To view the full-length, narrated test drive review of the Passat, click here.
The Passat was a great car for Volkswagen. This luxury "people's car" offered a strikingly elegant and luxurious appearance both inside and out, offered many features of its more expensive sibling A4 (plus more rear legroom), and had strong powertrain options. So what happened?
The Passat got a lot better, in a lot of ways. Things got bigger. Things got stronger. Insight was added. Lines were redrawn. Seats were stuffed a bit differently. It became a new car, with much of the essence of the old yet much influence from a new direction in Volkswagen design.
The Passat's body lines maintain a reference to the flagship Phaeton, which looked like the Passat which was released first anyway, so it bears great family resemblance. But it is definitely heavily influenced by the shape of the current Jetta. A rich design is made more full bodied with age, so that the Passat now has a stance with enough grandieur to make it a midsize luxury contender. The modest yet well-defined, strong chin gives good visual motion to the car, and smooth outlines help it look clean. Detail is present in the right places - the headlamps, of course, the chrome around the grille and the side windows (the chrome around the side windows really helped define the last Passat, and it works well here too). The sides are more intriguing than the Jetta thanks to a more deeply chiseled belt line and chrome accents running fore-aft at the same height as the axles. The back finishes nicely with a non-vertical, very clean fender-bumper-decklid section. The car looks less sporty than before becasue it looks so much bigger, despite maintaining about the same wheelbase and growing just 3 inches overall. It looks like a much more mature vehicle as a result. This seems purposeful.
The interior is more upscale as well. The interior space jumped up a couple of cubic feet, most notably with an extra 2.4 inches extra rear legroom. The increased space is used well to give a better flowing design and bring greater unity between the components. The seats look like they were transported straight out of a 1970's Ferrari with their horizontal non-overstuffed pleating and rich tan leather. Side support is as good as other midsize luxury sedans, back support is great (electric 4-way lumbar adjustment is standard on all but the Value Edition models) and seat comfort is high. Controls are fairly simple, with many features housed inside the multimedia entertainment and navigation center. The balance of features available on and off the digital screen is good, enough to remove clutter without alienating the less computer savvy.
The steering wheel was very nice, and the mechanical behavior behind it was tuned to luxury feel. The feedback was not what one would expect of a Golf or the previous Jetta, but it is much more consistent and life-like than the current base Jetta's steering, while keeping in line with Volkswagen's incorporation of greater luxury into the brand identity. The weighting of the steering is soft for comfort, but far from limp. Force-feedback is adequate for enthusiastic driving, without being heavy enough to deter less strong drivers with no thirst for performance.
Suspension is tuned to match, with a comfortably soft setting absorbing lots of impact while providing some road information through the seat of your pants. THe front suspension features McPherson struts with triangular wishbone control arms and an anti-roll bar; the rear suspension features a 4-link inpdendent setup with an lightweight anti-roll bar and special measures taken to maximize noise insulation. The ride and drive feel is the soft side of traditional German midsize-luxury, it is definitely cushier than Audi and BMW, but it is not pillowy. Squat and dive seem to be under control such that you won't get seasick from quick acceleration and breaking runs setup back to back. Turn-in is quick enough to be enjoyable for an accelerated cruise down a winding road, despite comfy suspension and a less than quick steering ratio - the current model went softer in this regard in offering a 16.4:1 ratio versus the previous Passat's 14.3:1 gearing. The fact that 1900-plus pounds of the roughly 3400 pound car (turbo-four equipped - add a chunk of weight to the front for the V6 model) is in the front half of the chassis also hinders turn-in, yet there is joy to be had in manuevering this short wheelbase midsize German. The Passat seems very comfortable when pushed on less than slalom-tight corners. It handles well enough to be some fun, and it is very stable.
Braking is handled by 12.3 inch ventilated front discs and 11 inch solid rears handle the woah-power. An aggressive, high-pulse rate ABS system and stability system offer strong braking capability and maximum stability control in the wet and dry. This safety net boosts your confidence so you can comfortably take advantage of the delicous powertrains available.
The power in the little turbo four cylinder is good. The power in the 3.6L V6 is great - it is right on par with the W8 of the last gen car, offering 280hp at 6200 rpm and 265 lb-ft of torque at 2750 revs - that's a good, wide powerband. Acceleration is impressive under a wide variety of conditions, from launch to freeway speed. Torque is aplenty right at throttle tip-in. There is way more than the front drive wheels know what to do with. This is an ideal situation for VW's 4MOTION all-wheel drive to step in. With the traction control off, wheelspin up front is outta control. It's fun to sit on the gas through a corner and listen to the tires spin faster than a speed where it could reasonably be said that the tires are even clawing for grip anymore, but for fuel economy and performance and safety purposes it's nice to have more grip. ASR keeps spin under control to prevent drift when left engaged, however.
ESP, VW/Audi's stability program, does a good job of preventing unintedned rotation of the car about its geometric or mass centers (ie a spin) via ABS and throttle modulation. It also does not interfere with entertaining driving. There is enough play to let the car drift some, and to get the rear end to wiggle under sharp lane-change manuevers. You can play with your line by adjusting the throttle (less effective) and steering wheel without worrying that a slight scrubbing of the front or rear tires will kill your cornering excercise. ESP is a demonstration of a safe but non-overprotective parent. Under super-hot performance driving it may not prove to be the best system, but this is definitely a benchmark as we realize more each time we drive a VW/Audi product.
Power transmission is handled well by six forward speeds. The ratios are setup well, and the final drive ratio - 3.45:1 - is appropriate for performance and fuel economy. The shifts are smooth, and are quickened nicely when a heavy application of throttle is detected. The paddle shifters on the steering wheel are fun though perhaps a bit out of place on this more luxury tuned vehicle. They do encourage you to keep your hands on the wheel at all times, which is most definitely a good thing. But the paddles would much better help the driver if they actually held gears. No matter the mode the transmission is in, you cannot hold a gear for more than several seconds. You may hold for a few seconds and then accelerate, but lift-off will soon if not immediately cause the computer to over-ride your last paddle input with an upshift. This is fine for quick corners but not for long sweeping bends. That's annoying.
Still, the car is fun to drive, slow or fast. It has enough of an engaging personality dialed in with the luxury package to make you want to see what the car can do inside its limits. Mash the throttle, find yourself more one with the seat, flick the paddle shifters up and down or leave the ECU to competently select the right gear for most situations. Work the wheel back and forth smoothly and enjoy the medium level of grip that the Passat offers. Drive it like a German sedan, or enjoy the more comfortable shock aobsoprtion over the unpaved roads on the way home. Revel in the glory of a feature suited to a $200,000 car as you reach inside a compartment in the back of the driver's side door and pull out a VW emblem-ed umbrella (compartment complete with a small door that can be popped out so you can clean out any water and leaves that may have made it inside). Swing the door into a reassuringly solid clunk close, turn and soak in the beautiful green profile and go home happy.