Review: VW Passat, the American car built by a German company

Larry Printz
Tribune News Service

American automakers seem convinced that you no longer want a sedan. General Motors has killed most of theirs, Ford is about to, and a new sedan doesn’t seem to be on Fiat Chrysler’s radar.

It’s appalling that the Detroit Three would let their sedans slide into obsolescence. After all, there are millions of Americans who prefer a roomy, comfortable, affordable sedan. What about them? Why not try to offer something fresh and compelling? Instead, American automakers have ceded this category to foreign automakers, convinced there are no profits to be made selling sedans.

The 2020 Volkswagen Passat

Foreign automakers don’t seem to have any challenge fielding an attractive, roomy, affordable sedan. This week’s test drive, the 2020 Volkswagen Passat, proves that.

For 2020, the Passat gets refreshed with all-new sheet metal accented with LED lighting, and revised styling that adds a touch of softness to the Passat’s sober, clean lines. It’s handsome, with none of the juvenile flourishes that pass for styling in some modern sedans. Clearly, it’s the adult in the room.

Volkswagen says its design is bolder. While I don’t see boldness, I do see a handsome design that will wear well year after year after year.

Built in Chattanooga, Tenn., the Passat is at the larger end of the midsize sedan spectrum, measuring 193.5 inches long. But it’s the inside story that’s so impressive: There’s more than 42 inches of legroom up front and an impressive 39 inches in the rear. These are the kind of numbers once common in full-size American sedans, when America actually made full-size sedans. Yet the roomy cabin doesn’t come at the expense of cargo space, with a 15.9-cubic-foot trunk ready to swallow a vacation’s worth of luggage.

And the roominess comes at a starting price of $22,995, or less than some compact cars.

That nets you such goodies as 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, LED projector lights, chrome exhaust pipes, automatic headlights, heated mirrors with integrated turn signals, a 6.3-inch touchscreen, two USB ports, SiriusXM satellite radio and driver assistance features like an automatic post-collision braking system, front assist, blind spot monitor, and rear traffic alert. Plop down another three grand for the SE and you’ll also get a bit more indulgence, like keyless access with push-button start, remote starting, leatherette seating surfaces, power driver’s seat, heated front seats, leather steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming rearview mirror, USB ports in the rear center console, adaptive cruise control, and lane keeping assist.

Keep going and you’ll find the sporty style of the R-Line, and the all-in SEL will spoil you rotten when it comes to standard equipment, adding such decadence as soft Nappa leather, and heated rear seats, although you’ll break the $30,000 barrier. Still, it’s the bottom two trim levels, S or SE, that are compellingly priced, so much so that you have to wonder what’s the catch. How can Volkswagen build such affordability into so spacious a car?

Well, let’s start with the powertrain.

Under the hood, you’ll find the company’s ubiquitous 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Not a Tiptronic, nor a dual-clutch, 10-speed nor an eight-speed, but a six-speed. The driveline generates 174 horsepower and 206 pound-feet of torque through the front wheels.

Surely, Volkswagen’s corporate bean-counters are happy with this solution. But will you be? It depends on your expectations.

If you’re expecting an extra-extra-large GTI or GLI, you’ll be crestfallen. But if you’re just looking for a sedan that will comfortably and safely transport you and your loved ones at a reasonable price, you’ll be extremely pleased, if not delighted. For even though enthusiasts don’t want to hear it, there are a lot of Americans who don’t dream of driving the Nürburgring. They could care less. This car is for them — and what’s wrong with that? This is, after all, a people’s car, a Volkswagen, and it does an admirable job of serving the mainstream.

There’s enough power when you need it and, thankfully, minimal turbo lag. Volkswagen increased the engine’s torque 12% to 206 pound-feet, and it’s a bit too easy to squeal the tires when making a fast getaway from a stop. But the polished driveline easily hustles you through the humdrum highways with ease, the transmission shifting promptly and smoothly. The steering is very light, and lacking in feel, but accurate. The brakes are light, but progressive. Body lean rears its head in corners, but it’s not excessive. Over-the-shoulder rear visibility is excellent. For those who find driving a chore, these traits will make piloting the Passat easy and enjoyable.

The ride is very compliant, although ride motions over bumps are well-controlled; it’s almost luxurious. Road and tire noise are somewhat noticeable, but not intrusive. Kudos to Volkswagen for the unusually wide front bucket seats, a boon to those who are broad in the beam. Front and rear, the seats seem positively limo-like, a rarity these days given most designers seem convinced you want to be wrapped cocoon-like in your car. I beg to differ; this car proves how welcome open space can be.

Keep in mind, however, that payload capacity — people and cargo — is rated at 926 pounds.

The instrument panel has a utilitarian simplicity that’s refreshing. The wood trim isn’t all that convincing, but the infotainment system is excellent with clear, clean graphics, an easy-to-understand user interface, a fast processor and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability.

There’s a sensibleness to the Passat that’s refreshing and honest. It’s roomy and comfortable, not to mention a good value. Best of all, its design doesn’t look like an escapee from a video game. It’s the kind of car that Americans once designed and built but can longer be bothered to do. Thank you, Volkswagen.