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The arrival of a new-generation Volkswagen Passat isn’t going to set too many Australian pulses blazing, but globally it’s an event that warrants reaction.
Why? Contrary to common logic, this humble mid-sized sedan and wagon is actually Volkswagen’s top-selling car worldwide, not the Golf. In 42 years, spanning eight generations, the company has sold a whopping 22 million of them.
The same is not quite the case in Australia, given small cars (and price-equivalent compact SUVs) outsell mid-sized cars by many multiples here. Which is a shame, because it’s a segment with so many worthy contenders.
The Mazda 6, Ford Mondeo, Hyundai Sonata… the list continues. All excellent in their own right, all worthy alternatives to both the Commodore and, in wagon form, something like a Mazda CX-5 that sells five or 10 times the volume.
And it’s this market space — small and full of quality — where the new Passat has to fight. In essence, it’d want to be good.
And that’s before we think of the obvious elephant in the room at the moment that makes the Passat’s launch timing inauspicious. Clearly the brand has some image issues at present to address.
Thankfully, the new Passat, as we found on the international launch 12 months ago (yes, Volkswagen makes its Australian arm suffer extremely long lead times), is very good indeed.
Called the ‘B8’ Passat, this generation is more-or-less new from the ground up, and it’s hard to think of an area where it isn’t improved: space, performance, economy, design, price, value…
First there’s the driveway appeal. The prominent horizontal body sculpting, the slimmer and wider grille, larger wheels and flat-stamped metal around the wheel arches give the car presence, most notably as a wagon. It looks sharper, sportier and meaner than before, especially with the optional LED headlights and R-Line pack.
Under the skin is the same MQB front-drive architecture as the Golf, new Tiguan and Skoda Octavia, but stretched. This saves weight (it’s the first Passat made with aluminium in part) and it saves money, meaning Volkswagen can both produce and sell the car for less — which is what the company is doing.
The variant breakdown is easy to follow, with the headline being a $4000 cut to the starting price. There’s said base ($34,990 plus on-road costs) 132TSI, the mid-range ($39,990) 132TSI Comfortline, each with a turbo-petrol engine, and a top-spec ($45,990) Highline with a 140TDI diesel. All versions can be had for $2000 more as a wagon.
The base version gets satellite navigation on a 6.5-inch screen, cloth seats, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, three-zone climate control (temperature split in the front and controllable vents in the rear) and well-bolstered seats with a multitude of adjustable bits.
Step up to the mid-range 132TSI Comfortline for an extra $5000 and you get a larger 8.0-inch Discover Pro screen, leather seats, keyless entry and start, an automatically opening wagon tailgate, autonomous brakes that work under 65km/h, blind-spot monitoring, rear traffic alert and radar cruise control.
This level of preventative safety gear is truly excellent. Of course, so is Subaru with its EyeSight system.
This is quite clearly the specification sweet spot, given the larger screen and leather take the ambience from workmanlike to upmarket. It’s a hell of a lot of car for the money, no matter the competition, and makes a nice luxury-minded counterpoint to the faster, $37,590 Octavia RS from sister brand Skoda.
Both of these versions come with a 1.8-litre single-turbo 132TSI petrol engine that makes 132kW of power and 250Nm of torque. Standard is a seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox sending torque to the front wheels. Fuel use is a respectable 6.0L/100km on 95 RON fuel.
It’s an engine that many will be familiar with from other VW product, and it remains a relatively sweet little unit that delivers its torque in a much more linear fashion than the company’s previous downsized turbo units.
With 14kW over the outgoing 118TSI, it rarely feels hassled and punches the sedan from 0-100km/h in 7.9 seconds. Its outputs may be lower than some rivals, but the key is the fact that the torque peak arrives at 1250rpm, meaning you get more from less. A quick boot of the throttle when exiting a corner will provoke notable chirps from the front Continental/Pirelli (depending on spec) tyres.
The DSG, meanwhile, felt typically decisive in hard driving, and more aggressive in sports mode, but also relatively well behaved in the few moments of stop-start driving we were able to cover on the local launch. We’re getting one into the garage soon and will double-check on a more thorough test.
Atop the range sits the diesel Highline with extras such as better (and heated) Nappa leather, darker LED tail-lights, wider tyres on bigger 18-inch alloys and a shmick multicolour multifunction instrument display. Frankly, the mid-spec is the highlight.
The spec upgrades seem hardly worth it, though the engine might. In typical Volkswagen Australia style, the diesel option only comes on the high-specced version, given oil-burners in passenger cars remain largely niche locally.
With 140kW and 400Nm (from 1750rpm) available, the 2.0-litre (matched to a six-speed DSG) is a refined unit with ample grunt, and actually accelerates faster than the snappy petrol, but cuts fuel use by around 20 per cent.
We know what you’re thinking, but keep in mind this engine is Euro 6, and there’s no evidence that it has software like the EA189 that has gotten VW into so much hot water.
Dynamically, the Passat is again a step up on the outgoing car — equally comfortable most of the time but a whole lot more nimble and eager to actually be driven, given the good chassis balance and the latest XDL system that uses the ESC to brake the inside front wheel, and subtly ‘pull’ the car around corners.
The electric-assisted steering (which is made quicker and more progressive in R-Line guise) can be driver-adjusted for more or less resistance on the mid-upper spec models with the Driver Mode Select — though it never really offers much feel and feedback — and VW has thankfully ignored the vogue-ish drive to put paddle-shifters on every model under the sun.
In its natural environment — highways — the insulation from tyre roar and wind noise through the A-pillars feels on average for the class, though not hushed enough to be class-leading (we’ll Db test it against a rival when we can) which it perhaps ought to be, while the general compliance errs to comfort rather than jarring sportiness. A tick to the latter.
Probably the only dynamic bugbear that made itself evident on our first half-day drive was the propensity for the Highline’s 18-inch wheels (and presumably the R-Line Package’s 19s) to elicit some brittleness from the suspension over sharper-edged bumps. On flawless roads it’s fine, but we all know Australia lacks those…
The B8 Passat’s cabin is austere — the downside of the MQB is the fact that the layout, many of the dials and some of the finishes are straight out of a cheaper Golf, and the little clock looks like it should be out of something even cheaper— but well-made and equipped. The well-bolstered and hugely adjustable seats (cloth in the base, leather in the others) are extremely good, though not quite Commodore-good.
Impressive touches include the beautiful little steering wheel, the acres of soft-touch premium materials, the feeling of quality throughout and on the Comfortline-up, that big new screen. Having Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on all models is class topping.
Does it feel ‘luxury’? Not exactly, unless you have the top-spec version. But if you consider the Japanese/Koreans as rivals, or the base Mondeo, and the VW remains above-par.
The new model is very marginally shorter than before, but longer in the wheelbase and wider to improve cabin space and the overall proportions. The lower and more raked roofline amplifies this latter point, but not the former. The sunroof (one part of a large $3500 options package) hurts rear headroom for anyone over 185cm.
Nevertheless, you’ll fit four adults easily and someone smaller in the fifth (middle) rear seat. Each outboard rear seat comes with ISOFIX. All Passat variants come with rear air vents with their own temperature controls.
Luggage space is outstanding in the sedan and SUV-bashing in the wagon. The sedan offers 586 litres of space in its deep and long boot, while you can flip down the rear seats via levers near the lip to yield 1152L.
The wagon offers 650L with the sets in use, but flip them down via levers in the rear and you get 1780L of space, which is more than any price-matching SUV, though a little short of the cavernous Mondeo wagon. Impressively, all Passats come with full-size alloy spare wheels.
And that’s about the right place to wrap it up. The new Passat builds on its predecessor across the board, given the quality and space inside, the dynamic upgrades, the technology on offer (notably safety and infotainment) and the sharper pricing.
In terms of ratings, I gave the new Passat a higher rating when driven overseas last year, but in the interim the segment has improved, and our poorer backroads in Australia found a chink in its dynamic armour.
But the Passat is still deeply impressive and remains a quiet achiever despite its sharper new suit, a reserved and classy offering with a European slant that will for many make an appealing alternative to the Liberty/Mazda 6/Mondeo and company, and hopefully in wagon form to the ubiquitous compact SUVs that have taken over the market.