► The mildest of mild facelifts
► Improved tech levels
► GTE returns
The VW Passat occupies a middle ground all to its own. It’s a cut above the likes of the Mazda 6 or Skoda Superb in terms of badge appeal and poshness, but would-be buyers of a C-Class or A4 aren’t that likely to give it a second glance. This premium-but-not-quite-premium sector is difficult to win, and though the current Passat – in its eighth iteration since launch in 1973 – isn’t aging badly at all, VW’s decided the time’s ripe for mid-life facelift.
Fair enough. Nobody will get too excited if you eagerly show off a brand-new Passat – even in sporty-looking R-Line Edition spec as we’re driving here, it slides under the radar.
In terms of changes, subtle evolution is the name of the game. The exterior design has barely changed, with the only real difference being LED headlights that are now standard across the whole range. Round the rear, you’ll also now find ‘PASSAT’ written across the width of the tailgate.
Inside, there’s a whole suite of new driver assistance tech (which we’ll get onto in a minute), new digital dials, and a refreshed steering wheel. So it’s out with the analogue dials, and also out with the analogue clock – disappointingly, the new Passat eschews this classy touch to relocate the hazard warning switch there instead. In all that spare space, the car’s name is written, too.
Though it’s tempting to refer to the Passat as a family saloon, it’s worth noting that Volkswagen sells twice as many estates as it does booted models. So many, in fact, that it didn’t bring a single saloon to the international launch. And that’s fine by us, as the estate’s boot is one of the most practical in its class, albeit down on outright capacity compared with a Skoda Superb.
Trim levels run from the base, unnamed grade through Business and Elegance. Sporty-looking R-Line touches can be applied to the latter two. Standing proud are the off-roady Alltrack, with an increased ride height and plastic cladding, the plug-in hybrid GTE, and the limited-run R-Line Edition launch special.
What engines can I have?
It’s very much business as usual in the engine line-up. VW’s impressive 1.5-litre EVO four-cylinder petrol will come along later this year, but while we’re waiting for it there’s a choice of two 2.0-litre petrols, a 1.6-litre diesel and two 2.0-litre diesels. Power outputs range from 118bhp for the 1.6 right up to 268bhp for the most powerful petrol – though, entirely predictably, the most popular option will be the 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel which is arriving soon after launch.
A six-speed manual is available for lower-powered engines, but it may as well not exist considering the vast majority of buyers will opt for the seven-speed dual-clutch DSG. Depending on powertrain, 4Motion four-wheel drive is also available.
Boring to drive?
Boring is perhaps a harsh word, but it would be a step too far in the other direction to call the Passat exciting. Grip is fine, handling is fine, and the steering is – you guessed it – fine. It’s more the case that the safe, solid and predictable nature of the Passat actively discourages spirited progress. Race a Mazda 6 down a B-road and even against a more powerful Passat, the Japanese car will be the more involving.
Take things more sedately and the Passat stands out for its comfort, though. The thin-rimmed steering wheel is actually immensely satisfying, mated to a light - but not disconcertingly so – steering rack. The seats are wide, supportive and comfortable, and even on large wheels the suspension irons out most bumps. Even when tremors are transmitted to the cabin, expensive-feeling damping takes the edge off.
Refinement is also great, though Volkswagen’s 2.0-litre diesels do have a metallic edge at low revs that’s been eliminated in most of its premium competition. Put simply, this car is at its best when wafting along the autobahn – something that the 237bhp diesel in our test car had absolutely no problems doing.
That impression is aided by the gearbox. Volkswagen’s seven-speed DSG appears to be getting more and more stubborn and cantankerous with age, and though shifts are smooth, the delay between putting your foot down and the car actually moving can get seriously irritating. It’s less of a concern when cruising than it is round town – city-centre roundabouts tend to really fox it and stop-start traffic might have you banging your head against the steering wheel. Help is at hand for the latter though, courtesy of VW’s new Travel Assist tech.
What about all that technology?
The newly advanced tech roster is where the Passat distances itself from more workaday rivals. There’s new connectivity for the infotainment system – it’s always online and connected to the VW app for a slew of useful features. There’ll be built-in music streaming, web apps, the ability to use a smartphone as a key – all the sort of futuristic stuff you’d expect from a high-end model in 2019.
As for driving assistance technology, that’s stepped up a notch too. Lower-end models feature regular, boring cruise control, but available as an option is Travel Assist – essentially semi-autonomous driving on suitable roads at speeds of up to 130mph. Autonomous autobahn, here we come.
It’s one of the better systems we’ve used, too – the car’s inputs when it’s driving itself are smooth and predictable, and it stays in the centre of the lane rather than bouncing from line to line. Note though that as with all current systems, the driver has to remain capable of taking back control when needed.
What’s the GTE like?
The plug-in hybrid GTE has had the same upgrades applied to it as the regular Passat, and retains the same combination of 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine and electric motor as it had before. However, it’ll now do more than 34 miles on a full charge before switching back to petrol power – easily enough to cover most daily commutes on electricity alone. Just don’t get excited about the ‘GT’ part of ‘GTE’, as the added weight and remote powertrain mean that while it’s fast, it’s not thrilling. The hardest sell for this model will likely be the new Skoda Superb iV, which launches soon with a near-identical powertrain.
Volkswagen Passat: verdict
The Passat is not an exciting car, and we’ve been a bit harsh with it on that basis. But, as is the case with most Volkswagens, it’s impossible to argue that the package of comfort, quality and refinement it provides aren’t appealing traits. Gearbox aside, this is a superbly relaxing car to drive. It’s equal parts practical family load-lugger and cultured, classy executive transport, and it’s brilliant at both. The facelift isn’t a reason to rush out and buy a Passat, but it’s a subtle evolution of a winning recipe that keeps this car near the top of the tech revolution. Not a fun car, but really rather a good one.