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First drive: Long wait for fine Volkswagen Passat

Big leap: The new Volkswagen Passat is based on the same flexible platform as the Golf, and much like its smaller sibling, the mid-sizer impresses.

Now on sale in Europe, eighth-gen VW Passat still a year way from local launch

9 Oct 2014


VOLKSWAGEN’S new-generation Passat mid-sizer will arrive in Australia in October next year, with more technology, improved dynamics, better comfort and higher quality than before.

The B8-series Passat has arrived in Europe in two direct-injection turbo-powered front-drive sedan and wagon variants, with prices expected to stay the same despite an up-step in specification.

Though not yet confirmed, a 176kW/500Nm 2.0-litre bi-turbo diesel all-wheel drive 4Motion flagship is under scrutiny as a replacement for the current V6 FSI performance version, which ceased production in the newcomer due to emissions that are too high for Europe.

It can hit 100km/h from standstill in just 6.1 seconds and average 5.3 litres per 100km of fuel on the European combined cycle.

A jacked-up Alltrack and probably CC coupe-sedan versions are likely to round out the range, though neither is expected before 2016 at the earliest.

Built in Germany on an all-new MQB (modular transverse matrix) platform that also underpins (in highly modified form) the latest Golf, the new Passat is significantly stronger, slightly smaller but roomier and up to 85kg lighter than before.

Using a gram-by-gram kilo-cutting philosophy, 40kg was culled from the powertrains, 33kg from the body and interior trim, 9kg from the chassis and 3kg from the electrical system alone.

Lower and wider than before, with smaller overhangs, a longer bonnet and greater angled windscreen for a more cab backward look, the Passat’s proportions have subtly altered.

The sedan and wagon are 2mm and 4mm shorter respectively, but both sit on a 79mm longer and wider wheelbase, with interior length stretching 33mm, benefitting rear-seat space and cargo capacity.

In the interior, some models gain a head-up display, ambient lighting, and analogue-look digital instruments known as Active Info Display (AID) with a wide choice of screen personalisation. A fascia-wide ventilation strip is reminiscent of the late 1970s Audi 100.

A Mirrorlink smartphone-mirroring infotainment system lives within a large touchscreen display, providing an interface for phone, audio, car control, reversing camera (with optional Area View) and navigation functions.

The latter can also be accessed via the AID cluster. Additionally, a tablet app can be downloaded for rear-seat passengers to access the vehicle’s entertainment system.

On the engine front Volkswagen will be offering a pair of Euro-5 (rather than the cleaner but costlier Euro-6) four-cylinder direct-injection all-turbo engines, both with fuel-economy enhancing idle-stop technology.

More than half of all Australian buyers choose the 130kW/380Nm 2.0-litre TDI turbo-diesel, and this situation is likely to remain with the as-yet unseen 135kW/400Nm unit set to replace it.

The old 118kW/250Nm 1.8-litre TSI petrol unit gives way to a 132kW version and as before, both it and the diesel will be matched with DSG dual-clutch transmissions – six speeds for the TDI and seven for the TSI.

A pair of 2.0-litre TSI units are also available in Europe, in 162kW and 206kW configurations, though whether they arrive Down Under is another matter.

The new Passat's suspension is similar to the outgoing model on paper, but it is all change as per the MQB generation of new lightweight chassis components, with the completely overhauled MacPherson strut gaining an aluminium subframe, while the fresh four-link independent rear also accesses weight-saving material.

Both axles now include more aluminium components.

Volkswagen says the goal was to increase both ride comfort and dynamic capabilities – something only possible if the body was stiffened and strengthened.

Rigidity rises five per cent in the sedan and 20 per cent in the wagon. Both ends of the car are lighter with stiffer anti-roll bars, the roll axis has been raised for a more agile feel, and redesigned subframes better isolate noise while resisting lateral movement.

The German car-maker says the restyled mirrors even promote quieter air flow.

Some models will score a new variable ratio electric rack and pinion power steering system that sees turns lock-to-lock drop from 2.75 to 2.1.

Still on chassis options, Dynamic Chassis Control sees a 10mm drop in the Passat’s ride height, as well as Comfort, Normal and Sport settings that alter the dampers and steering weight accordingly.

If a 4Motion Passat does arrive, it would feature a fifth-generation Haldex part-time all-wheel drive system that can vary torque distribution front to rear by up to 100 per cent.

Volkswagen says the B8 Passat pushes medium-segment boundaries with its leading “comfort with agility”. But is it the “convincing proposition against its competitors” that they claim? To find out, we flew to Sardinia off Italy and drove the two model range extremes – a base 110kW 1.4-litre TSI manual sedan and a 176kW 2.0-litre bi-turbo TDI DSG 4Motion wagon.

Now, if you’ve been concentrating, you will know that neither powertrain is slated for Australia – though the latter is certainly on Volkswagen’s wishlist should Wolfsburg HQ price it attractively enough.

The first thing that is immediately obvious about the newcomer is how much better and resolved the design is in real life, especially compared to the uninspiring launch images.

What might seem staid and derivative on a computer screen is in fact far less so in the flesh – from the significantly wider stance to the sinewy character line that banishes the dumpy look of the previous two iterations.

Special mention goes to the Passat’s nose – it has a shark-like snout in profile that is reminiscent of old-school BMWs such as the much-loved E39 5 Series.

Meanwhile, from behind, the wide-hipped shape and horizontal LED tail-light detailing of the sedan brings to mind the Alfa 159 – though in a far-less disarming manner, it must be said. The wagon is very Mk7 Golf-like in its appearance, with a bit of current BMW thinking thrown in as well.

Overall, then, the design works. Trust us.

The latest Passat is a long and imposing car, which augers well for cabin space. Even 190cm-plus occupants will find the accommodation provided satisfactory, on firm yet supportive seats that remain comfy even after a couple of hours.

A first for Passat is the optional virtual instrumentation in lieu of the standard two-can dial set-up found in most contemporary Volkswagens.

In presentation and operation, it is pretty much flawless, offering a huge range of scrollable data options, and all are conveyed in a clear, colourful and crisp manner.

We’re especially impressed with the sat-nav mapping, which allows the massive central touchscreen to be used for other things, such as finding streamed music or adjusting the (optional) DCC chassis control settings.

Being launch sample vehicles, the Passats on offer boasted a finish that was impeccable, ambience that was inviting and specification that put it in mind of more premium products such as a Volvo – if not the latest Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

There is a conservative technicality to the overall functionality of the interior that aligns with Volkswagen’s upmarket aspirations for the B8 Passat. For more exciting stuff, that’s what Audi is for.

From a driving as well as passenger perspective, there is no doubt that this is a modern and ridiculously competent sibling to the award-winning Golf.

Volkswagen has increased the steering’s responsiveness, and as a result there is a newfound linearity and fluidity to the Passat’s handling.

Whether in the lightest 1.4 TSI manual front-drive sedan or heaviest 2.0 bi-turbo TDI DSG 4Motion wagon, the amount of controlled grip on offer is very pleasing. This is a point-and-shoot handler that flatters the ham-fisted while providing enough interaction to entertain keen drivers.

There is a caveat here, though.

All cars we sampled featured the optional adaptive driving technology here, Sport was our preferred mode, since the steering effort weighed up enough to be interesting in Comfort and Normal the helm felt a bit too light and lacking in feel to engage us.

We can’t tell you how the regular Passats feel in comparison, but we fear that – while incredibly competent and composed – they’d lack the sort of weight and feel of, say, a Ford Mondeo.

The good news, however, that on the incredibly smooth Sardinian roads, not a single Passat disappointed us in the ride department, thanks to a suppleness and comfort that was at odds with the low profile 18-inch wheel and tyre package that most of the cars we drove rode on.

But perhaps the best Passat news concerns the bi-turbo TDI engine.

Hushed yet effortlessly muscular, it prowled the island’s roads with a commanding confidence, providing instantaneous acceleration at just a flex of the right ankle. Until you reach the fuel pump to refill, all diesel stereotypes would disappear.

If Volkswagen wants the Passat to take on premium brands in the upper-end of the medium sphere, it would be on the back of the bi-turbo TDI 4Motion drivetrain.

Having said that, the 110TSI manual front-drive sedan (with DCC) was a hoot, pulling strongly up the peaky rev range while displaying an alacrity belying the Passat’s heft and bulk. It’s too bad we won’t see it in Australia (an understandable decision given our nation’s disdain for large manual cars).

So the B8 Passat is a lovely and lithe family sedan, as well as a much better looker than those early press shots revealed. That it’s still a year away is frustrating, because much can change between now and then.

Furthermore, as we haven’t driven the actual drivetrain specification models that have already been confirmed for Australia, we cannot really make a definitive call on the Volkswagen.

Nevertheless, on first acquaintance, it is clear that the same brilliance that has kept the Golf at the top of its small-car class applies to the Passat as well, albeit in a more grown-up manner.

We’re well and truly impressed with the level of change initiated, and we’re pretty certain mid-sized sedan and wagon buyers will be too.

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