While some rivals are doubling down on mid-size sedans and others are abandoning the shrinking market, Volkswagen hedged its bet with a cost-conscious freshening of the 2020 Passat that keeps its trademark comfort and room, and adds selective improvements that keep the Passat in the game if no longer a leader.
At a media drive in Los Angeles, Volkswagen showed off a new Passat that retains the bones of the old Passat rather than moving to the new modular platform underpinning all other new Volkswagens, from the latest Golf hatchback to the big Atlas SUV (per our ethics policy, Cars.com pays for its own lodging and transportation at such automaker-sponsored events).
That makes me worry about the future for the Passat, which I’ve liked since the current generation arrived as a 2012 model, but I get the business case for a frugal face-lift. And it does add a dose of modern style and features to the near-full-size comfort, interior and trunk space at a mid-size price that helped the Passat best eight challengers in Cars.com’s 2016 Mid-Size Sedan Challenge.
The 2020 Passat returns to a full selection of trim levels including S, SE, R-Line and SEL after a transition 2019 model year with just two value models that looked like the Passat might be heading down the road of the departing Ford Fusion. But it’s still hardly the vote of confidence shown by recent dramatic and more emotional redesigns for rivals including the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Subaru Legacy and Hyundai Sonata.
Volkswagen says its research shows that what matters most to mid-size sedan shoppers are a value price, reliability, styling and safety. So that’s where it put its limited budget for the 2020 Passat freshening.
Almost All New on the Outside
Volkswagen says that every panel you see from the outside is new except for the roof, though the look is a very much a mild evolution of the conservative Passat look. It offers a fresh, more modern appearance — and a little of the upscale elegance of VW’s new Arteon premium sedan and the company’s Audi luxury sedans — but is nothing like more dramatic mid-size makeovers given the latest generation of the Camry or Accord, to say nothing of the 2020 Sonata’s radically new look.
The dimensions are virtually the same. The 2020 is 1.7 inches longer, but almost all in the overhang of the new and more sculpted front bumper. As is the current fashion, the grille got bigger and more pronounced, with an additional bar and an eggcrate pattern. It stretches into slimmer headlights that are LED projectors on all trim levels. A crisp front-to-back crease continues Passat’s horizontal look, but the side is little more sculpted, the roofline a little sleeker and the redone rear bumper and LED taillights a hair bolder. New 17-, 18- or 19-inch wheels vary by trim level. The biggest wheels and sportiest front and rear bumpers are reserved for the R-Line trim level.
Almost All the Same Inside
The interior got the lightest touch, and it also most shows the limitations of not investing in a redesign on VW’s new platform. It is still just as capacious, with backseat space for real adults — even three across — and the seats are comfortable and supportive. The only obvious new element is a better-looking dashboard with strong horizontal lines and higher quality trim. Elsewhere the interior carries over the mixed-quality materials with a lot of cheaper grained plastic that was characteristic of the old Passat (and not a few new Volkswagens). And the leather on the top-level SEL I spent the most time in is only a bit better than past Volkswagens. I actually preferred the feel of the imitation leather in the SE and R-Line trim levels — VW is good at its “leatherette.” The interior also gets updated convenience features at each trim level, even though there are some notable omissions found on redone rivals’ higher trim levels, such as wireless charging, USB-C ports, even heated steering wheels.
But the most critical deficit was with multimedia and display tech that lags more modern systems, including the excellent tech available on the latest generations of other Volkswagens. Almost all of it, says Volkswagen, is a function of the outdated wiring harness embedded in Passat’s older platform. That means no access to flashy Volkswagen’s flashy new configurable instrument cluster. Nor to the 8-inch display and slick multimedia system offered in other VWs. The Passat soldiers on with a 6.3-inch display that also is still too low in the revised dashboard. And in a step backward, the former physical shortcut buttons have morphed into touch controls on either side of the touchscreen that you can’t feel and have to look down to use. A decent media system with a big touchscreen is increasingly expected — and delivered — even in subcompacts these days.
More Torque, Fewer MPGs
The turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine carries over and is the only option available; gone forever apparently is the V-6 engine option last seen on the 2018 Passat GT trim level. The 2.0-liter puts out the same 174 horsepower but torque is up 12% to 206 pounds-feet thanks revised software. That gives the Passat some welcome extra pep in traffic; VW says it also cuts the 0-60-mph time by a half-second, but it’s not really noticeable and the time still is about 8 seconds. The revisions cost the Passat gas mileage, however, with EPA ratings down 2 mpg across the board from the 2019 to 23/34/27 mpg city/highway/combined. That’s unimpressive for the class and gives the Passat even more of a deficit versus the 2020 base Camry (34 combined) and Accord (33). Compare 2018 and 2019 Passat EPA ratings here. Both of those rivals also have more standard horsepower at 203 and 192 respectively, but less torque, and feel about the same in everyday driving.
The Passat’s engine is mated to a mostly well-behaved six-speed automatic. That seems stingy these days when other Volkswagens and the Camry feature eight speeds and the Accord offers up to 10, and it may account for some of the gas mileage deficit. But the six-speed is smooth and the shifts are positive, though it requires a heavy foot to encourage a downshift. Moving the shifter to the Sport position holds lower gears longer, but downshift reluctance remains. The throttle tuning also brought an occasional abrupt upshift after startup.
Steering is light but accurate and it tracks well on the freeway. The brake pedal feels a little soft, but response is linear and predictable. And the ride feels more refined and smoother for 2020 with only modest body roll in corners. The overall impression is that of a comfortable commuter and stable cruiser with a driving experience that is more isolated than engaging. The latest Camry and Accord, not to mention the firm-riding but sporty Mazda6, offer more driving fun per mile, and I’d have picked any one of those versus the Passat for the winding mountain roads of my drive route. But the Passat came into its own as a comfortable ride for L.A. traffic and on the freeway.
Competitive Standard Safety
All 2020 Passats have competitive standard safety and driver assistance tech that includes a forward collision system with automatic braking and pedestrian detection, and a blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert. Moving up one step to the SE trim level adds adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist — though not the lane-centering that’s increasingly available on mid-size sedans. The top SEL adds standard adaptive LED headlights, automatic high beams, parking sensors and a parking assistance system that can handle steering into a space.
The 2020 Passat has not yet been evaluated by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. When it is, the ratings will be posted on IIHS. And it will have a high bar to meet, with most new mid-size cars getting IIHS awards. The Camry is a Top Safety Pick Plus and the Accord is a Top Safety Pick; IIHS has crash-tested tested the majority of mid-size sedans.
More Passat Value
The 2020 Passat shows the clearest boost in value proposition compared with its own predecessors with dressier looks and more standard safety tech for pricing that holds the base ante to $23,915 (all Passat prices include a $920 destination charge). That base S is actually a bit less than a comparable 2018 S with the same safety tech. And the next-level SE is well equipped with standard features at $26,765, also less than 2018. Notably, the 2020 does not have the six-year warranty VW gave 2018 and 2019 models; for 2020, the warranty is cut to four years but adds two years of free scheduled maintenance. The Passat’s pricing ranges up to my top-of-the-line SEL test car that totaled $32,015 and had all available features standard.
The base price compares well with the $25,250 for a starter 2020 Camry L and $24,800 for a 2020 Accord LX (prices for both include destination), though both offer newer designs. Camry and Accord also cost more at the top end with pricier trim levels with more upscale features, more sophisticated media tech and more power under the hood. They both offer hybrid models, too, while other rivals offer all-wheel drive. Meanwhile, it’s hard for any mid-sizer to beat the Sonata in sheer features for the dollar.
But if you still want a car and your needs are met by a front-wheel-drive sedan with near-full-size sedan room and comfort for mid-size value prices, the Passat is better and still has all the attributes that have made it strong contender. It’s worth a drive.
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