The Volkswagen Passat is one of those cars that make a critic feel spoiled. There is nothing loudly, annoyingly, nor dangerously wrong with it. And yet, it doesn’t really do enough to earn a really glowingly positive review. And I think I’ve identified exactly what I want from it: I want it to be a Skoda.
You see, the Passat was updated for 2020 and according to Volkswagen that means that every body panel is new, the interior is new, and VW even managed to squeeze more legroom into the back of the car. But it’s all still based on the same chassis as the old Passat, and VW has been using that since 2005.
But How Does it Drive?
That, ultimately, is fine. There’s nothing wrong with the chassis it’s just starting to get a whiff of old age. And that shows in the way the car drives. It’s relaxed. Very relaxed. Every input feels like it’s been designed to keep you from the horrors of the road. That means that it has a soft, sloppy ride that’s pretty comfortable. Like any German car worth its salt, the Passat is also a wonderful highway cruiser. It feels confident and calm at high speeds. It does, however, struggle slightly at lower speeds thanks to its transmission. Another old part, anyone who has driven a VW in the last decade will recognize this 6-speed auto. And although it’s slushy and smooth, it struggles to select the correct gear at lower speeds. Whether or not this is by design, it means that the car can chug in stop-and-go traffic, which is annoying on the one hand and—according to my own highly unscientific testing with the shifting paddles—is less fuel-efficient, too, because it encourages you to lean deeper into the throttle.
As far as vehicles this large are concerned, the Passat doesn’t do too badly on efficiency despite my complaints. In the city, the EPA reckons you should get 23 mpg whereas it anticipates 34 mpg on the highway. That stands to reason and may even have something to do with those new body panels that apparently get you a coefficient of drag of just 0.29—which is about the same as a C5 Corvette.
If you’re more in the mood for speed than efficiency, the 174 hp 2.0-liter engine will get you going in enough of a hurry to satisfy anyone who has realistic expectations. Put your kidney in your back pocket this will not, but you never really want for pace, either.
How Big of a Fan of Minimalism Are You?
Inside, meanwhile, things are—well, they’re fine. I like the design. It’s simple and unfussy and has an Audi-like mid-century quality to it. Unfortunately, the design is let down by some truly heroically cheap materials. The “wood” grain is about as real as Sascha’s dad. And although the soft-touch plastics are acceptable in a car like this, they do nothing to impress.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the interior, though, is the infotainment screen. Although it uses VW’s latest system—which consistently struggled to pair with my phone via Bluetooth—it’s so small you could almost miss it when you enter the car. It’s the clearest sign of the chassis’s age and, feel how you like about screens, will not convince anyone shopping for a sedan that this is the car for them.
And that’s ultimately the problem with the Passat. The rest of the segment has a hook. Something for buyers to grab onto and defend their decision. The Passat is just fine. Yes, it drives well enough, but it doesn’t drive as well as the Accord. Sure it’s efficient and comfortable, but the Altima’s seats are more comfortable and its VC Turbo is futuristic and techy. And the Passat doesn’t have AWD like the Legacy, nor hordes of sycophants like the Camry. So why bother?
Killer Apps Wanted
To be clear, I’m not saying the Passat sucks. It has its flaws, but ultimately it’s a comfortable, cheap car (it starts a grand or two under the Toyota and the Honda), but it’s also charmless. It doesn’t have a killer app to entice buyers.
I know that this isn’t necessarily a segment for people who are crazy about cars and ultimately I see the reasoning behind trying to make the Passat as inexpensive to produce as possible. I just still think that when people–even non-enthusiasts–are buying a car, they need something to latch onto. A feature or reason to get them into a dealership and something to brag to their friends about. The Passat has nothing to brag about. Sure, it’s nice, but what else?
That’s why I think Volkswagen USA should have turned to their Czech partners to
steal borrow some of Skoda’s ideas. Skoda sells itself as being “simply clever.” That means that what are effectively just VWs in funky bodywork also come with little party tricks.
The Superb, for example, is basically just a Passat but has a hatchback-style trunk. Some models come with front seats that fold flat to allow you to carry more stuff, others come with umbrellas hidden in the door just like a Bentley. Other features are as simple as a tablet holder for backseat passengers, or a hook to hang grocery bags, or even a little garbage in the door.
There’s even a “Sleep Package” that comes with adjustable restraints that bracket your head and allow you to lean to your head to one side or the other (and it comes with a “snug blanket!”). How fun is that?
Verdict: 2020 Volkswagen Passat R-Line
These features wouldn’t redeem a bad car, but the Passat isn’t a bad car. It’s just a boring one. Volkswagen wouldn’t have to implement all of these tricks, but with a range of clever, practical features it could make a compelling argument for the Passat. And that’s something that’s hard to do right now. “Well, it doesn’t suck” isn’t exactly the glowing praise that gets butts in seats.