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2020 Volkswagen Passat Test Drive Review
Rather than give up footing in a dwindling segment, Volkswagen shrewdly gives the 2020 Passat a refresh rather than a complete redesign. But no matter how smart from a business perspective, the fiscally responsible approach likely won’t help VW conquest new customers.
Volkswagen builds a full-size car in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and has for nearly a decade. It’s called the Passat, and it gets a restyle for 2020. Huge inside like a full-size automobile, priced like a midsize sedan, and thrifty with gas like a compact car, the Passat has long been one of my favorite family haulers. Unfortunately, what it needs is a redesign, not a restyle. But since consumers want SUVs instead of sedans and VW is about to roll out a squadron of electric vehicles, the company couldn’t make a business case for spending a pile of cash to craft a new gas-powered car. Instead, you get the old one wearing a new suit.
Look and Feel
Your eyes do not deceive you. The new 2020 Volkswagen Passat resembles something you’ve seen before, namely the Passat that was on sale from 2012 to 2019 as well as the recently redesigned VW Jetta. Take Jetta styling cues, apply them to the old Passat, and you’ve got the new 2020 Passat.
That’s not true on the inside, where the Passat’s revamped dashboard adheres to the architectural T-square of the previous car, right down to its dinky little 6.3-inch touchscreen infotainment screen. Unable to accept the latest VW technology, it does without the bigger display and slick digital instrumentation you’ll find in the Jetta.
In the Passat, cheap, glossy plastic is the rule rather than the exception, but it sure is easy to clean up. Speaking of easy, that’s seemingly the theme of the entire car. It’s easy on the eyes, easy to get into and out of, easy to use, easy to drive, and easy on the wallet.
Volkswagen offers the 2020 Passat in four different flavors. The base car is the Passat S ($22,995) while the top-of-the-line trim is the SEL ($31,095). In between, the Passat SE ($25,845) is easy to recommend for its blend of value and equipment.
My test car was the sporty-looking R-Line ($28,645). Equipped with extra-cost Aurora Red paint and remote engine start, it came to $30,206 including the $920 destination charge.
Every 2020 Passat has a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. Don’t get too excited, because it’s not terribly powerful, supplying just 174 horsepower and 206 pound-feet of torque. But it doesn’t need premium gas, as many turbo fours do.
A 6-speed automatic transmission powers the front wheels instead of a droning continuously variable transmission (CVT) or a hesitant dual-clutch transmission (DCT). Also, aside from a Sport transmission setting and steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, the Passat doesn’t have a bunch of driving modes from which to choose. People will like this powertrain’s simplicity.
Thanks to the engine’s torque, the Passat has no trouble getting up to speed even if it doesn’t push you back in your seat. When driving normally, the transmission is occasionally eager to upshift, presumably to maximize fuel economy, and sometimes the engine revs fall off just enough to make the car feel like its stumbling. Selecting Sport mode solves this. I averaged 26 mpg on my testing loop, just one short of the EPA’s 27-mpg rating in combined driving.
Steering is light and effortless, but not sloppy or imprecise. The Passat might be built in Tennessee, but it’s got plenty of German engineering baked right in. As such, the brakes can be a little grabby, but they withstand repeated hard use. In cities, in suburbs, and on twisty roads, this is a predictable, tossable car with impressive roll control, and the R-Line’s 19-inch wheels and tires offer commendable grip.
The problem with the Passat is suspension tuning. It’s the opposite of what you’d like.
Over sharper bumps, holes, and cracks in the pavement, it’s too stiff, resulting in a busy ride that is no doubt amplified by the car’s decade-old architecture. Over rises, dips, and undulations, the Passat wafts about like a 1972 Cadillac DeVille.
At the same time, though, the car clearly conveys important textural information about the road surface. That’s its German breeding again, and the relative lack of cabin insulation adds an aural communication component to the car’s driving character.
Form and Function
When Volkswagen decided to build the Passat in America, it designed the car for Americans. As such, it’s positively huge inside, with wide comfortable seats, big door openings, and plenty of room for five people. You’ve got sizable cupholders. You’ve got plenty of storage bins and trays. And outward visibility is fantastic.
Cloth upholstery is standard in the Passat S, while the SE and R-Line have V-Tex leatherette seats that look and feel like the real thing. Genuine leather is standard with SEL trim, wrapped around sport seats. For cold weather, available seat heaters keep bums warm. For hot weather, rear air conditioning vents will help passengers keep their cool.
Trunk space measures 15.9 cubic feet, and the space is configured for maximum utility with a flat load floor. You can tip full-size suitcases onto their sides if you’d like, easily fitting four of them inside with lots of room left over. Compact folding strollers roll right in, wheels first if you’d like. Use the key fob to pop the trunk, and the lid opens all the way up. Grips on both inner sides of the lid make it easy to swing the trunk shut.
Given the Passat’s size and utility, the only reasons to get a more expensive and less fuel-efficient SUV are for all-wheel drive, or for big-box cargo capability, or for a third-row seat. That’s it.
Volkswagen’s latest infotainment system and Digital Cockpit instrumentation technologies are unavailable in the Passat, but unless you can’t live with the car’s undersize 6.3-inch touchscreen display, this might not be that big a deal.
Why? You get App Connect, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, HD and SiriusXM satellite radio, a CD player, and Bluetooth. It’s not fancy, but it covers the basics, and even the standard 6-speaker sound system is adequate. Choose SEL trim and the Passat includes navigation and an impressive Fender premium sound system.
A refreshingly simple departure from modern norms, the Passat’s infotainment system limitations didn’t bother me much. In fact, it reminded me of the good old days when buttons and knobs were the rule rather than the exception.
My test car also had the optional remote engine start system, which is great on hot or cold days to pre-condition the interior with air conditioning or heat. Exclusive to SEL trim, the Passat also offers a parking steering-assist system.
If the 2020 Passat is light on convenience-related tech, Volkswagen doesn’t skimp on safety systems.
Every version of the car includes forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot warning, and rear cross-traffic warning. An automatic post-collision braking system is also standard, bringing the Passat to a stop just as soon as possible following a collision. This is important in order to reduce the potential for injury in secondary collisions, which occur after initial airbag deployment.
Choose the Passat SE, and the car includes adaptive cruise control with multiple distance maintenance settings. A lane-keeping assist system is also standard with SE trim, helping to steer the car back toward the center of the lane, but it does not supply a separate lane-centering assist function. Upgrade to SEL trim and the car has parking assist sensors and adaptive headlights that can help a driver see around a corner.
In crash-test assessments conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the 2020 Passat earns the top rating of Good.
Once you’ve become accustomed to paying anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 for a typical crossover SUV, spending less than that on a huge, roomy car like the 2020 Volkswagen Passat makes it seem like a raging bargain. In fact, you’ll probably question the wisdom of paying so much more for the few occasional-use benefits an SUV provides.
Among sedans, the Passat also represents strong value. Prices are competitive, lease deals are typically appealing, and the car includes the first two maintenance visits for free in addition to a 4-year/50,000-mile warranty that covers the entire car. And have I mentioned how big the Passat is on the inside? You’ll get a full-size car for a midsize price.
Granted, you’ll need to live with a fairly remedial infotainment system and a ride that alternates between stiff and sloppy, but those trade-offs might be worth it if for no other reason than to drive something different from what remaining American sedan buyers typically choose.
Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience reviewing cars and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, J.D. Power, the New York Daily News, Autobytel, and Vehix. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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