option it up appropriately. VW’s taking it to the premium brands on technological sophistication as much as anything here, in some style.
The Passat has been a diesel-only range for UK buyers since 2012, and with the exception of the Passat GTE plug-in hybrid and the Passat R performance version, it’ll continue to be. Engines will span from a 118bhp 1.6-litre TDI, through 2.0-litre TDIs in 148bhp and 187bhp outputs, up to the brand new 237bhp twin-turbo diesel we sampled. A Bluemotion comes later.
The car’s MacPherson strut front, four-link rear suspension has been adapted and developed from what you’ll find in a Golf; new control arms, pivot bearings and anti-roll bars feature, while you get ride-isolating fluid-filled bushings at the rear if you opt for the headline diesel model. Also standard on the BiTDI is Haldex-based four-wheel drive and VW’s wet-clutched seven-speed DSG gearbox.
This engine’s only offered in upper-level ‘GT’ and ‘R-Design’ trim levels, positioning it head-to-head on price with cars from the richer end of the BMW 3-series and Audi A4 line-up. In lots of ways, it’s more than worthy of the comparison; on fuel-efficiency and cabin isolation, particularly so.
Though you expect a diesel with this kind of specific output to be fairly vociferous, the Passat’s pleasingly quiet throughout most of the rev range. But the character of the powerplant, which uses parallel low- and high-pressure turbos, isn’t much different from that of a normal four-pot turbodiesel.
Pedal response is clean, the torque comes on thick and strong through the lower-middle of the rev range and, though the crankshaft spins willingly up to 4000rpm and beyond for overtaking, it delivers little by way of a sporting climax. The car’s fast enough when roused – but seldom do you feel sufficiently excited to gee it up.
Getting the adaptive dampers of VW’s Dynamic Chassis Control system and the progressive steering rack from the Golf GTI as standard, the BiTDi has the familiar ‘Comfort’, ‘Normal’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Individual’ modes to its handling repertoire.
Each of the first three serve up what it says on the tin, broadly speaking. The car’s outright body control ranges from respectable to tight-and-tetchy as you ramp up the settings.
Grip levels are ample; the variable-rate steering’s decent, with increasing weight to correspond with directness as you add lock, but little contact patch feel.
As is the norm with VW Group machines, you arrive at the best compromise of ride comfort and fluency, transmission response and steering centre-feel by mixing settings on the ‘Individual’ mode. The end result is perfectly satisfactory, but more refined and pliant than it is poised or engaging.
Should I buy one?
You should, but the question is whether you want one. Ordinary family saloons aren’t exactly flavour of the month, after all.
Even without the dynamism of a true sports saloon, the Passat’s good enough to top the volume-brand saloon class – new Ford Mondeo notwithstanding. But that doesn’t earn it an unqualified recommendation any more.
It’ll be a particularly level-headed customer who can shun the allure of an Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz to buy one – or the pull of a compact SUV or crossover for that matter.
You wouldn’t bet on a great many doing it. But with so much apparent quality, refinement, efficiency, practicality and convenience on its side, this is a very accomplished car that certainly deserves to do well.
VW Passat 2.0 BiTDi GT 4Motion
Price £34,510; 0-62mph 6.1sec; Top speed 149mph; Economy 53.3mpg; CO2 139g/km; Kerbweight 1721kg; Engine 4cyls, 1968cc, twin-turbocharged diesel; Power 237bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 369lb ft between 1750-2500rpm; Gearbox 7-speed dual-clutch automatic