Since its launch in 1973, Volkswagen has made well over 15 million Passats. Although this figure is well short of the sales total of the smaller Golf, it is still a big number, and clear evidence that this is a car that meets the needs of many buyers around the world. For many years, sales in the UK were relatively low, as the car was quite costly compared to its obvious mid-sized family saloon and estate competitors, but as the market started to eschew “ordinary” and sought premium in all aspects including both badge and the amount of money it was prepared to pay for this, UK sales rose. Every few years, VW have released a new model, which, just as with most other cars, was physically larger, and in most cases usefully better than the one it replaced. Continuing this theme, VW launched what they called an “all new” Passat in September 2010. Even to the untrained eye, this looked like something of an exaggerated claim, as although the front and rear styling had clearly changed, taking on the current corporate Volkswagen face, the overall shape of the car appeared to be remarkably like the 5 year old design of the 6th generation model that this car would supercede. Indeed, they claimed to have changed all the body panels apart from the roof, but for so much effort you might expect your car to take on a more different appearance. Other changes were largely driven by a desire to improve refinement levels and – essential these days – to make further gains in efficiency and environmental credentials. The outgoing car was generally well liked, and I sampled a few of them over the years, and found that, although the diesel engines were far from agreeable, this was not undeserved approbation. Almost universally, the new car has been criticised for its very bland styling, which few appear to think is an improvement on the outgoing model, so the question to answer is whether there have been sufficient improvements elsewhere and whether the changes were indeed enough to keep the car competitive.
There have been a large number of different engines offered in the Passat over the years. Currently, the range is quite simple, with three different power outputs for each of petrol and diesel. The latter outsell the former by some margin in the UK, as with many other markets, and my test car was indeed powered with fuel from the black pump. It was the entry level diesel engine, fitted with a 1.6 litre 4 cylinder engine, married up to a 6 speed manual gearbox. Although all TDi models in the latest Passat range are badged BlueMotion, this one really is, with a number of features intended to optimise economy and minimise emissions. I noted that the tax disc defiantly records the fact that no road tax is due, as the 120 g/km CO2 threshold has not been exceeded.
You might, not unreasonably, be a little apprehensive that 105 bhp is not really enough for a car the size of the Passat. Thanks to the torque characteristics of this car, your fears may well be misplaced. Of course it is not fast, but it is by no means as sluggish as you would think. After a couple of previous iterations of BlueMotion, based on the old 1.9 Pump Duese and then the later 2.0 TDi Common Rail engine, neither of which were the last word in refinement – indeed the first car, which I had the misfortune to sample was unacceptable – this is one is really not bad at all. You can hear that it is a diesel on start up, and at low revs, but otherwise, the noise levels are well suppressed and once underway, it is the gobs of torque that remind you that you are derv powered rather the noise. The engine is quite flexible, too. There is an indicator light to tell you when it thinks you should change up, and I found that it was almost always suggesting a higher gear than I had selected, with less than 2000 rpm the recommended change up point. When I was doing 40 mph and it suggested 6th gear, which was only just over 1000 rpm, out of curiosity, I did try it, and was surprised to find that it almost worked, until you wanted any acceleration. There is what I can best describe as a typical VW style gearchange, with a slightly grainy feeling to the selection of the gears. It is far better than you used to find even a few years ago, and I never found any resistance even into selecting reverse, which did not used to be the case. There is quite a long movement between the gear positions, so that in first, third and fifth the lever is almost slightly too far forward for the position that the driver occupies. The combination of engine and gearing does give some pretty impressive economy, unsurprisingly, and matters are helped further with a standard stop/start system. This feature seemed to work well, like others I have come across, though it does require you to anticipate the changing of traffic lights as you can slot the car into gear slightly more quickly than the engine can restart. The trip computer showed an average of 51 mpg when I collected the car, and after my 400 miles, most of which were on the motorway, it had improved to 54 mpg. If I calculate from the amount of fuel I put in the Passat, the number comes out at 59 mpg, and that is assuming that it was as full when I collected it as it was on return. Not often a valid assumption with rental cars!
That was the good bit, but sadly, I cannot say the same about the steering. Around the straight ahead position, it is very light, too light in fact, and vague, and while it does gain a little more weight the more you turn the wheel, it is not a good feeling overall. There is plenty of understeer, and I found it quite difficult to take corners tidily, not least, I suspect because of the difficulty of feeling how much the wheels had really turned. Fortunately, the ride is far better, absorbing the worst of the surface imperfections that you find ubiquitously these days. No issues with the foot brake, but the Passat is cursed with an electronic handbrake. There is a hill-hold button behind it, and this time I had no issues with the thing, but then I did not try to do any hill starts. When I tested the old model last Christmas, the handbrake proved impossible to release when on snow until you disabled the hill-holder function, and caused more than a few ugly words from my mouth as I struggled to get the thing to release. I really cannot see the advantages of these things to anyone other than the manufacturer saving a few pennies. No particular issues with visibility, even noting that the door mirrors are not particularly large.
Comparing the dashboard of the latest car with the previous one, and it is clear that whilst there have been a few detailed changes, these are minor, and once again the “all new” claim just does not appear justified. The two most obvious alterations are that the electronic handbrake button has moved from a position on the dashboard to the right of the steering wheel to one adjacent to the gearlever, and the hazard warning light switch which occupied the top of the central part of the dash moulding has had its place taken by an analogue clock. The latest car has buttons on the spokes of the steering wheel for the trip computer functions. Otherwise, it is exactly the same. There are two large dials, for speedometer and rev counter, with each containing a smaller dial for water temperature and fuel level. The dials are clearly marked. The speedo is only calibrated in mph, but there is a kmh equivalent included in the digital display between the two dials, where you will also find the chosen information setting, a digital clock and the indicator of which gear you are in, or whether it thinks you should be changing up (or down). The column stalks are chunky, and have slightly different graphics on them, but work in the same way as generations of VW and Audi cars have done. There is a rotary dial to the right of the column for the lights. The audio unit is set quite high up in the dash, but proved quite fiddly to use, when you wanted to scan through available radio stations. There is an air conditioning system, below this, operated by three further rotary dials.
The front seats came with manual adjustment, as you would probably expect for an entry level car. Combined with adjustment for the steering column, it was easy enough to get a comfortable driving position. The seat itself was a big shapeless and could have done with more support around the side of the backrest. Clearly it was made for someone of bigger build than I. The seats were covered in a sort of hard wearing cloth material that is quite typical of cars that do not run to leather facings these days. Space in the back of the Passat is not lacking, with ample legroom and headroom. There is also a generously proportioned boot, which can be extended by folding the rear seat backrests down, should the need arise. Inside the cabin, a reasonable glove box, and door pockets are complemented by a small cubby under the central armrest and a slot in the centre console where you would hope to find a proper handbrake.
When the sixth generation Passat was launched, the entry level S spec cars were all too obvious as a thin black line on the lower doors, in the bumpers and cheap plastic wheel trims made it very clear that this was the cheapest model in he range. Whilst there are visual differences between the S, SE and Sport models, at least the basic car does not look quite so obviously cheapened out. The 16″ alloys help, for sure. SE and Sport models get larger wheels, with different alloys. The SE also brings electrically adjustable seats, with a height and lumber adjuster for the passenger, numerous detailed trim differences, cruise control, bluetooth preparation, and heated mirrors. Opt for the Sport, and you get different alloys again, sports suspension, climate control, a different type of cloth upholstery, and other trim differences.
I started this test by asking whether the latest changes to the Passat should have potential purchasers saying “Past-it” or “Psst”. Neither would be totally fair. The latest changes to the styling are probably not helpful, making the front VW generic and the back, well, just bland, but look past these and you get a very competent car. It most certainly is not one with much in the way of panache or flair. I think that is probably deliberate, as VW have tried to figure out what helped 15 million previous purchasers to select one of these cars in favour of a lengthy list of alternatives. For those who want a comfortable saloon, and no more, they would probably be quite happy with the latest Passat. For those who want the ultimate in eco-performance, then the latest Blue Motion tweaks are ones you could readily accept, and even welcome.
Is that the end of the story? Not quite. In December 2010, I sampled the outgoing version of the same car. No test was published, as I only drove the car 11 miles. The day I collected it coincided with one of the heavier winter snow falls, so what started out as a cheap weekend’s rental to hit the target 30th rental for the year from Hertz to renew my President’s Circle status ended up being just that, and the car never left the parish where I live. So, what can I conclude? Well, there was really remarkably little that was different about that car from the one which I sampled over a rather longer test difference. This car impressed me after the uncouth and frankly unacceptable clatter from the previous 2.0 TDi Passat Blue Motion I had endured, and whilst the latest car might be very slightly more refined, the difference is not huge. The electronic handbrake was such a nightmare in the snow that the test nearly ended even more prematurely when I could not get it to release at all until eventually I disabled the auto hill-hold. The one redeeming feature of this car over the new one is that, in my opinion at least, it simply looks better. It will be cheaper to buy, too. Have a look at these pictures and form your own conclusions both on just how “all new” the latest car really is, and which you prefer.