When your author’s 2019 Golf SportWagen (to be revealed soon) went into the shop for warranty work after just two weeks of ownership, the dealer provided a service loaner for a couple days (or four). And it was a brand new Passat, but one company PR would never release into the hands of any journalist: the most basic version.
Let’s see if the spacious S sedan is an Ace of Base.
Refreshed for the 2020 model year, the Passat’s bones date back to 2012, when the NMS or “New Midsize Sedan” version debuted in North America, Mexico, and China. For 2019, the Chinese-market Passat moved to the MQB platform as a brand new model. In North America, the old NMS version continues with a refresh to bring it in line visually with the Chinese Passat. Trims on offer range from the basic S at $22,995 to the SEL at $31,095. All versions carry the same 2.0-liter turbo four; ubiquitous power under the hood of Volkswagen vehicles. No matter the trim, 174 horsepower are sent to the front via the six-speed automatic, and the EPA says to expect 23 city and 34 highway.
Visually, Passat’s mostly a carry-over from before. The shape is largely anonymous, and those not well-versed in VW styling could easily mistake the Passat for the Jetta (the Passat’s an inch wider and seven inches longer, for the record). The block lettering across the trunk lid is new and brings an upscale touch. Other things to note are pretty good paint quality, consistent (if a bit large) panel gaps, and doors which sound nice upon closure. Just don’t expect the solid sound of a worldwide Volkswagen product like say, a Golf. Particularly offensive on the exterior is the gigantic fuel door, which is too large for no apparent reason and is made of plastic. It does not give any sense of quality when handled.
Though the large dimensions don’t get up to much on the styling front, dividends are paid in the interior. Space is plentiful front and rear, with copious leg and head room for all passengers, even if they’re over six feet tall. Seats are supportive for short trips, offering enough side bolstering to hold front passengers in place. They fall short on thigh support, though, so a long journey for the long of leg might prove painful. Adjustments are manual and plentiful in all directions. Fabrics feel just alright, but as far as long-term wear considerations go, the material is a bit thin. Trunk space is best described as cavernous, and should be more than enough for the needs of the masses.
Basic is the theme of this interior. In the driver’s seat, a sea of black rubber and plastic stretches before you — perhaps as expected in a Volkswagen. Dash materials are a rubberized plastic, and there’s a thread of faux stitching running the width. The cockpit is generally aesthetically pleasing, with simple screen and HVAC controls. Drawing the eye across the cabin are the vents integrated into a horizontal piece of trim, similar to an Audi 5000 from 1980. It’s a nice, clean look.
For the most part, materials below dash level are hard plastic. Silver trim is the same texture as the surrounding plastic, and gives a bland appearance. The steering wheel, while feeling pleasant enough in the hand, is made of rubber and has an unfinished edge here and there along the inside of the rim. It’s also slightly offset to the right, which is unforgivable in the opinion of your author. Of note is a nicely-padded center console lid that’s trimmed in V-tex and operates with a smooth, Germanic latch and motion.
Switches throughout are a mix of Golf, Jetta, and Passat-unique pieces. Most feel like they’re made decently well, but not of stellar materials. Passat’s climate control knobs hail from the Golf and jiggle loosely in their housings; on the Golf they don’t. Windows roll up very loudly, seemingly via tired motors shouting for a rest. Gauges convey information simply and are easy to read, but they match those from the base Jetta, and are not pleasing in appearance. It’s all finished in a black-and-red color scheme that looks downmarket.
Also downmarket is the randomly beige rear view mirror, which is a weird parallelogram shape and also sourced from the Jetta. The view provided out the rear window is a good size and not too obstructed by headrests, but said view is marred by shiny rear parcel shelf plastic, which unfortunately reflects sunlight. It’s a bit thoughtless.
On the technology front, pluses go to the decently sized touch screen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, Bluetooth, XM satellite radio, and a backup camera of fair resolution. It’s simple and intuitive enough to use, and does not rely on annoying mouse inputs like other systems. What’s not here is the most modern Volkswagen screen system, a push-button ignition, an electronic parking brake, auto stop-start, adaptive cruise, or an eco mode. There are a lot of blanks on the dash and gear selector, and the key you’ll use is the one they had for the Beetle in 2002. The base radio sounds fine, if a bit tinny.
Turning the key quickly fires up the 2.0-liter mill. It’s smooth and quiet until around 2600 rpm, at which point some turbo noise and engine groaning enters the cabin. Not an especially good noise; newer I-4 engines from the brand sound nicer. Out on the road, the six-speed transmission is a bit ill-suited to its task. Given it’s a holdout in a world of eight forward speeds, one would expect well-honed operation. At takeoff in daily driving situations, the transmission is too eager to make the 1-2 shift. This drops off the revs immediately, and the turbo has nothing on which to run, so it can’t assist. It leads to a slog forward, as second gear builds enough revs to get you moving and into third.
This issue does not occur when urgent forward motion is requested, but that’s outside of normal driving operation. In other situations, the transmission is a bit better, with cleanly executed shifts occurring at the right time. Sport mode is a notch down on the gearshift, and simply holds all the gears for a bit longer while increasing engine noise. Freeway acceleration is more than adequate for this class of car, and passing was a breeze. It feels notably quicker than a Golf with a 1.4-liter, for instance.
The brakes were very strong, and in an emergency situation where the truck in front of me ran a red light, stopped the Passat quickly. Of particular concern in my 24-mile example was a brake pedal with a seemingly faulty return. Letting off the brake, there was a lag before the pedal returned to its released position; it raised to meet my foot. I took to letting off the pedal about half a second before I wanted to move onward. A fluke, I’d hope.
On the potholed roads here in Ohio, the Passat’s ride was on the firm side of comfortable; bumps and imperfections were soaked up fine and did not transmit through to the seat. But over rough pavement there was a bit more jiggling than I’d expect from a large, front-drive sedan with tall tires. Another notable thing was the amount of road noise entering the cabin. Even at 30 miles per hour, there was a constant tire roar from the Falken Sinceras. It put me in mind of a certain Outback from 2012, suggesting a need for additional sound insulation. The Jetta is quieter at speed. There was also some wind noise coming from the b-pillar, which seemed only on the driver’s side.
By the way, one cannot operate the Passat at surface street speeds with even one window down, as “helicopter” style buffeting is intense. This is particularly true with the rear windows open. Steering is neutral in feel, electric, and does not impart any sense of feedback. It’s about what you’d expect in the CamCord class of car, and most drivers will not find it objectionable. There was a bit more on-center dead space than preferred, but that was only notable at very slow speeds.
The $23,000 Passat in S trim is a basic experience, as dictated by price, and an Ace of Base is a good thing for the customer on a tight budget who seeks value. But this sort of fundamental cost-cutting tips things toward the negative. The Passat’s most glaring faults wouldn’t be fixed by an escalation of trim and spend. Things like the dated underpinnings, off-center wheel, engine and transmission combo, wind buffeting, and the road noise will be present on all trims. Quality concerns like the wobbly climate knobs could be fixed with the dual-zone control of the SEL, but it shouldn’t be necessary to pony up to resolve such issues.
The Passat used to be a European-built alternative to Japanese and Korean mid-market sedans. Here in The Current Year, it’s a Tennessee-based leftover whose competition (and indeed its siblings in other markets) have left it behind.
Pick something else.