Is the new flagship Passat wagon the most premium vehicle the so-called 'semi-premium' carmaker from Wolfsburg currently produces? We hit the road for 2500 kays to find out.
After just 10 minutes with the 2017 Volkswagen Passat 206TSI R-line Wagon, I wondered which of my various initial impressions – both positive and negative, some quite strong – would linger unchanged after two-and-a-half weeks and 2500 kilometres of mixed, dinky-di conditions had passed under the wheels. The answer is: most of them.
Those impressions? Here is a car hedging its bets on sportiness and luxury, delivering large on both in more or less equal balance, inside and out. Volkswagen has delivered something of a gentleman's R wagon, a plus-sized Golf R for buyers who care little for the smaller car’s churlish boy-racer-isms. And here is a new ultimate Passat, measurably smarter, more sophisticated and all-round fitter to its spiritual forebear of sorts, the R36 Passat.
But more than anything, here is a Volkswagen that was emphatically premium.
Usually, when discussing Passat, the subject of Skoda Superb isn’t far from conversation in some value context, but Wolfsburg's top-spec mid-sized five-door clearly aspires to places higher up its own corporate ladder. If Volkswagen is supposed to remain relegated to the ‘semi-premium’ bench while sister company Audi is the star player on the premium playing field, the ‘206 R-line’ wagon, as I’ll call it for brevity, didn’t get the memo.
Producing genuine premiumness is a dark recipe full of tangible and intangible ingredients and many carmakers struggle to produce or maintain it. It's as tough to quantify as it is slippery to grasp. But quality equipment, and lots of it, goes some way in ticking premium boxes, and the 206 R-line ticks plenty.
As top dog in the Passat range where even the lowly spec Comfortline gets high-grade 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment, adaptive cruise control, leather and 14-way adjustable front seats, the 206 R-line wants for little in outright terms and is absolutely loaded for its $59,990 list price.
In Passatland, the flagship variant is fitted exclusively with adaptive ride suspension, 19-inch wheels, Driving Profile Selection multi-drive modes, Active Info Display 12.3-inch digital driver’s instrumentation, dynamic LED headlights (to complement LED taillights), semi-autonomous parking assistance and ambient interior lighting over the next-rung down Highline trim. Our test car gets two options in metallic paint ($700) and a full-length glass roof ($2000), lifting its list price to $62,690.
There’s plenty of safety kit, too, autonomous emergency braking (under 65km/h), a rear-view camera with front and rear sensors, rear cross-traffic alert and blind spot monitoring. As its namesake suggests, standard issue is a suite of R-line accoutrements such as Carbon Nappa – a faux carbon-look leather – appointed seat design, sports wheel, exterior stylisms and enough ‘R’ badges to suggest more than a little sporting rub-off from properly hot Volkswagen R models.
How much rub-off? Well, the 206 R-line delivers about as much performance and sportiness as its handsome, jewellery-laden exterior appearance promises. The general driving experience anchors sports-luxury aims confidently, though. In spirit as much as anything, it’s no true ‘Passat R’. Instead, it sniffs around the proper ‘R’ neighbourhood, with ample, if hardly fiery, pace and purpose, though it never comes belting down the door.
Its 206kW and 350Nm credentials from its turbocharged 2.0-litre four are respectable numbers and there’s all-wheel drive, progressive-rate steering, XDL electronic LSD trickery and the aforementioned adaptive chassis control with which to ply driver enjoyment trade. Though, tellingly, of the four drive modes to choose from: Eco, Comfort, Normal and Sport – plus a user-assignable Custom configuration – there’s no Race mode as you’ll find in proper R models. And for good reason…
Unsurprisingly, the 206 R-line is at its most convincing daily driven and grand touring, striking a deft balance of unflustered comfort and willing purpose as its characteristic default. In Normal drive mode – a key not-too-lazy, not-too-highly strung middle setting missing from a good many premium cars – it’s both obedient and flexible right from a stop-start crawl through to highway cruising. For all-round driveability it shines, much more so than we found with the Passat 140kW diesel.
What it lacks, though, is genuine muscle. Sure, in Sport mode, it musters up a decent march, and at 5.7 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint – some 2.2sec swifter than the aforementioned diesel – it’s not slow by any reasonable measure.
But it's a polite performance. It lacks genuine potency and the sort of effortlessness that, say, a larger-capacity engine might otherwise provide. And in Comfort mode, where it can be caught snoozing when called to march, thankfully, you can tap the transmission controller backward for a powertrain 'Sport' boost on the fly without needing the drive mode button.
The 2.0-litre four is a good engine, but it needs to be fitted to a more lightweight vessel than a 1639kg Passat wagon to show fangs. And it’s the car’s mass that amplifies the engine’s soft spots: response isn’t immediate in modes other than Sport, its delivery is less than linear, it works hard for its keep. So it’s no head-snapper though, frankly, neither is the Golf R Wagon that runs a very similar engine configuration…
Resist the temptation to treat it like a racecar and it’s a a great drive, an impressive all-rounder that shines particularly brightly in ride and handling balance. Despite low-profile 19-inch 40-series rubber, suspension compliance in its softest setting is highly polished, unflustered by rough road surfaces with only minor thumping across sharp-edged imperfections. The only markdown is some slight suspension float, though without sacrificing body control.
There's also a genuine sense of connection with the road. In fact, dial up Sport mode and the 206 R-line corners as flat and squat as it appears sitting still. Lean into the chassis and the wagon generates impressive grip given the modest 235mm rubber footprint, and it steers and points with an accuracy that’ll satisfy keener driving enthusiasts.
It’s not a playful handler – the all-wheel-drive system seems more attuned to reactive surety than proactive dynamics – but for the sport-luxury brief in a car this size, there’s plenty of handling depth on offer. And it rarely threatens its inherently high levels of comfort.
Frugality isn’t a strong point and the Passat is thirstier than advertised: around town, its 9.2L claim balloons out to a real-world 12 litres even treated gently. Dial up 110km/h on the Hume for hours on end, as I did, and it’ll return eights rather than the 6.4L figure stated in the marketing literature. As a 98RON-only prospect in the height of $1.60-per-litre holiday fuel price profiteering, it can be a hip-pocket stinger.
The heft of the doors, the impressive noise isolation and the quality and solidity in abundance in the cabin anchors an air of quality. There's no Lexus-like bling or Jaguar-like ostentation, but the 206 R-line's general design austerity doesn't lack for ample richness or variety in materials and textures.
Much of styling is obviously Volkswagen, Wolfsburg at its finest, though some areas, such as the horizontal dash grille that inserts the air vents, appear suspiciously Audi-like, albeit to very positive effect. The brushed alloys, piano blacks and double-stitching blend together into a thoughtful, mature and reasonably simplistic design that's classy without tackiness.
The front seats are superb: deeply bucketed, yet amply comfortable and supportive with myriad adjustment to allow tailor-like fitment, and provided completely fatigue-free driving during the nine-hour trip from Sydney to Melbourne along the Hume.
The unorthodox carbon fibre-look Carbon Nappa leather texture is quite appealing and while the seats are merely 'leather appointed' any quibbles about manmade trim becomes largely redundant when you can't work out what's real and what isn't. Besides, for my money, the fewer cows that go under the knife to supply the car industry with seat coverings the better...
Volkswagen's designers are on top of their game for occupant ergonomics, and the Passat is as well resolved as its little brother Golf in placing the controls, arm and footrests, and other touch points in all the right places.
Better yet, the second row offers a huge amount of legroom – if you've ever had a six-year old kick the back of your seat for hours on end on a road trip, you'll appreciate such a generous amount of rear legroom. Row two also gets its own temperature controls for the air-con vent in proper three-zone application and, like the first row, the door bins are carpeted to prevent oddments – Hot Wheels cars, specifically – from rustling about noisily.
Volkswagen's TFT-type digital driver's Active Info Display isn't quite as slick and streamlined as Audi's similar Virtual Cockpit though it's not far off. The 'classic' view is clear and simple enough but attempts to reconfigure the display for extra info – consumption and distance to empty, say – tends to overload the 12.3-inch screen with too much data. Most of the screen options render road speed readout difficult to spot, which isn't what you need in Victoria during double-demerit holiday road tripping...
If there's a markdown from behind the wheel, it's that Volkswagen's steering wheel controls aren't terribly intuitive – they take some familiarisation. The adaptive cruise control is tricky to set and conservatively calibrated, and more often than not I'd be forced to override it with the right foot even during the monotony of the Hume.
To be frank, the orange Side Assist lights in the mirror caps that glow or flash for any other vehicle moving parallel, are a distracting waste of space and of use only to those lazy enough not to use their wing mirrors.
Volkswagen's high-end Discover Pro audio and sat nav system is no ground-breaker in design or functionality but it is fast, easy to use and is laden with features. Thankfully, it has its proprietary satellite navigation to complement App-Connect, which allows USB interface for Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink.
There are plenty of commentators out there who'd wonder why you need in-built navigation when it's available 'free' on your smartphone, which is sound logic until the first time you want to perform a navigation search outside of mobile phone range...
A CD player, a pair of SD card slots, a 10GB internal storage system... technophiles living vicariously through their smartphones may consider some of all of these features redundant but, frankly, when paying good money the more handy hardware features the better
If there's one clear omission it's that Wolfsburg saved dough by not fitting a console-mounted infotainment controller, but that its system is touchscreen only bodes for any model in the Volkswagen range – hardly the purchasing deal-breaker and, personally, nothing like a hindrance over 2500 kays of driving, but it's noteworthy nonetheless.
The Passat certainly didn't gag when swallowing a week's worth of interstate holiday addenda, which included half-a-toy-store's worth of 'entertainment' for the six-year old. Even with the son's car seat mounted to the kerb-side on the second row allowing the facility to drop 60 percent of the (60:40 split-fold) rear seats forward for extra luggage space, such tomfoolery wasn't necessary.
Rear seats in play, there's a decent 650 litres of space, with over a metre of width between the rear wheel arches: enough for three suit cases with room to spare. Folding the rear seats, which can be released via latches in the cargo space walls, produces 1780 litres of space to play with, but that was a conversion that didn't need testing during our holiday trip. The tailgate, too, is powered and can be remotely activated from the driver's seat.
A worthy spiritual successor to the old R36? Yes, and then some. The R36 is a cult car – and a great sounding one at that – though it never was a properly great car. Or, to be more accurate, it's not as good an all-rounder, as comfortable, as upmarket or as genuinely premium. That's a gut feel, though, which is a dangerous premise to hang a verdict on.
So I tested it. In my time with the $62,690 206 R-line wagon, I got the opportunity to test its premium mettle against a similarly priced and sized Audi A4 ($60,900) in second-from-bottom 2.0 TFSI trim, a smaller if highly specified Audi S3 Sedan ($64,500) and an even pricier Volkswagen in form of the Amarok V6 Ultimate ($67,990).
While certainly not the quickest or most utilitarian of this bunch, for richness, for quality, for all-round opulence and for a general sense of prestigious occasion, the 206 R-line proved the superior device.
While 206 R-line five-door isn't a red-hot Golf R For Grown-Ups fast wagon fans might be hankering for, it is a high watermark for the Volkswagen breed, with a synergy of elements that matches mid-sized offerings from more fancied prestige marques.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Sam Venn.