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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Passat - 125TDI wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Spacious, attractive, classy interior, big on safety, value pricing, strong diesel performance and economy, slick drivetrain, overall refinement, wagon practicality, upmarket image
Room for improvement
Tight rear headroom for taller people, TDI plus DSG lag in some scenarios, some road noise, running cost concerns out of warranty

Volkswagen logo16 Sep 2011

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

IF, like your reporter, you are old enough to remember 1974 (just), you may recall the impact the first (B1) Volkswagen Passat had on the new car market.

As steeped in beautifully crisp, front-drive modernism as the Beetle belonged to a bygone age, it instantly aged the competition – all heavy rear-drive relics with soft handling, a hard ride, flaccid performance, a thirst for fuel, and woeful interior packaging.

Think Ziggy Stardust era David Bowie to, say, the period Toyota Corona’s Bay City Rollers – or, for our younger readers, Bjork to the opposition’s Pussy Cat Dolls – and you can see why there was a real buzz surrounding that first and innovative Passat.

But like Ziggy, the original blazed a trail for countless others to follow but burned out spectacularly.

Beset by teething problems brought on by shoddy (Australian) assembly and an inability to cope with our demanding conditions, VW pulled the plug on local assembly (and ostensibly the country) and that early Passat petered out.

Interestingly, while the 1996 comeback version (B4) was like a pale (and fat) Elvis impersonator from Dusseldorf, the ’98 successor was – still is – a sensory masterpiece inside and out, using its Audi A4 origins to full, premium effect. Aussies took notice but sales weren’t spectacular, for silly pricing, scarce resources and limited vision hamstrung the non-VW importer.

By the early 2000s the parent company took over, the brand’s vehicles continued their march upmarket but with more sensible prices, and the now-B6 gen model enjoyed a bumper year by 2007 (3500-plus sales). The promise of the B1 original some 30 years earlier finally came to pass for Passat.

So that’s the midsized VW’s story so far – the youthful trendsetter of the ’70s growing into an accessible and accomplished middle-of-the-road alternative to everything from a Toyota Camry to a Mercedes C-class.

Nowadays everybody seems obsessed with smart phones, investment properties, and overseas travel, so is the Passat the perfect middle-class automobile for our middle-class lives?

The seventh-gen version is a reskin of the 2005 model, and that’s immediately apparent when new and old are viewed side-by-side. Carried over are the roof, much of the interior, platform and most of the drivetrain – albeit massaged and updated to feel fresh (ish).

Quality oozes every time you feel the door open, sit on firm but well formed (and now pleated leather-faced) front and outboard rear seats, and observe the immaculately crafted dashboard that remains a sensuous tactile experience.

Attention to detail pervades, from the damped handles and flocked door pockets, to the (slightly self conscious) analogue smack bang in the middle of a simple, sweeping and solid fascia.

Driving positions don’t come more naturally than today’s Passat’s – augmented up front by headrests that adjust horizontally as well as vertically for maximum support.

Similarly, the multi-adjustable wheel is a delight to hold and behold practicality considerations like entry and egress, storage facilities and general all-round vision are among the best in class and the dials – clear, legible, informative and attractively designed – all feel like a reward for a weary traveller to come to. In the dark, thanks to classy lighting, the interior looks and smells like that of a $100,000 model.

Add the fact no non-luxury car is as quiet and isolated from outside and mechanical noises, and the oh-so-quiet Passat is in a league of its own for refinement and civility. That’s the VW way these days.

Mind you, our test car included sat-nav ($3000), lifting the Passat’s ambience even higher. Gee, but with the touch screen and logical controls, it works well. It includes the vital rear-view camera too.

We are less enamoured with the optional push-button start system though. On three occasions during our week with the VW, a fumbling finger not following the correct order starting procedure meant that we had to wait for minutes while the electronics sorted themselves out. VW swears it was driver error. Perhaps, but the experience shook our confidence in the car’s reliability regardless …

As with the Passat sedan, the wagon’s rear seat is suitable for everybody … but the tall. We’re talking 190cm-plus people may find their scalps scraping the ceiling. Try before you buy if the back bench is your bag.

Otherwise, the good times continue to roll in the rear … proper vent outlets, more lined door bins, another pair of damped grab handles, and a comfy seatback angle all mean the family should also feel they are in a cut-above-the-rest car. Even the centre rear pew is acceptable. Just.

And Fido? He can luxuriate in carpeted cargo floor heaven that, from 603 litres, is not only long (1130mm), flat and easy to load (sill is 620mm high), but also includes a set of handles to remotely lower the (split/fold) rear seats. This creates a 1731 litre area, or a sleeping space of 1960mm if you feel like fabricating a part-time hearse. Plus, the tailgate swings up to a handy 2.0 metres.

Up front is a direct-injection turbo-diesel engine of 2.0 litres. You can certainly hear the clatter standing beside the car, but inside it is just a distant thrum.

With no need to unset the park brake (it’s electronic), all the driver need to is select ‘D’ on the dual-clutch transmission lever to further discover how quiet and refined the 125TDI unit is.

Of course, with DSG, there is always a slight hesitation if instant oomph is your top priority, and the diesel’s natural propensity to lag doesn’t help, but at least nowadays VW includes a Hill Hold function to stop the car rolling back on inclines. That’s a step in the right direction.

Anyway, in most everyday conditions, the Passat’s acceleration rates as really quite strong, aided by smart gearing and a deep well of torque (350Nm) to draw upon.

Select ‘S’ for Sport on the transmission quadrant, and a determined driver can race through the ratios and have the 125TDI powering on purposefully in almost no time at all. Keep in the low-2000s sweet spot and there will be ample overtaking performance available at your disposal. But outside of that rev range and it can feel breathless. Whatever, the 8.6s 0-100km/h sprint-time that the company quotes seems about right.

On the open road the VW is in its element, cruising swiftly and serenely in a manner that might impress a Mercedes owner.

Furthermore, using just 8.1L/100km during our tenure, the Passat’s diesel consumption is low enough to impress a small car owner – and that’s on the high side, apparently. VW claims a scarcely believable 5.7L/100km!

How is this possible? All Aussie-bound 125TDIs include idle-stop technology – electronics extinguish the engine at idle in circumstances that permit, and then instantly and seamlessly reignites it once the driver takes foot off brake. Of course it can be overridden, but with fuel savings on offer, the technology just works quietly in the background, without disturbing progress.

By now it is clear we are quite enamoured with the Passat wagon for the way it conveys people and packages comfortably, quietly and with more than a modicum of class.

Yet the VW can also make quick work of your favourite string of turns too.

Yes, like all modern VWs, the steering is fast-acting and well weighted but a bit remote in feel, but the handling is really first class in how easy and predictable it is to place the Passat precisely where you need it to be, while the chassis feels absolutely stuck to the road surface. A great set of brakes – now without the over-sensitivity that once blighted previous Wolfsburg vehicles – underlines the car’s safety pedigree.

Considering the weight and size, the VW is both dynamically extremely competent and utterly secure. That’s an admirable combo.

But while a bit more road feel would be welcome, a little less tyre noise on some of our coarser bitumen would also be appreciated.

Also, the ride quality, though well damped, can err on the stiff side on bumpier surfaces.

And finally, with our starting hiccup in mind, we are wary of running costs, especially when the VW is out of warranty.

Yet none of the above qualms are enough to put us off heartily recommending the Passat Highline 125TDI wagon.

Conservative it may be, but there is an air of grace to the styling that should offend nobody.

The interior’s design and execution, meanwhile, are above the mainstream competition’s efforts (Peugeot 508 excepted), yet there is heaps of wagon space practicality.

Throw in the outstanding economy, sufficiently eager performance, and super-safe roadholding and brakes, are it is clear that the VW really is a car for our times – especially considering what is clearly value pricing at $46,000.

Of the competitor wagon set, the Ford Mondeo is a more involving drive, the (closely related) Skoda Superb more spacious, the Mazda6 sportier, and the 508 more modern.

But the Passat, with almost 40 years of development and 15 million examples sold globally, has evolved to be all of these things too.

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