Driven: The European VW Passat Wagon Is Solid Goods

We sample the Passat wagon we can’t have to see if we should get it.

Marc Noordelooswriter, photographer

Back in 2001, my father bought a new Volkswagen Passat. Fun to drive and refined, the mid-size VW carried an upmarket interior and a 1.8-liter turbo that sipped fuel and offered plenty of poke. And his car had a five-speed manual gearbox and was a wagon—double bonus points. That generation of Passat—known as the B5—was a breakthrough car for VW of America and a huge step up from the quirky B3/B4. The underpinnings were cribbed from the original Audi A4, including the longitudinal engine layout, multilink front suspension, and available all-wheel drive. Golf GTI owners were happy to switch to this properly German Passat as they matured and started a family. Heck, you could even spec the unique W8 engine.

Then the B6 Passat came along for 2006, and it felt like a slight downgrade. It was by no means a bad car, but it lost that baby Audi, upmarket feel. At least the wagon version stuck around. But then Volkswagen switched us to a North America-specific Passat in 2011, diluting the European link that hard-core VW fans in the U.S. yearn for. And the wagon disappeared in the move, not helping those fans. Those in other regions enjoyed the more upmarket Passat B7 and, later, B8. I recently spent time in the current B8 Passat wagon in England, to see if it's a car we should hound VW to send to the U.S.A.

Buyers in the U.S. looking for a wagon have scant few choices outside of the luxury realm (and there aren't even very many of those). Yes, Subaru offers the Outback, but it has a lifted suspension and questionable body cladding. The somewhat left-field but still fairly virtuous Buick Regal TourX also has the unnecessary cladding, and some would argue Buick is a luxury—or at least premium—automaker besides. If you can't swing the cost of a Volvo V60 or V90, or a Mercedes E-class, your only current option for a proper wagon is a VW Golf SportWagen, and that model is exiting the American market very soon in favor of more SUVs. So this Passat could fill in a rather large gap in the market.

It's a big car, the Passat. Think of it as a more mainstream Volvo V90 or Mercedes E-class. The VW wagon actually leads the cargo-room comparison over the Benz and Volvo. I loaded up my mother-in-law, my wife, and our two kids along with an American amount of luggage for a 550-mile adventure to Brixham and Salcombe in the southwest of England. The Passat wagon has tons of space for all people and gear, plus an airy-feeling cabin thanks in large part by a massive panoramic sunroof. Average indicated fuel economy for the trip was 43 mpg, and I wasn't remotely trying to obtain maximum efficiency. Of course, the fact that the 187-hp 2.0-liter engine drank diesel fuel was the key reason for that stellar consumption figure. The trip odometer displayed nearly 700 miles when the Passat's 17.4-gallon tank asked for a refill. Impressive.

It's not a particularly sporty car, especially in front-wheel drive form (all-wheel drive is optional). But it carries a depth of engineering that impresses and can handle being hustled if you like. Just remember it's not a Golf GTI. Overall, the Passat drives like a bigger and more refined standard Golf, which is a compliment. It's a mega-comfortable and quiet car to cruise at 85 mph for hours at a time. There are dead pedals for both your left and right feet along with radar cruise control and a massive amount of available technology. Armrests are located in just the right spots, too, adding to the comfort. The optional 14-way driver's seat with massage is a rather pleasant and decidedly upmarket feature. My test car had the available DCC adjustable dampers, which give the ability to tighten up body control when needed. As with the Golf GTI TCR I also tested in England, the steering is best in Sport mode, as if brings a bit of additional heft to the helm.

But as in that tweaked Golf GTI, as well as the VW T-Cross SUV, the seven-speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox was the chief frustration with the Passat. It's inconsistent when pulling away from a dead stop, especially when you need to set off in a hurry. The line between stuttering off the line and wheel spin and hop is knife-edge thin. And the stop-start system only adds to the issue. As I noted in that T-Cross review, don't complain that VW of America fits a torque-converter automatic to most U.S. models. It's a better setup, especially on less sporty models.

As to the styling, it's attractive but not exactly visually stimulating inside or out. Personally, I don't have a big issue with this, and I welcome the focused simplicity and honestly. It's refreshing, and unusual given the growing amount of glitz applied to today's cars. As my automobile-loving mother-in-law noted, the Passat does exactly what it says on the tin. There are zero surprises. The Euro Passat gets an ever-so-minor facelift later this year, but it still lacks the lovely proportions of a Volvo V60 and V90 and the overall design isn't going to cause buyers to rush into VW showrooms.

That Volvo comparison is an interesting one. The Passat drives better than both the V60 and V90. It has nicer steering and feels more solid. Buyers who are less interested in lovely Scandinavian styling and the upmarket Volvo image may be better served by the Passat, especially when you consider it's cheaper than the V60, bigger than the V90, and, again, is a better steer than either Swede. But that's looking at things purely from a logical perspective.

Sticking with that logical theme, it's illogical to think about this VW and Volvo comparison too deeply because us Americans aren't offered the B8 Passat. As an enthusiast, I'd love nothing more than to see Vw send the car our way. Unfortunately, that isn't going to happen. First, the SUV craze means there's little rationality in the move. Wagons are extremely niche and sedan sales aren't exactly strong. And if the VW considered it, the company would have to rethink its overall Passat strategy in our country. The North American Passat shares little with the Euro Passat, including underneath. European buyers get a more upscale (read: expensive) Passat. And VW of America would have to fit a conventional automatic transmission, as the dual-clutch gearbox just won't cut it.

But there is a slight glimmer of hope. The new VW Arteon made it to America. Its chassis and much of the tech is shared with the Euro Passat, and the coupe-esque sedan gained a torque-converter eight-speed automatic for the U.S. market. Sadly, it's still just a pipe dream. What Mary Swanson told Lloyd Christmas in Dumb and Dumber surely represents the odds of the European Passat making its way to our market: "Like, one out of a million." But VW enthusiasts can take solace in Lloyd's reaction, "So you're telling me there's a chance!" Sure, Lloyd, it's possible.

2019 Volkswagen Passat Estate (Wagon) Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $33,000 (U.K., est; incl. VAT)
ENGINE 2.0L DOHC 16-valve turbodiesel I-4; 187 hp, 295 lb-ft @ 1,900 rpm
TRANSMISSION 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD or AWD wagon
EPA MILEAGE N/A
L x W x H 187.9 x 72.1 x 59.7 in
WHEELBASE 109.7 in
WEIGHT 3,500 lb (est)
0-60 MPH 8.1 sec (mfr)
TOP SPEED 144 mph (mfr)
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