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The VW Passat is a competent family car - but does it show any flair, and does it stand out amongst established executive saloons from BMW, Audi and Mercedes?

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Although Volkswagen refers to this as its seventh-generation Volkswagen Passat, a more accurate representation is that this is a comprehensive refresh of the previous-generation Passat (introduced to the UK in 2006) rather than an all-new car. That said, there is more to report than the visual alterations that bring it in line with VW’s Scirocco-led corporate look.

The changes aim to improve the Passat’s refinement and ecological credentials. Thicker glass and more sound deadening materials have been employed to provide a quieter cabin, while all diesel models use stop-start and battery regeneration technology and are now badged BlueMotion. 

The engine and trim line-ups are identical in either saloon or estate form.

VW says its desire was not to revolutionise the Passat but to enhance its competitiveness. Against the likes of the Ford Mondeo, Peugeot 508 and Skoda Superb, it has a tough challenge.

It’s meeting that challenge with a range that comprises three petrol and three diesel engines, all transversely mounted, forced-induction four-pots. The petrol selection consists of a 120bhp 1.4, a 158bhp 1.8 and a 2.0-litre unit with 207bhp. The diesels are a 104bhp 1.6 and 2.0-litre units with 138bhp and 168bhp. All diesel models feature a new mounting system designed to reduce engine vibrations.

This generation of Passat also sees the introduction of a Passat Alltrack model. It is a similar design to the Audi A4 Avant, being an estate with 4WD and a raised ride height. VW hopes the security of all-wheel-drive in a conventional estate is enough to tempt buyers out of fully-fledged off-roaders. It is available with the pair of 2.0-litre diesels.

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The Mercedes CLS-aping Passat CC can also be found in this revamped line-up, although it now branded simply VW CC. Prices start at £24,395 for the 1.8 TSI.

A six-speed manual gearbox is standard on all models, with DSG optional on all except the 1.6-litre diesel. The 1.4 and 1.8 petrols use a seven-speed DSG with dry clutches, the 2.0-litre petrol and diesels a six-speed DSG with wet clutches.

Trim levels are fairly simple, with S, SE and Sport.

The engine and trim line-ups are identical in either saloon or estate form.

DESIGN & STYLING

Volkswagen Passat rear cornering

The only body panel unchanged from the previous-generation Volkswagen Passat is the roof. Despite very similar proportions and dimensions (the new car is just 4mm longer and unaltered in width and height), every other panel is new.

The styling is designed to reference other VW models and, specifically, the latest VW Phaeton. This is particularly evident with the new wraparound rear lights of the saloon. At the front, the bonnet’s more pronounced crease lines are designed to make the Passat appear wider and lower.

The rear window on the estate is deep enough to afford good rear visibility

To improve refinement, the Passat’s windscreen features an acoustic film sandwiched between layers of glass. It consists of five layers and has a total thickness of 4.46mm.

A new headlight design features optional bi-xenon bulbs (with static and dynamic cornering function) and LED daytime running lights. Each daytime running light consists of 15 LEDs.

All Passats have chrome louvres on the grille, but SE models and above also get chrome trim on the front splitter and window surrounds. In line with its crisper styling, the Passat’s door mirrors look slim, a feeling reinforced when you look into them. The viewing area seems small by most standards.

The load lip of both the saloon and estate is low and level. A new feature added for the seventh generation of Passat is an automatic boot-opening function. Curiously, though, this is available on the saloon only, and not on the estate.

The rear window on the estate is deep enough to afford good rear visibility, but the rear wiper has a fairly limited sweep and leaves almost half of the rear screen untouched.

The BlueMotion badge is no longer reserved for a single model; it’s applied to any variant that uses BlueMotion technology (stop-start and low-resistance tyres). That means all diesel variants and the 1.4 TSI.

INTERIOR

Volkswagen Passat dashboard

If familiarity really does breed contempt, be prepared to dislike the Volkswagen Passat’s interior, which seems to share a sensible amount with its range siblings and its predecessors. In truth, the clarity of its systems and layout suggest that you should feel anything but antipathy towards it.

Few, indeed, are the cars that offer such a high-quality driving position, widely adjustable in both the seat and steering wheel, with nary a hint of driver offset. The seats are large, wide and, if we’re being critical, a touch flat for more enthusiastic driving, but adequately suited to motorway mile-eating, the Passat’s more natural habitat. The seat cushions feel firm on first acquaintance but allow room for a driver to shift around and achieve a decent posture.

The amount of room in the front and rear is fine for the class

The amount of room in the front and rear is fine for the class. The saloon’s boot has smaller headline figures than Ford’s cavernous Ford Mondeo and it’s the same story with the wagon – 513 litres versus 542 litres with the rear seats in place, and 1641 versus 1733 with them folded – but we can’t imagine many drivers will feel short-changed by the Passat’s load bay. Usefully, there is a rear-seat release catch just inside the boot, following which the split-fold rear seat can be nudged down by a piece of long luggage.

If there is something to feel disappointed about within the Passat’s interior, it’s the quality of the graphics on the stereo unit of cars that lack the optional navigation system. The single-colour LCD display, backlit in blue, is little more appealing than your average digital watch. The screen between the dials is a touch better, but it takes delving into the options list to find a more palatable array of readouts.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Volkswagen Passat side profile

It’s Bluemotion tech to the fore in the latest Volkswagen Passat. The 1.6-litre 103bhp diesel that does such sterling service elsewhere in the VW group line-up may sound a bit weedy for a Passat. In fact, it does an okay job of propelling such a large car. It’s not going to set the world alight as a 0-62mph time of 12.2secs shows, but if gentle progress, impressive refinement and incredible economy is what you’re after, it’s an easy choice.

VW Group’s ubiquitous 2.0-litre diesel engine will be most popular in 138bhp form, although it is also offered in a 168bhp output. Our general feeling is that, coupled to a six-speed manual gearbox, the lower-powered version is its most appealing guise, as it offers decent performance and economy is reasonably refined.

Every engine produces impressively low noise levels

Certainly, it delivers enough thrust to propel the Passat with adequate verve. A 0-60mph sprint of 10.0sec is not the kind of time that has anybody writing home these days but is entirely sufficient. It’s a flexible delivery, too, once you’ve passed the lag that afflicts most small-capacity turbodiesels below 1500rpm.

With the diesels providing such a tempting combination of performance and economy, the only petrol really worth considering is the 1.4TSI. Whether it's around town or on the motorway the 1.4-litre engine proves that (provided you don't push it into the upper rev ranges) it is more refined still than the already hushed diesel equivalent, and flexible enough that it doesn't feel strained as some might expect of a small petrol engine in a heavy car. In fact, mated to the standard six-speed gearbox it really is a very effective powertrain - usable, quiet and responsive.

The gearshift itself is light, largely notch-free and positive. The clutch is similarly light and progressive. It suggests an easy-going nature to the drive, which is backed up by low noise levels.

Our experience of a DSG-equipped Passat unfortunately ran counter to the manual's easy-going nature. The transmission was hesitant and jerky when pulling away from junctions and the marriage between it and the stop-start system was not a happy one. The latter is frustratingly slow to react, which often results in the engine cutting out just as you are hoping to pull away.

RIDE & HANDLING

Volkswagen Passat cornering

Volkswagen’s intention with the Volkswagen Passat, it seems, is not to provide a car that is able to excite or engage its driver. At least, not in the fashion that, say, Ford seeks to do with the Ford Mondeo. Instead, VW has drawn on its experience with the 15 million Passat buyers to date, and some lessons from the (rather fewer) Phaetons it has built, to deliver a car that is big on refinement and hush, and appropriately un-vocal about dynamism or involvement.

Even at town speeds, you can tell the kind of car that the Passat is going to be. Its predecessor rode fairly well, but this one moves that on a level. There’s a suppleness to it over potholes and surface imperfections that signifies its intent. With lighter suspension than before, the reduced unsprung weight deals more deftly with poor roads. There’s no steering kickback to speak of and noise levels are hushed.

The Passat is a fine motorway companion

Up the speed a bit and, sometimes, the composure of a car like this one begins to wane. But the Passat’s doesn’t. Its suppleness translates at higher speeds to a car that still rides well, but also one that retains perfectly adequate control over its body movements. It’s not as well controlled as a Mondeo (which feels tauter, with little trade-off at low speeds) but the Passat does have the measure of a Vauxhall Insignia. Compared with its cousin, the Skoda Superb, the Passat offers a keener drive, too.

What the Passat doesn’t offer, though, is much to enjoy while you are piloting it on a twisting road. You go, it goes; you steer, it steers; you stop, it stops. That makes it a fine motorway companion. For the enthusiast that’s a bit of a shame.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volkswagen Passat 2011-2014

To use a general rule of thumb, a Volkswagen Passat works out more expensive than the Ford Mondeo. It is also around the same more than the Skoda Superb, which has a more generous roster of standard equipment.

Of its mainstream rivals, though, the VW Passat promises the best economy and the lowest carbon emissions. Although our test average of the lower-powered 2.0-litre diesel 49.8mpg falls short of the claimed 61.4mpg combined figure, it is still impressive for a car of this size, while CO2 emissions of 120g/km put the Passat into the lowest band for benefit-in-kind tax. Without a stop-start system, the Superb, which shares the same engine, is significantly less efficient.

The days when VWs were poorly equipped a long gone

Choose the smaller 1.6 diesel and you’re promised exceptional fuel returns of 65.7mpg (64.2mpg for the estate), while CO2 emissions drop in turn. Assuming a similar return to our tests of the bigger diesel engine, you should easily expect to top 50mpg in real-world use.

Of the petrols, the 1.4TSI gets Bluemotion tech to keep economy high and emissions low. And for a petrol-powered family car, it’s claimed average of 47.9mpg and 138g/km are again impressive.

The other petrol cars are efficient for their size, but you would have to be a low mileage driver for them to make any economic sense. Given the Passat's qualities as a motorway driver, it's likely therefore that few drivers will choose them.

VW is evidently hoping to push the Passat upmarket with the CC and Alltrack additions to the range, and the pricing of these models reflects that attitude. The 2.0 TSI CC carries a premium of more than £3500 over the saloon, for example, and the 168bhp Alltrack is £4610 more expensive than the equivalent Passat estate.

The days when VWs were poorly equipped a long gone – even the entry-level S model gets alloy wheels, air conditioning, a USB socket and four electric windows. However, Bluetooth is an option, but standard on SE models and above. Higher-spec cars also get DAB radios as standard.

In addition to the usual safety features, this new Passat is offered with two optional systems: Fatigue Detection, which measures the driver’s inputs during the first 15 minutes of a journey and then emits an audible warning if it thinks there is a risk that the driver is about to drift off, and a City Emergency Braking function, which automatically stops the car if it senses a collision.

VERDICT

4 star Volkswagen Passat

Over the past six generations, Volkswagen has clearly learnt what it thinks the Volkswagen Passat should be: refined, hushed, capable of delivering a driving experience noteworthy mostly for its lack of noteworthiness. If that’s the intention, the latest Passat delivers on it. As a motorway cruiser, a company car to tackle 20,000 or so motorway miles a year, it is unrivalled in this class - especially with the 137bhp 2.0-litre diesel's excellent frugality.

That said, whether you go for the 2.0-litre or 1.6-litre diesel you’ll be getting a car with exceptional economy and, therefore, keep company car tax bills low. The 1.4TSI will do the same for petrol engine fans, even if performance isn’t exactly scintillating.

The Passat offers comfort and economy in spades, but makes the driver feel like a passenger

The estate is similarly hard to fault: refined, economical and with plenty of usable space, even if there are cars with larger load bays. Build quality is strong, even if there are some low-rent plastics lower down in the cabin. And the equipment roster, while being beaten by Skoda, is good enough. There are even some clever gizmos, like the automatic boot-opening function in the saloon where you only have to wave your foot under the back of the car to pop the boot lid.

However, Volkswagen is capable of making cars that involve and engage their driver, so it’s obviously a conscious decision that the Passat doesn’t. Fair enough: the Passat is fit for its purpose, and we like it very much. But we don’t feel the car is quite ready to assume the role of white good just yet. And given that large family cars are often a driver’s only wheels, it’s a shame to reduce the experience to one merely of travelling rather than one of driving.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Volkswagen Passat 2011-2014 First drives