Only a handful of cars have ever had the lasting popularity to break through the 20 million mark on cumulative worldwide sales, but Volkswagen has made three all on its own. In Europe, we’d recognise two of those three – the Golf and the original Volkswagen-cum-Beetle – as genuine automotive institutions. In China, they would; the US, too, perhaps. The fact is, off the back of huge sales success in those markets in particular, the Passat and its derivatives have now become the fastest-selling Volkswagens on the planet. This is still a deeply conventional, conservative, evolutionary car, as you’d expect of something so established, but it’s also ambitious. VW’s intention is clearly to present the mature European markets with a genuine alternative to a fully fledged, premium-brand compact executive option – something that asks buyers to trade a touch of brand cachet for the sort of quality, refinement, comfort, technology and space that better sets a car apart. This time, VW’s MQB platform forms the basis of the car, bringing with it some telling gains. On average, 85 kg have been saved from each version of Passat in the jump between generations, while the designers benefited from the opportunity to stretch the wheelbase while simultaneously making the car shorter, lower and wider. Cabin length is up by 33mm, rear headroom by almost as much. Boot space grows, too. The car now feels as spacious as almost anything in the class – yet it has 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; instead, it gently soothes with its simplicity and substance. From the climate control knobs to the trip computer and multimedia buttons, every rotor and switch feels solid and intuitively placed. The boldest feature is a grilleapeing 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, every single above-the-knee moulding is soft and tactile and 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 all right, but one 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 A head-up display is also optional, while the upper-trim 8in Discover Pro infotainment system atop 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 Volkswagen has, that’ll actually reverse-park a caravan or trailer for you if you option it up appropriately. VW is taking it to the premium brands on technological sophistication as much as anything here, and it’s doing it in some style.
Engines will range from a 118bhp 1.6 TDI, through 2.0 TDIs in 148bhp and 187bhp states of tune, up to the brand new 237bhp twinturbocharged diesel we sampled. A BlueMotion will come 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 rideisolating fluid-filled bushings at the back if you opt for the headline diesel. Also standard on the BiTDI is Haldex-based four-wheel drive and VW’s wet-clutched seven-speed dualclutch automatic gearbox. This engine is only offered in upper-level GT and R-Design trims, 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, particularly on fuel efficiency and cabin isolation.
Although you expect a diesel with this kind of specific output to be fairly vociferous, the Passat is 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 although the crankshaft spins willingly up to 4000rpm and beyond for overtaking, it delivers little by way of a sporting climax.
The car is 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 you’d expect of them, 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 is decent, with increasing weight to correspond with directness as you add lock but little contact patch feel. As is the norm with Volkswagen Group cars, you arrive at the best compromise of ride comfort and fluency, transmission response and steering centre feel by mixing settings in Individual mode. The end result is perfectly satisfactory, but it’s more refined and pliant than it is poised or engaging. Even without the dynamism of a true sports saloon, the Passat is good enough to top the volume-brand saloon class – new Ford Mondeo notwithstanding, which you’ll be reading about next week. It’ll be a particularly level-headed customer who can shun the allure of an Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz to buy one – and 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 challenges you to be mature enough to appreciate it.