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Did you know that the Volkswagen Passat and all its derivatives (CC and Alltrack) outsell the Golf worldwide? In fact, it is the most popular VW full-stop.
That means that getting this new eighth-generation model - which holds much of the German company’s fortunes on its newly widened flanks like Atlas - totally right was very important to the company’s overall health indeed.
As with nearly all Volkswagens sized above the Polo, the new 2015 Volkswagen Passat was earmarked from the get-go to be based in its ubiquitous MQB matrix, a front- and all-wheel drive ‘toolbox’ that emphasises commonality with other VW Group models to lower costs.
The new Passat is a little smaller dimensionally but roomier inside thanks to a 79mm longer wheelbase, a fair whack lighter and more frugal than before, and may just have the most advanced in-cabin electronics of any Volkswagen Group model below Audi.
See the full specifications story here.
Yes, despite the evolutionary looks — actually a fair departure when you view the old and new cars interacting — this car is a serious departure, in much the same way as the Golf Mk7 moved the game on significantly from the Mk6.
The new design is still very 'safe' but bolder than before. First there is the wide grille and slim headlights that give the impression of width. Meanwhile the prominent shoulder line that bleeds into the rear lights adds a dose of masculinity to the design.
But stop right there. Unfortunately for Australia, it is not a red-hot priority for the new Passat. Mid-sized cars are declining locally even further this year. This means our German-made versions won’t arrive for another 12 months, probably about October 2015.
However, since we were in Europe for the 2014 Paris motor show, it seemed reasonable to stay a little while longer and join the global launch of the new model to give you a taste test.
Unfortunately, given the timing of the Australian launch, final specifications remain undecided, though we know we’ll get 132 TSI and 135 TDI engines (you’ll recognise versions these from the Skoda Octavia among others) seven- and six-speed DSG transmissions respectively and front-wheel drive as standard, starting around the price of the current car that kicks off at $38,990 plus on-road costs.
That said, Volkswagen may opt to drop prices by a small margin. The company aims to become a top-five marque locally and attain proper mainstream status like it has in Europe. A Comfortline 132 TSI sedan entry price of $35K would undoubtedly assist in achieving that goal.
That said, the most engaging possibility is the 176 TDI Biturbo diesel range-topper with 176kW/500Nm and 4Motion all-wheel drive that is under consideration as a new circa-$55K range-topper.
The European 162kW and 206kW hot petrols seem less likely, unfortunately. And the GTE plug-in hybrid? No chance for a few years at least.
Chief rivals when it finally arrives will be our current class-favourite, the Mazda 6, plus the new-generation Ford Mondeo which is even more belatedly set to launch in Australia in about March 2015 (following an unveiling in 2012 in the US) but which is making waves in Europe. Subaru also launches its new Liberty/Outback twins in early 2015.
However, expect high-end versions to be cross-shopped against base Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Lexus IS and Mercedes-Benz C-Class models. Volkswagen lacks the badge cred, but the Passat has size and spec on its side, plus power and torque.
While in many countries around the world the Passat is a mainstream option - some call it the ‘Toyota Camry of Europe’ - this new one is designed to be a semi-premium offering to keep Audi on its toes and redress the self-confessed lack of excitement offered by the outgoing car.
The cabin is a genuinely premium affair, especially on the Highline versions we tested. The new fascia is clean and simple and perhaps a little similar to the Golf, but the genuine and surprisingly tasteful and textural wood and aluminium inserts, for example, are not.
Other lovely touches include the way the vents merge into chrome-like lines that run horizontally over the width of the dash, the stylish analogue clock and the flat-bottomed steering wheel and wrap-around ambient lighting that runs along the doors.
It also brims with technology new to the nameplate. Boldly, Volkswagen claims to have introduced more technology on this car than any other in its history. Hmmm.
At a basic level, the swipe-friendly touchscreen works better than most, even if we’d prefer a rotary dial system a la Audi or the Mazda 6. Better though is the optional 1440 x 540 pixel, 12.3-inch Active Info Display that encompasses the digital dials and can displays the car’s functions, multimedia and sat-nav under the driver’s eyes.
Once you acclimatise to this system, applied here for the second time after the new Audi TT, you do not want to go back to tilting your head to the fascia. The imminent, Mazda 3/Mini-style flip-up glass heads-up display will take this up another notch.
Some of the Group’s active, passive and preventative assist technologies are impressive as well.
Trailer Assist, which allows you to use the mirror toggle as a joystick to park a trailer semi-autonomously (it works once you're used to it), a rear cross-traffic assist that can also brake autonomously from the rear, and Predictive Pedestrian Protection, which uses a camera and radar to detect pedestrians on the roadside.
Low-speed autonomous braking comes standard on all models.
The cabin also proved acceptably spacious. There is marginally more room for both the legs (thanks to a 33mm longer cabin) and the head in this new model. Germans are a tall people, as is your correspondent, and the rear seats are clearly designed with that in mind. The rear also has vents, climate controls (on the Highline) and a trio of adjustable headrests.
The prominent driveshaft on our 4Motion test car made the centre-rear seat a little high and perch-like, and also limited storage between the front seats somewhat.
Both sedan and wagon versions sport 60:40 split-fold rear seats, and luggage space is increased on both versions (650 litres with seats up/1780L with seats down for the wagon; 586L for the sedan — enough for three check-in pieces of luggage and two carry-ons, if you wanted to know).
The wagon we tested also had rails, a luggage cover that slides out, a divider net that folded out of the divider and a pair of levers in the loading bay that dropped the rear seats flat. Our model’s electric tailgate was also unusually swift in its operation.
We spent that vast majority of our time at the wheel of the 176 TDI in both body-styles. The only other test cars available at this early stage were the Euro-spec 2.0 110 TDI and 1.4 110 TSI, neither of which will come here.
Any engine with 500Nm of muscle from 1750 to 2500rpm is going to have some serious punch, but what grabs you about VW’s most potent diesel is its immediacy, linearity and willingness to rev out, complemented by a lightning-quick seven-speed DSG with paddles.
Thankfully, Volkswagen seems to have ironed out two key annoyances of the DSG — its low-speed hesitancy and its excessive S mode that held gears even at urban speeds almost to redline.
The 176 TDI does the 0-100km/h dash in 6.3 seconds - two-tenths quicker than a Golf GTI - and in subdued driving uses a claimed 5.4 litres per 100 kilometres on the combined cycle. That said, it lacks the character of the old V6 engine, that delightful growl replaced by a subdued drone.
Swings and roundabouts. Volkswagen Australia would be mad not to bring it. And the 206kW petrol versions too. It’s not as though the mid-sized segment is brimming with character at the moment...
As before, the ride from the all-round independent suspension focuses on comfort. It ironed out corrugated roads — similar to those found in Australia — though the 18- or 19-inch wheeled models crashed mildly over larger potholes.
Volkswagen’s Dynamic Chassis Control adaptive dampers are an option to add or remove firmness from the dampers, as is a quintet of driving modes to toy with the throttle response, steering weight and the calibration of the transmission.
The progressive steering on our test car has a smaller ratio of 2.1, meaning smaller inputs into corners and sharper turn-in, and the 4Motion system provided decent grip. That said, the 176 TDI also feels a touch heavy over the nose to be properly agile, and the steering is precise but detached.
The suppression of road and wind noise is class-leading, though, and that cannot be said of all cars on the MQB matrix. Refinement levels are such that few cars at this price point would be better to eat up long and loping country drives, save those made in Australia.
Call our finding predictable if you wish, but the 2015 Volkswagen Passat has the same knack as the Mk7 Golf of being supremely competent in almost every facet that counts.
The German brand’s mammoth research and development spend clearly shows, and why shouldn’t it? It’s still not what you call an excitement machine, but as a semi-premium highway cruiser or a cut-price luxury limo, it’s possibly the new car to beat.
We’ll have to wait a long time for its Australian launch to know for sure, and by this time next year the new Ford Mondeo and Subaru Liberty will await it. Still, it will take some trumping.