In the sensible world of mid-size automobiles Volkswagen’s Passat has always been a quiet achiever. A competent journeyman that possesses all round ability but isn’t one to snatch at the limelight. The Passat has maintained this image for 38 years and seven generations. It’s proved a successful tactic too, with more than 15 million Passats being sold globally, making it the 11th biggest selling nameplate in history. Not bad for the quiet kid, but it might not be enough anymore. The Passat is beginning to exhibit some more extroverted tendencies. First there was the go-hard Passat R36 model released in 2008 and then the Passat CC (Compact Coupe) gave the model a sleeker profile. Now for 2011 the Passat wagon/sedan has been reworked for its seventh generation with sharp new sheet metal, tweaked engines and more equipment. So will this latest Passat break the well-formed mold, or play to traditional strengths? Car and SUV took a week long test drive in a Passat TDI Wagon to find out more.
The most obvious visual change to the new Passat is the inclusion of VW’s latest corporate face. The chrome-edged grille is broad and blends into wrapped-back headlights to create a wider, lower look. The chrome work is repeated around the window line and under the front fog lamps and lower air dam. All the panels have been replaced in the new Passat and the result is a more angular and purposeful machine. The short front, creased flanks and higher rear end give the Passat an athletic stance. Detailing like a subtle rear spoiler, integrated roof rails and twin exhaust tips finish the modernised look nicely. The standard wheel fitment on our tested 4Motion Comfortline model are 17-inch alloys with 18-inch designs an available option.
Step inside the Passat Wagon and you’re greeted with a cleanly designed, no fuss cockpit which uses high-grade materials to create a premium feel. Brushed metal trim breaks up the dark plastics and full leather upholstery is a feature of the Comfortline trim spec. Switchgear is elegantly executed with an analogue clock sitting above a wide centre control stack. There’s an easily read touch screen for audio controls and a more traditional button/dial arrangement for climate functions. An electric button handbrake allows more space for cupholders and a generous storage bin/centre armrest. The two dial instrumentation is large, bright and flanks a second display screen offering various vehicle and trip information.
The Passat is a very easy car to get comfortable in, the leather-wrapped steering wheel adjusts well and the seats are wide and supportive. The driver’s chair is electric adjustable including height and lumbar support and there are three memory settings to lock it in once you’re sorted. The rear bench seat is angled for comfort and visibility, it can be spilt folded and has a centre armrest. Both leg and headroom are generous for a mid size wagon. Cargo capacity is rated at 603-litres, but with the rear seat back folded forward this expands to a massive 1,731-litres. It’s a clever space with bracketed-off compartments for small items, a full blind and rails with a sectioning system to stop cargo from sliding around. A full size spare wheel is packed away under the load area floor.
The TDI 4Motion Passat comes fully loaded with equipment, there’s too much to list here but notable inclusions are parking sensors front and rear, two-zone climate air conditioning, hill hold assist, tyre pressure monitoring, cruise control and a special lighting package. There’s also a 6-Disc CD stereo with 8-speakers and iPod connectivity perfect for drowning out the kids.
So the Passat wagon has the bells and whistles, but is there any excitement in the drive? Well, you can’t chuck it around corners quite like a Golf GTI but the new Passat is a surprisingly engaging steer. Under the bonnet the 2-litre TDI 125 engine continues over from the previous model but with some tweaks. Power output for the four-cylinder diesel unit remains unchanged at 125kW with a solid 350Nm of torque. With turbocharging and the full whack of torque available from 1,750rpm the Passat moves off the line with gusto and pushes on to 100km/h in 8.7 seconds. Its real strength however, comes through the mid-range, where the Passat is punchy and can be hustled along at a rapid pace. This makes for safe overtaking at open road speeds and also quick work through suburban streets. While 2.0-litres isn’t a large engine for a wagon, the Passat doesn’t get easily slowed by steep hills or a heavy load.
The diesel mill comes mated to VW’s slick 6-speed DSG transmission, which remains one of the smoothest gearboxes available on the market. The shifts have a seamless feel, are lightning quick and the DSG is a master at extracting all available power from the engine. The dual-clutch transmission works through the lower gears quickly to chase good fuel economy while the top gears are long. There are still some moments where the DSG box gets confused during tight parking moves but these aren’t a regular occurrence.
The Passat has a lively nature on road and what’s equally impressive is that fuel economy isn’t sacrificed to achieve it. Even with the 4Motion system the Passat TDI uses just 5.7 litres of diesel per 100kms on the combined cycle. An impressive result for a vehicle with practical proportions and a result that’s made possible through some smart technology. There’s a regenerative braking system, low rolling resistance tyres and also a start-stop function that sees the engine shut off when waiting at the lights. This stop-start feature operates by shutting down the motor when the car is at idle and the brake pedal depressed, it reactivates the motor with a tap on the accelerator. It’s an easy feature to get used to, but if it’s not your bag then it can be switched off with a cabin-mounted button.
The Passat’s suspension set up consists of independent MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link arrangement at the rear. It’s a very well sorted suspension/chassis set up that has both good compliance and also something to offer more spirited drivers. The Passat’s general handling ability is hard to fault; it crouches down flat during cornering with minimal body roll and is only limited by its body length. While the ride is firmer than some in the segment it remains supple enough to soak up most bumps or divots in the road. The electro-mechanical steering is light to the point of being uncommunicative but it’s precise and rapidly responsive in movement. As for refinement, the Passat cabin is very tranquil with only the rare engine rattle bursting its bubble.
The 4Motion four-wheel-drive system only works when needed, leaving the front wheels to pull the Passat along during regular driving. If traction is lost at the front, torque is quickly sent to the rear axle to bail the wagon out of trouble. It works unobtrusively and the best part is you get four-wheel-drive stability when required without paying for it at the fuel pump. The 4Motion system also adds another element of safety for the family hauler especially in wet conditions or on loose surfaces. If you like to get your wagon down to the snow or use it regularly in the countryside then the high spec 4Motion Passat is certainly worth consideration.
If the 4Motion system isn’t enough to keep the Passat running straight then there’s a full electronic stabilisation programme that includes brake assist, traction and stability control systems. There’s also front, side and curtain airbags and seat belt pretensioners. A ‘Rest Assist’ driver fatigue system is there to catch you out for getting sleepy and there’s an alarm system for catching out thieves.
The bottom line with the Passat is that it’s a well-executed mid-size wagon and in TDI 4Motion form it’s a precision tool for any family. Exterior styling is modern and dynamic while the interior is elegant without sacrificing practicality. The drive is comfortable and relaxed but the Passat won’t object to being pushed harder if desired. All up, the new Passat has the same solid all-rounder nature as its ancestors, but this latest edition is more advanced in its equipment, fuel conserving ability and driving dynamics giving it a much renewed appeal.
What we like:
- Very capable all rounder
- Fuel economy
- Handling ability
- Safety features
- Exterior design
What we don’t like:
- More expensive than Japanese competitors
- Late in receiving the VW corporate face
- DSG box still needs to be perfected
Who will buy this car: The lower-spec models may find fleet use, but the top dog 4Motion Passat is best suited to style-conscious families looking for a practical wagon.
Cool Factor: Moderate, the Passat has never been the coolest kid around but with the sharp new sheet metal and latest technology – it’s no wallflower either.
Words and Photos: Adam Mamo