The sober-suited eighth generation Volkswagen Passat might be a corporate favourite but, as June Neary reports, there are other strings to its bow.
Will It Suit Me?
I have to admit the Volkswagen Passat wouldn't be my first choice of family car. Perhaps it's the image. It just didn't seem an immediately friendly proposition. If I wanted to come across as someone who was doing a good job of shinning up the corporate pole, it would be one of my first picks but can this sort of car really cut it as family transport? A few years ago, this kind of model was what families aspired to - but that was before MPVs and SUVs got quite so clever. Nowadays, cars like the Passat have to show low emissions and miserly fuel consumption to appeal to business buyers but these sorts of factors also appeal to private buyers. Maybe this is a car that we overlook at our cost. It's certainly has presence parked outside the house. Perhaps my neighbours think I've been promoted.
It's hard to fault the Passat when it comes to practicality. I'm not talking practicality in terms of one hundred and one cubby holes, drawers and pockets. I'm more concerned about practicality in terms of solid common sense and the depth of thought that has gone into making a car that's free of annoying gimmicks and extraneous nonsense. That's not to say it's free from clever ideas: just that the ones it does have are genuinely useful. Like the idea of a rear end you can open with your hands full. Walk towards the back of the car with the "smart" key fob in pocket, arms filled with shopping bags or two 24-packs of beer, wave your foot under the rear bumper and hey presto - the boot opens! It's the sort of ingenuity that has helped Volkswagen sell millions and millions of Passats, in more than 100 countries, since the car was launched almost four decades ago. This MK8 model is jammed with such little bits of genius - like massaging seats and a system that warns you if you are about to nod off at the wheel. Or opt for the Park Assist and the car will even park itself. At heart, the car is about as solid a piece of reliable German engineering as you could ever hope to meet. As for the understated bit, well for this car's loyal followers, that's all part of its appeal.
Behind the Wheel
Where the previous version of this model was merely soft and unmemorable in its approach to a twisting road, this one feels sharper and more responsive, with accurate, precise steering that inspires confidence, particularly if you specify the 'Progressive Steering' system that sportier versions offer as an option. And the XDS electronic differential lock system that aids corner turn-in. Both features are good to have, but they don't transform this car into one you'd go and drive just for the pleasure of doing so. Indeed, typical Passat owners would probably be mystified by such a thought. For them, a model of this kind is there for the journey, not for the way it should be driven. Those who disagree and find themselves in search of a car in this sector will find that a Mondeo or a Mazda6 will better suit their needs. My test car was fitted with a 1.6-litre TDI diesel engine and the 'modest capacity/ big car' worry was soon eased when I pulled away. Because it's fitted with a turbocharger, this engine packs a reasonable 120PS, so it never feels as if it's struggling. It actually does its best work fairly low down in the rev range so you won't feel inclined to rev it hard. There's also the option of a DSG sequential transmission that can work in a full auto mode or which can be flipped up and down the gears with paddles behind the steering wheel. It took me a little while to get used to the start/stop system as on more than one occasion I'd thought I'd stalled the car, only to realise it was Volkswagen's fuel saving measures at work. Further up the range, there are 150 and 190PS versions of Volkswagen's familiar 2.0 TDI diesel unit, plus a potent twin-turbo BiTDI variant with four wheel drive and 240PS.
Value For Money
As ever with the Passat, there's a choice of either saloon or estate bodystyles and this time round, the engine choice is primarily diesel-based. Pricing lies largely in the £22,000 to £30,000 bracket common to most models in the Mondeo-sized medium range sector, though if you were to opt for a top 2.0-litre BiTDI 4MOTION variant, you could conceivably pay up to £37,000 or so for one - and potentially even more if you were to choose the hi-tech GTE petrol/electric plug-in hybrid version. That BiTDI flagship diesel model comes only with the 7-speed DSG automatic gearbox that you can also specify as a £1,600 option on the base 1.6-litre TDI variant that most will want. Go for the mid-range 2.0 TDI we have here though and the auto premium only buys you a 6-speed DSG 'box. If, like 51% of Passat buyers, you require the Estate bodystyle I mentioned, you'll have a model-for-model premium of around £1,500 to find. All models feature 16-inch alloy wheels, daytime running lights, LED tail lamps and an alarm. Inside, there's keyless start, brushed chrome dash inserts, air conditioning, a trip computer and a leather-trimmed multifunction steering wheel from which you can control a high quality eight-speaker DAB stereo system. The main functions for this can be found on the dashboard's 6.5-inch central colour touch screen, which also gives you Bluetooth 'phone compatibility and an SD card slot. Plus the display can read and send SMS messages if you've got an Android 'phone. Further up the range, there's even a gadget for motorists for whom the chore of dipping headlights only to then have to put them on full beam again simply too onerous. The Passat can perform this function for you with Light Assist. A far more practical option perhaps, is Park Assist so that parallel parking nightmares become a thing of the past, the car using radars front and rear to guide itself into a suitable space. You let the steering take care of itself, and just use the brake and throttle to ease your way in.
Could I Live With One?
The Volkswagen Passat wouldn't be my first port of call when looking for family transport but driving one only serves to remind me how far this model has come in recent times. The Passat has been continuously developed to such a point that it now feels a real precision piece of equipment. If I ever get fed up with MPVs that require you to consult a DVD to find out how to fold the seats, I think I could easily make room in my life for Volkswagen's understated Mondeo-class contender.