2020 Volkswagen Passat First Drive Review: Executive Design Gets Subtle Updates

First Drive / Comments

The refreshed model offers much of the same, which isn't a bad thing at all.

Volkswagen unveiled the refreshed Passat earlier in the year. Under the skin, the 2020 model sits on the same platform as the previous version, carries much of the same technology, but has a sharper, smarter look from its aesthetic refresh and some additional features to keep it attractive as a value proposition. The Passat continues to boast a solidly engineered feel and a comfortable, well-appointed cabin, while the power bump from its 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine is most welcome.

Following the 2019 LA Auto Show, Volkswagen handed us the keys to a new Passat for a drive out of the city center, onto the freeways, then up into the canyons of Malibu to see how these upgrades have affected the executive sedan.

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Exterior Design: An Upgrade In The Style Department

The exterior update is extensive, particularly for a mid-cycle refresh. According to Volkswagen, no bodywork has been left untouched below the roofline. The most subtle but effective touch is the "Tornado Line," which runs along the side in the form of a crease that exaggerates the belt-line from front to back. More obvious is the bolder new grille on the front, but the extra 1.7 inches on the front overhang is more subtle.

Also obvious are the new lights all around the car and the new front and rear bumpers. Projector headlamps are now standard, and the LED rear taillights and multi-segment daytime running lights are also on all trims. The wheels are also all-new for 2020, with 17-inch as standard for base models and optional 18- and 19-inch circles available up the trim levels.

The blue R-Line we drove in the pictures separates itself with exclusive wheels and front and rear fascias.

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Interior Design & Features: Sticking To The Basics

The 2020 Passat's cabin gets an overhaul in style, as well. A reshaped dashboard stretches across the front and features new accents, but also the same 6.3-inch screen running the MIB II infotainment system. The screen is small compared with options available elsewhere in Volkswagen's lineup, and, curiously, the Passat is missing the option for the Digital Cockpit. However, it does feature Apple Carplay and Android Auto as well as MirrorLink. Seeing as the Passat doesn't offer any real driving thrill, we would expect the tech experience to go with the looks to provide an elevation in desirability.

The Passat trim level order is S, SE, R-Line, and SEL. Options are limited and you'll have to go up those trim levels to get things like a sunroof (SE trim) or the hands-free trunk (SEL trim).

Safety-wise, blind-spot monitoring is standard rear along with cross-traffic alert and a rear camera. Going up the trims, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, parking sensors, and automatic high beams are also available. So is navigation, but it's not impressive and thankfully you can hook up Google maps easily enough from a phone.

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Chassis, Engine & Performance: More Torque Always Welcome

The Passat still sits on the same North American platform that it gained in 2011 rather than the more modern MQB architecture that other Volkswagen sedans ride on. That means the ride quality and road manners are unchanged for the Passat, but still suitable for a sensible commuter sedan. The real mechanical change is under the hood, and although the 2020 Passat now has no option other than the single 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, it gets a bump in torque up to 206 lb-ft. That's a gain of 22 lb-ft and helps the 0-60 mph time by around half a second, but it's still a sluggish count of about 8 seconds.

The cost there in performance comes in fuel economy, which is down two mpg across the board. The EPA measures the 2020 Passat at 23 miles per gallon city, 34 mpg on the highway, and 27 mpg combined. Power is still delivered smoothly to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission.

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Driving Impressions: Keeping Things Sensible

Like the previous Passat, the driving experience isn't anything special. The steering is light and more geared towards highway driving, and the brake pedal is over boosted and lacks any feeling under braking. The wheel is slightly offset and might bug some people but to us the driving position was fine and the seats perfectly comfortable.

Our first drive was a long one up through the canyons around Malibu via the freeway, and across all the different road surfaces California has to offer. The Passat's suspension is firm but still compliant enough to make for a pleasant ride. However, being in the canyons, our instinct was to start pushing the Passat around. There's a surprising amount of grip available, but not enough for the pulse to quicken.

While the Passat turned out to be a perfectly pleasant ride through the scenery, it shines more on the freeway and in tighter urban areas. The light steering becomes useful when making your way through traffic and, at higher speeds, road noise is minimal and the ride soaks up the small bumps very well. In short, the Passat is a sensible car for sensible commuters.

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Verdict: Missing A Compelling Ingredient

The Passat has always been a no-nonsense car. While it keeps things basic, it does do basic well.

As a value proposition, the additions for the 2020 model aren't compelling enough to put the Passat head and shoulders over offerings from Kia and Hyundai at the base model's $23,885 after delivery charges. Going up the range, both the Honda Accord and Mazda 6 offer better driving experiences as well as excellent styling and interiors. The 2020 Passat reaches $31,095 in top of the range SEL trim, but we would undoubtedly be cross-shopping it with its wealth of competition.

While Volkswagen has done a fantastic job on the new styling, the 2020 Passat feels like a placeholder in the sedan segment while the crossover plays out. For now, the Passat is a solid and stylish commuter car that will please the majority of buyers shopping for an affordable executive sedan. For those that want something with more of an edge, there's always the Jetta GLI.

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