The Volkswagen Passat
and Volkswagen Golf
are household names that many buyers default to as safe options when buying a family car. The question is, with both offering room for four adults, a big boot and a broad range of efficient diesel and petrol engines at a remarkably similar price, which is the better buy?
What are the Passat and Golf like to drive?
The Passat is undemanding to drive, with light steering and composed, stable handling. Ride quality is good, soaking up scruffy surfaces well, although it does thump a bit over bigger bumps and there’s noticeable body movement. Even so, the Passat is a great motorway cruiser, and is relaxed and comfortable enough on standard suspension – it’s certainly not worth paying extra for the optional adaptive chassis control.
The Golf is a more nimble car. It’s lighter and smaller, and sits on a much newer platform, so turns into corners sharply, has tight body control and is generally more fun to drive. The Golf is actually more comfortable than the Passat. Cheaper models – both 1.2 petrols and the 1.6 diesel – come with less sophisticated suspension and so fidget a bit more over small bumps and creases in the road, but all Golf models are settled and pliant.
Steering weight is just right, and you also get a more modern range of engines in the Golf, which offer better emissions and refinement across the board. Petrols are all turbocharged and come as a 1.2 or 1.4 - we’d recommend you go for the 120bhp 1.4 as it’s got satisfying everyday performance, revs sweetly and is comparably well priced.
The more powerful of the 1.2 petrol models is also refined, pleasant to drive and will do a great job provided you’re not planning lots of motorway miles. The higher-powered 1.4 petrol is sublime to drive, in part thanks to clever cylinder-deactivation technology, but it’s expensive to buy.
Diesel options are a 1.6- or 2.0-litre in two power outputs. The 148bhp 2.0-litre is the best option. Emissions aren’t much higher than those on the 1.6, and the 2.0 is more flexible, not least thanks to the better-spaced ratios of its six-speed manual gearbox (the 1.6 gets a five-speed manual).
The Passat shares some of the Golf’s engines, and we’d recommend the same 1.4 if you want a petrol. Avoid the 2.0-litre petrol – the Passat isn’t fun enough to drive to make the extra performance worth paying for. As for the diesels, although the 2.0 TDI is actually an older engine than the one in the Golf, and has slightly less power at 138bhp, it’s still the best option as the 1.6 needs to be worked hard and the higher-powered 2.0-litre diesel is a bit pricey.
Can I get an automatic Passat or Golf?
Yes. Both cars are available with Volkswagen’s dual-clutch DSG automatic as an option. The Passat has a six-speed version on all its engines apart from the 1.6 TDI, which is manual only, and the 1.4 petrol, which has a seven-speed auto.
The Golf’s faster-shifting seven-speed auto is available on all engines, with the exception of the manual-only, entry-level 1.2 petrol.
Adding the automatic costs around £1500 on both models.
What are the Passat and Golf like inside?
It’s no surprise that, as the bigger car, the Passat is more spacious, but there’s actually less difference in the overall usability than you might expect. The five-door Golf offers just as much headroom and seat adjustability for the driver, and better visibility all-round, which makes it really easy to judge in tight spaces.
The Golf also gets a more practical hatchback boot, which allows for easier loading of big, bulky items than you’ll have with the narrower boot opening on the saloon Passat. Still, the Passat does offer more space with a broad, 565-litre boot next to the Golf’s 380 litres.
The Passat’s cabin materials and layout also look a bit dated compared to the brand-new Golf's. While the plastics are hard-wearing and look fine by class standards, cheaper-feeling plastics lower down are disappointing, and it falls short of the classy-looking mixture of gloss and soft-touch materials in the Golf. The switchgear layout is really easy to get used to in both cars, and there are useful amounts of storage space up front, not least thanks to the use of an electric handbrake in both models.
Base versions of the Golf and Passat get DAB radio, USB input, Bluetooth, air-conditioning and front electric windows. The Golf gets the better infotainment system as standard, with a 5.8-inch colour touch-screen offering a great, high-tech focal point to the cabin next to the Passat’s conventional CD and radio unit.
Which one should I buy?
The Golf is the better option. Even if space is an absolute priority, consider the Skoda Octavia
before buying a Passat, as the Skoda offers a hatchback boot and even more space than the Passat at a lower price.
Ultimately, the five-door Volkswagen Golf will easily meet the needs of most families in terms of its practicality, affordability and comfort, and it’s cheaper to buy and run because it will hold its value better and use less fuel. Go for the 1.4 TSI 122 petrol or lower-powered 2.0 TDI in mid-level SE trim, and you’ll have one of the finest family hatches on sale today.
The case for the Golf is even stronger when you take its purchase price into account. While you can save more money on the Passat, which is being replaced with an all-new model next year, its high brochure price means you’ll be getting less equipment (if a slightly larger car) for the roughly same price as you’ll pay for the Golf in our recommended SE trim.