This is Volkswagen’s most powerful production Passat yet - the new R36, a car that trumps the last generation’s unloved W8 in the power stakes. Big deal, you might think, but bear with us. For £30,990 you get a 3.6-litre V6 churning out 295bhp and 258lb ft, four-wheel drive versatility and subtly imposing styling.
What sets the VW Passat R36 apart visually?
It’s restrained stuff, the distinguishing marks comprising 18-inch wheels; a new bumper and integrated chrome grille that stresses the family link to the Golf R32 and Touareg R50; twin exhausts; and bi-xenon headlights. You might also spot that the R36 is lowered by 20mm and has – wait for it – blue brake calipers. The new Passat is a handsome car already, but these tweaks are very effective.
Inside the changes are more dramatic, forming a key part of the R36’s appeal. There are some of the very best seats in the business. The fabric/leather mix looks good, grips well, feels quality and is pleasingly tactile. And the range of adjustment is fantastic, with inflatable pockets – a push of a button increases or decreases their stiffness – offering extra lower and upper back support. The aggressive side bolsters use the same system. You always feel incredibly comfortable, but you’re gripped like in a bucket seat.
What’s the rest of the interior like?
A slightly mixed bag. Overall the sense is of high quality, with brushed aluminium brightening up the centre console and instrument binnacle, part-leather door cards and simple, classy instruments. But the switchgear – shared with the Golf – looks a bit cheap here, and the extravagantly stylish swoop of the doors only emphasises that the upper half of the trim is made of soft-touch plastics, while the lower half makes do with harder, cheaper-feeling material.
In the back there’s plenty of leg- and headroom for six-footers sitting behind six-footers and the boot is large and an almost exact match for the BMW 3-series' at 461 litres – though the four-wheel drive system does cost you 24 litres.
Click 'Next' below to read more of our first drive of the VW Passat R36
How does the Passat R36 drive?
The ride is pretty knobbly and the dampers are firm, something that’s noticeable even on the motorway. A little more compliance wouldn’t go amiss here. The steering is light and gains an artificial weight on turn-in – it’s well judged if not an exemplar of feel. Really push on to bring the four-wheel drive system into play and the R36 determinedly understeers. But flow down tight, twisty roads and it’s clear that 4Motion does add to the involvement, cleanly powering you out of hairpins where its front-drive siblings would scrabble. It’s easy to drive this car quickly, just don’t expect any Audi RS4-style tail-happiness.
The brakes aren’t perfect. They’re a bit too grabby at car park speeds, and the pedal doesn’t take long to go mushy if you drive hard. We’re not talking track speeds here, just an enthusiastic B-road blast.
And the engine?
The 3.6-litre V6 is smooth and refined, if lacking the crackly sparkle of the Golf R32. Really thrash the R36 and it can feel a little underpowered, the engine labouring at high revs, but it actually feels decently fast and eager if you rein yourself in. Accelerate hard in sixth from 2000rpm and the R36 gathers momentum rapidly and effortlessly. It’s a car that likes to surf the torque, then, not one that’s particularly rewarding when you chase big rpms.
Click 'Next' below to read our verdict on the VW Passat R36
I’ll take the manual gearbox, please!
Sorry, no can do. The R36 is available only with the dual-clutch DSG gearbox, but it suits the package well, though the lack of outright control and flaring revs on kick-down can frustrate.
There are three driving modes to choose from: drive, sport and manual. Drive is pretty self-explanatory. Sport raises the threshold at which up-shifts are made, but will always revert back to auto operation soon after you’ve made a paddle-shift input. This leads to a slightly frustrating scenario where you can call for fourth, only for the gearbox to override you a few seconds later and select third. Of course, this wouldn’t happen in drive, but Mitsubishi’s twin-clutch system works better in giving you full manual control once you pull back on a paddle.
The manual mode also thinks it knows best. It will kick down (though you have to push through a very obvious step at the end of the throttle travel) and will change up at the redline. It’s a logical enough system, but why can’t manual actually be manual? Final gripe: the paddles are tiny and are fixed to the steering wheel so it’s easy to miss them when you’re calling for gears through the twisties.
There are a few black marks here, but overall the Passat R36 is a good package: fast, refined, comfortable (bar that ride), well specced, incredibly usable and subtly unusual. But could it tempt you out of an Audi A4? The 3.2-litre Quattro SE is more than £1500 cheaper, is almost as powerful, boasts nicer cabin architecture (though the Passat’s seats still win) and is less polluting. It also offers the choice of auto or manual gearboxes. It’s tough to make a case for the R36 saloon, then, but it’s still a good car.