Can a conventional family car like the Passat survive in a modern world obsessed by SUVs and various other niches? VW certainly thinks so, given that the current Passat is still the brand’s fourth most popular model in the UK.
VW has also chosen the launch of this eighth generation of its workhorse saloon and estate to try to move it further upmarket, targeting not only traditional rivals such as the Ford Mondeo and Mazda 6, but also premium models from the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes.
To arm the new Passat for a fight against such talented rivals, VW has pulled out all the stops, boosting interior quality, adding advanced new gadgets and assistance systems, and cutting CO2 emissions.
In the UK, the saloon and estate models will go on sale at exactly the same time with a choice of four diesel engines, with the estate predicited to take a slightly higher proportion of sales.
A 1.6 TDI with 118bhp props up the range, while a new 2.0-litre twin-turbo with 235bhp, four-wheel drive and a seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox is the flagship model, with two other 2.0-litre engines bridging that gap.
A plug-in hybrid model – called the GTE – with a 1.4-litre petrol engine and electric motor combined, will join the range later in 2015, along with a frugal Bluemotion version that will emit to just 95g/km of CO2. There will also be a rugged Alltrack variant of the Estate version, with beefed up styling, raised suspension and various other off-roading tweaks.
What’s the 2015 Volkswagen Passat Estate like inside?
Bigger and plusher than ever before – and a lot more high-tech. Every Passat comes with a 6.5-inch touch-screen, which is the same as the system as the latest Polo. It includes a DAB radio and generally works well, with very fast responses, clear menus and shortcut buttons, and crisp graphics.
The test cars we drove both had the optional 8.0-inch display, plus a 12.3-inch TFT screen called the Active Info Display, which replaces traditional instrument dials with a digital screen. You can alter the dials to show navigation instructions, fuel consumption data and other key information, and once you get used to it then you rarely need to take your eyes off the road. It is the same technology found in the latest Audi TT and the Lamborghini Huracan supercar – but it won't be available in the UK until six months after the Passat's launch, and will cost around £750.
Despite this latest Passat Estate being shorter and lower than its predecessor, the distance between the front and rear wheels has actually grown, so interior passenger space is better than ever. In the front, SE models and above have plush seats with electric tilt, slide and backrest adjustment, so finding a comfortable driving position is really easy, and there is enough support to make even the longest motorway journey a comfortable affair.
Get into the back and the cabin feels even wider than before, with space for three tall adults to stretch out in comfort. There is a raised tunnel running along the spine of the car, though, which robs footspace from whoever is sitting in the middle rear seat.
The boot has also grown by 47 litres, with 650 litres of space with the rear seats in place. That's comfortably more space than you get in any direct rival, and almost as much as offered by the monstrous Mercedes E-Class Estate. Fold down the rear seats (via a handy pair of spring-loaded handles in the boot) and luggage space grows to 1780 litres, and the wide, square shape of the load bay makes it easy to load large items.
There will be five trim levels from launch – S, SE, SE Business, GT and R line. Even the entry-level S version come well equipped, but the SE version, with its upgraded seats, front and rear parking sensors, adaptive cruise control, and automatic lights and wipers, is a seriously attractive proposition.
Choosing the Business version adds satellite-navigation, while the GT version with the flagship diesel engine also gets LED headlights, adaptive suspension, 18-inch alloys, climate control and Alcantara seats.
Optional highlights include a head-up display, a more advanced self-parking system, lots of safety kit – including pedestrian monitoring and Traffic Assist, which steers, brakes and accelerates for you in traffic jams at speeds of up to 25mph. There's also a Trailer Assist system, which can take care of the steering when you're reversing a caravan or trailer.
What’s the 2015 Volkswagen Passat Estate like to drive?
Underneath its svelte new exterior, the Passat now shares more than ever with the Golf hatch – so it’s perhaps no surprise that they are very similar to drive. Still, given that the Golf is our favourite estate, that’s a good thing.
The Passat handles and steers with all the precision and composure of its smaller sibling, showing the same resolute levels of grip when cornering and feeling keen to turn in to bends.
Part of this new found ability lies with the weight saving brought about by the new platform, and in some guises the Passat weighs 85kg less than it used to – you can really feel the difference in the way it changes direction. It still falls a bit short of being genuinely fun, but manages to ease the burden of travel better than ever.
Both of the cars we drove came with the Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC), which is standard on GT models, and a £700 option on the rest of the range. This give you the option to swap between Comfort, Normal and Sport settings, which affects not only the suspension, but also the steering, throttle response and – in automatic models – the gearchanges.
For the most part, the Passat rides very well, cushioning those inside from crests and undulations. However, it does gets caught out if you hit a pothole or a sharp ridge at speed, sending a hefty thud through the cabin.
We drove two of the four new diesel engines. The 2.0-litre with 148bhp and the range topping twin-turbo 4x4 model which, with a hefty 369lb ft of torque, has V6 levels of shove. The lower-powered engine is really smooth, with a broad spread of pulling power that makes it feel flexible in-gear, and willing to pull you along briskly – even at low revs.
Cruising on the motorway, the engine soon fades quietly into the background, and the cabin is generally well isolated from wind and road noise, although really coarse road surfaces kick up some road rumble.
The higher-powered 235bhp 2.0 BiTDI is not quite as refined, so on part throttle or when pushing harder towards the rev limiter, there is noticeably more engine noise than in the 148bhp version – but it makes up for this with an impressive turn of speed.
Thanks in part to its standard 4Motion four-wheel drive system, 0-62mph takes just 6.3 seconds, which is quicker than a Ford Focus ST hot hatch. It delivers most of its potency in the mid-range, and makes short work of overtaking.
This high-powered model also comes equipped with a smooth-shifting seven-speed automatic gearbox, and the same variable steering rack from the Golf GTI and GTD, which means you need to apply less steering lock when negotiating a series of tight corners.
Should I buy one?
The latest Passat represents a big step forward. It has a much better-quality cabin than its predecessor, is usefully more spacious inside, and is much better to drive.
Of the two new engines we tried, our pick is the 148bhp 2.0-litre – which is smooth and flexible, and suits the rest of the car's relaxed character. It's the perfect motorway cruiser, and with CO2 emissions of just 107g/km for the manual, it'll also be a relatively cheap company car.
The storming twin-turbo version has the performance to match six-cylinder rivals, and to justify a price that's not far off that of a BMW 330d Touring or a Mercedes C250 Bluetec Estate, it comes incredibly well-equipped, and has four-wheel drive and an automatic gearbox as standard. It's not as refined as the mid-spec car, though, and the added performance – while impressive – isn't really necessary.
Perhaps the Passat's closest competition will be from VW's very own Golf Estate, which can be had with the same 2.0-litre engine as the Passat for £1470 less in SE trim. Both cars are similarly great to drive, but if space is paramount the Passat is the one to go for, and its plusher interior and slicker infotainment system make it worth the extra.
What Car? says….
Volkswagen Passat Estate 2.0 TDI 150 manual
Engine size 2.0-litre diesel
Price from £24,870
Torque 251lb ft
0-62mph 8.9 seconds
Top speed 136mph
Fuel economy 68.9mpg
Volkswagen Passat Estate 2.0 BiTDI SCR 240 DSG
Engine size 2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel
Price from £36,040
Torque 369lb ft
0-62mph 6.3 seconds
Top speed 148mph
Fuel economy 52.3mpg