WHAT is a family sedan? It seems such a general description. For the purposes of CAR’s classification, it’s a spacious four-door car that is more commodious than a compact-executive sedan, but more affordable than an executive sedan. With the launch of the Ford Fusion and Lexus ES, plus the reintroduction of the Mazda6 and Honda Accord in the recent past, the tiny segment seemed to be experiencing a revival, only for the Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata to disappear from the price lists. And so the new Volkswagen Passat, reigning European Car of the Year and World Car of the Year finalist, makes its debut. VWSA hopes it will garner the sales volumes that have eluded its predecessor, let alone its rivals.
In terms of kerb appeal, the Passat has not veered from its subtly classy exterior packaging. Strong, elongated horizontal lines dominate the sedan’s sheetmetal, especially the shoulderline that runs parallel to the leading edges of the (optional) bejewelled LED headlamp clusters with dynamic cornering function, bisects the door handles and joins the wraparound trapezoidal taillamps. It is certainly the sleekest and sportiest iteration of the Passat we’ve encountered, but it is no less tasteful and executive looking – even though the pearlescent-white paint finish does anything but flatter the sedan’s expansive dimensions.
The Passat’s interior continues the clean, horizontal lines with aplomb. Thanks to the slim ventilation outlets that span the length of the facia, replete with metal trim finishes that match the brushed aluminium strip across the dashboard, the bezel of the analogue clock, edges of the ventilation and infotainment control consoles, instrument binnacle, gear selector surround and even the steering wheel boss, the Volkswagen’s cabin seems, paradoxically, minimalist yet detailed. It has an undeniably slick and luxurious appearance, helped by the piano-black centre stack finish (integral to the Highline spec) and the optional fitment of the Active Info Display digital dashboard, which offers a multitude of display options, such as a between-the-dials navigation map, driving aid and trip computer readouts and the within-the-dials fuel consumption view. Although it’s a costly option at R22 000, it does incorporate the sat-nav function, lends a decisive air of sophistication to the vehicle and matches the crisp appearance and intuitive interface of the 6,5-inch infotainment screen.
The consensus of the test team was that the Passat comfortably leads the family sedan pack in terms of interior design and build quality – it even compares favourably with the best of what the current compact-executive sedan crop can muster. The latter group can certainly not compare with the Volkswagen’s spaciousness and interior comfort – even the sedan’s facia slopes up gently to the windscreen to create an added sense of airiness. Testers could easily sit behind themselves and even though taller ones remarked that rear headroom is fair, as opposed to copious, there was no wont for comfort. The climate-control setup is three-zone, which means back occupants can set the HVAC to their preference.
On the downside, elements of the centre console, such as the adjustable centre armrest, do not feel quite as substantial and pleasing to the touch as the facia switchgear and major controls. And, as for the seating, the electrically adjustable front seats, which feature active climate control, lumbar support, memory plus massage functions (driver only) – and are packaged with folding, heated exterior mirrors – are plush and cossetting, but cost an extra R10 000. The standard upholstery is a combination of leather and velour, but the test unit was trimmed in Nappa leather, which is quite reasonable for the additional cost of R5 000.
Furthermore, the Passat should be able to accommodate its occupants’ luggage with ease. The boot measures 408 dm3
(1 112 dm3 utility space with the 40:20:40-split rear seatback folded down) and the posterior aperture is low and wide enough to facilitate easy loading. The test unit was specced with a keyless-starting system, which adds a power-closing function for the bootlid and is nice to have, but whether the R7 200 premium is worthwhile is a moot point.
Given the levels of refinement of the Passat’s chrome-trimmed appearance and leather-swathed interior, it would be incongruous if the family sedan didn’t deliver a suitably sophisticated driving experience. To that extent, the Volkswagen doesn’t disappoint. At cruising speeds, the cabin exudes excellent NVH suppression: road and wind noise is kept to a minimum and the general ride quality is impressively pliant, especially over broken surfaces at lower speeds. Again, these are two aspects in which Wolfsburg’s newcomer matches – and, in
some cases, eclipses – its compact-executive sedan rivals.
The downside to such a level of on-road refinement is a measure of languid body control. It’s not that the 1,8 TSI Highline, which rides on 17-inch, 215/55-profile rubber, doesn’t have good road holding – in fact, its front-end is easy to place by virtue of the pleasingly quick, accurate steering – but the suspension just seems to take a while to settle when negotiating bigger bumps at higher speeds or when driving the car enthusiastically on a twisty piece of road.
The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission does not want to be rushed off the line, either: the otherwise slick-shifting ‘box seems to hesitate momentarily when the Passat sets off at intersections, but less so than the similarly equipped Golf 1,4 TSI that CAR tested for 20 000 km last year. As for the DSG’s calibration with the direct-injection 1,8-litre turbopetrol, the Passat delivers linear in-gear acceleration (80 km/h to 120 km/h comes up in a creditable 3,76 seconds), even if the engine sounds a trifle strained at higher revolutions. Staccato throttle inputs can befuddle the transmission’s software, but when driven in a measured fashion, which befits the Passat’s nature and target market, it can return a fuel consumption figure of 7,6 L/100 km, which is impressive for a 1,5-tonne family saloon, especially when compared with its rival Ford Fusion model; it consumes approximately 11,0 L/100 km in its tenure in our long-term test fleet
The CAR team warmed to the Passat; the plaudits it has received internationally are well deserved. At R444 200, which includes a five-year/100 000 km maintenance plan, the 1,8 TSI represents reasonable value given its exceptional refinement, space and comfort.
VW looks set to remain a force to be reckoned with in the family sedan and compact-executive segments. But there is a but. This test unit was liberally specified with optional equipment, much of which we've mentioned, but also active cruise control, a panoramic sunroof and a park-assist system with a reverse camera.
We calculate the purchase price of this vehicle in the region of R540 000, which is steep.
Even at R444 200, the Passat must contend with the well-specced Mazda6 2,5 Individual for just less than R400 000 and, significantly, premium-badged rivals such as the BMW 320i, which costs R462 310 and has more snob value.
In the final analysis, however, the Passat is the finest family sedan in the market and has never looked a better alternative to the mainstream. A well-specced 1,4 TSI Comfortline DSG (base price of R378 800) would be a good option.