Not your average saloon

Volkswagen’s 7th generation Passat is a big, sophisticated saloon with a wide choice of powerplants. David Vivian wonder if the 1.8-litre TSI petrol engine can do it justice.

Volkswagen’s 7th generation Passat is a big, sophisticated saloon with a wide choice of powerplants. David Vivian wonder if the 1.8-litre TSI petrol engine can do it justice.

VOLKSWAGEN’S perennially practical, family-friendly Passat has always been regarded as a sensible set of wheels. Now, in seventh generation guise, it comes with the promise of low running costs, class-leading refinement and a premium quality cabin. More than ever, this stalwart of the family saloon and estate sectors is aimed at company and private buyers who want something that’s a cut above the mainstream.

Since the mid-1990s, the Passat has done more than any other car in its class to attempt to sell premium quality at a mainstream price, though results have sometimes been mixed. When it was effectively an Audi A4 with a different body between 1996 and 2005, the boundary all but vanished. Subsequently re-engineered as a giant Golf saloon, its interior was cheapened to restore the pecking order of the VW Group hierarchy. But now the pendulum has swung back once more: the latest Passat might at first seem little changed, but the Audi-challenging quality has come flooding back.

The Passat is offered with a choice of three petrol and three diesel engines, all transversely mounted, forced-induction four-cylinder units. The petrol selection consists of a 120bhp 1.4, the 158bhp 1.8 TSI powering the model tested here and a 2.0-litre unit with 207bhp. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard on all models, with paddle-shift DSG double-clutch trasmissions optional on all except the 1.6-litre diesel. The 1.4 and 1.8 petrols use a seven-speed twin-clutch DSG transmission with dry clutches, the 2.0-litre petrol and diesels a six-speed DSG with wet clutches. The DSG units typically add about £1,500 to the price and increase consumption by around 8 per cent.

The TSI unit under the bonnet of this model is coupled to a six-speed manual gearbox and it accelerates the Passat with impressive verve. A 0-60mph time of 8.5sec may not qualify for an entry in the Guinness book of records but, in real world conditions, the engine does a more than adequate job, delivering plenty of low and mid-range pulling power and revving cleanly to over 6000rpm. Having said that, the engine has done its best work by 5000, and you’ll find yourself changing up even earlier than that if you heed the advice of shift light for optimum economy. Or you could specify the optional DSG transmission and let it do it for you.

Around town the Passat is comfortable and quiet, pick up the pace and its ride still feels supple but body movements remain very well controlled. Overall, it doesn’t handle quite as tautly as a Ford Mondeo but it has the measure of its in-house cousin, the Skoda Superb. The dynamic advantage can be stretched further by opting for Volkswagen’s XDS electronic transverse differential which reduces the natural tendency of the nose to run wide when pressing on and gives better traction in the wet, but I’d treat the Sport-spec trim level with more caution.

The Passat has never been trendy or a follower of fashion. With a few exceptions, it has never caused heads to turn and gawp or hearts to miss a beat. And none of that is about to change with this seventh generation Passat.

As we’ve come to expect from Volkswagen, the quality of the cabin is first rate. The plastics have a premium look and feel, while the fit and finish is easily a match for more expensive rivals. Trickling down features and technologies from up-market models is something a manufacturer as large as the Volkswagen Group can use to its advantage and it’s clear that the limo-sized Phaeton saloon has been selected to gift the Passat some of its classier touches.

The Passat can’t quite match Ford’s Mondeo for overall interior space, but it’s still pretty huge. There’s ample leg-, shoulder- and headroom for four, although a hefty central tunnel does make life a little uncomfortable for a middle rear passenger and the backrests are rather upright. The 565-litre boot can easily cope with a family’s holiday luggage and you can almost double the carrying capacity to 1,001 litres once the rear seats are folded down.

Most Passat models are priced in the £19,000 to £27,000 bracket with the 1.8 TSI starting at just under £20,000. Volkswagen likes to think that this car’s station is slightly above similarly-sized Ford Mondeos and Vauxhall Insignias and more in keeping with cars like Honda’s Accord and maybe edging up towards compact executive saloon wannabes like Alfa Romeo’s 159 or Saab’s 9-3.

Even entry-level 1.8 TSI model boasts air-conditioning, alloy wheels, a leather-rimmed multifunction wheel, a USB port and four electric windows. Further up the range features like automatic headlights and wipers, Bluetooth, cruise control, dual-zone climate control and satellite navigation join the kit list. Tempting options include seats that massage your back as you drive and a boot opening system that can detect the key fob in your pocket and will pop the boot open if you wave your foot under a sensor in the rear bumper. Very handy if you’ve got an armful of shopping.

In addition to the usual active safety features - anti-lock brakes and ESP electronic stability programme are, of course, standard - this new Passat is offered with two optional systems: Fatigue Detection, which measures the driver’s inputs during the first 15 minutes of a journey and then emits an audible warning if it thinks there is a risk that the driver is about to drift off, and a City Emergency Braking function. Unlike some rivals, it has no driver’s knee airbag, but there are front, side and curtain airbags, while the front headrests have anti-whiplash protection. A key that fits into the dashboard offers a degree of theft protection, and keyless entry and starting is optional.

Some Passat models are capable of amazing feats of non-stop motoring. Driving the 105 PS 1.6-litre TDI in BlueMotion guise (which includes aero modifications to help it cut through the air and Stop/Start to turn the engine off automatically if you are stuck at traffic lights), you could travel from Land’s End to John O’Groats without refuelling.

In recent years, the Passat, in its unassuming way, has slowly begun to pull the carpet from under the wheels of executive brands. Once a byword for middle management anonymity, it’s now a genuinely desirable way to travel.