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2020 Volkswagen Passat First Drive Review: It's Okay

Can updating an old car put VW's midsize sedan back in the running?

LOS ANGELES, California—VW is keen to remind journalists—and therefore, by extension, you—that it "is committed to sedans." To some extent, that rings true. The GLI, introduced earlier this year, is finally once again a proper-driving, three-box version of the GTI. Volkswagen also pushed the stylish Arteon through to production despite premium-priced, low-volume sedans from mainstream automakers being what precisely no one wants to buy right now. Those cars, however, ride on the more modern and global MQB architecture. The subject of this review, the updated 2020 Passat, does not. In fact, it uses the same old bones it's had since it diverged from the Euro model to better suit American tastes—or cut costs, whichever narrative you prefer—earlier this decade. That does somewhat cut against VW's stated commitment to sedans, but the company admittedly did heap a pile of refinements and improvements on the '20 model.

While the overall proportions are unchanged, sharper-looking lighting is the dead giveaway that you're looking at a 2020 Passat. LED headlights and daytime running lamps are now standard across the whole range, while 17-inch aluminum wheels are also included. VW offers 18- and 19-inch wheels as well, including on lower trim levels. We've also been told every exterior body panel is different aside from the roof. The grille is wider and chrome-ier, and the entire car is 1.7 inches longer. The lettering on the trunklid has a wide-spaced, Euro-luxe look, imparting some class. Now you know what to look for.

The Passat won't offer many options, instead going the Honda route and pretty much baking everything into the trim-level walk. Buyers can choose from S, SE, R-Line, and SEL trims, in order of increasing price and equipment. For example, a sunroof arrives at the SE level, while a power trunk with hands-free foot operation is only on the SEL. The R-Line gets exclusive front and rear fascias, as well as wheels. (A zazzy Limited model will be available only at launch, so hustle on down to your VW store if you want that one.)

The 2020 Passat's sole powertrain, a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder driving the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission, has been revised. It makes the same 174 horsepower as it did in the pre-refresh car, but torque is up from 184 to 206 lb-ft. The additional torque is claimed to drop the car's zero-to-60-mph time to something near 8.0 seconds, an improvement of a half-second or so. It also pays off more in daily drivability than on the test track, helping mitigate the previous model's lethargic off-the-line behavior. While this VW still can't compete in a straight line with some competitors—the 2.0T version of the Honda Accord is a sub-6.0-second car—the Passat is now perfectly adequate in this regard. The transmission follows this pattern, too, being mostly invisible in operation and responsive enough to manual inputs, which we were making via paddles in an R-Line test car.

The Passat corners like a car that prioritizes ride quality, but that's not to say it's floaty or not well tuned. It simply goes through turns because you've asked it to do so, not because it wants to. The cushy, controlled ride does remain one of the car's highlights, a boon to the highway commuters and families VW hopes to attract with the Passat's new look and value proposition. The steering and brakes remain comfortably numb and predictable—although the latter in a not-so-welcome way, with the pedal seeming to take an extra beat to return to its default position. This isn't a big deal when you're tapping the brakes on the highway or even trundling along in traffic, but quickly jumping on and off the pedal while descending from Angeles Crest Highway—you know, how no one will drive this car, ever—it proved somewhat disconcerting.

So if commuters won't mind the new Passat's inoffensive driving manners, they also won't mind the pricing: The Passat starts at $23,915, a competitive number when attached to a German car. (An R-Line, however, will push the $30K mark.) That said, the dynamically superior Honda Accord actually comes in a few mocha lattes lower, and despite VW adding technology to the 2020 Passat, the car is now merely—and barely—competitive in this regard. Blame the older platform, which won't support Volkswagen's newer electrical architecture, for the omission of whiz-bang features like VW's Digital Cockpit (available on the Jetta, by the way) and larger infotainment screens. However, VW's App Connect smartphone-mirroring feature is now standard, as are Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and SiriusXM satellite ratio is available on every Passat. SEL models receive the Fender premium sound system, while proximity entry and ignition is fitted to SE and above.

Inside, the redesigned cabin is attractive enough; we particularly like the visual connection between the central air vents and the one near the passenger door. Everything feels of reasonable quality, especially on the upper trims, but those familiar with Volkswagen cars over the years will immediately recognize it as somewhat dated. The experience is relatively hushed on most road surfaces, though, further emphasizing the Passat's comfy cruiser personality. On the safety-technology front, front brake assist with pedestrian monitoring, blind-spot monitoring, rear traffic alert, and automatic post-collision braking are all standard. Opt for the SE, and you get all the safety goodies, adding adaptive cruise control, a lane-keeping assist system, automatic park assist, park-distance control, and automatic high beams. We found the lane-keeping system to be a bit overzealous, but that's our only note.

As for the feature content and pricing, VW says it added $1,720 of value to the entry model without increasing the base price, and $520 of value while dropping the price on the SE. This is all fine and good, but the result feels unsatisfying when a more modern, more feature-laden MQB Passat exists elsewhere. (The Chinese-market Passat, which was largely the same as ours from 2011 until this refresh, is now on the MQB architecture, leaving the U.S. to soldier on with the older platform.) Sedan sales may be declining in the U.S., but convincing buyers to move from SUVs—or to simply not abandon sedans—with efforts like this surely can't help. The 2020 Passat has received a significant enough update to be noticeably improved, and it does offer value to consumers looking for a refined German option. But it simply isn't as good as much of its competition, and to longtime fans of VW like us, that's disappointing.

2020 Volkswagen Passat R-Line Specifications
PRICE $29,960/$29,960 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve inline-4; 174 hp @ 5,200 rpm, 206 lb-ft @ 1,700 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD Sedan
EPA MILEAGE 27/34 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 193.6 x 72.2 x 58 in
WHEELBASE 110.4 in
WEIGHT 3,325 lb
0-60 MPH 7.9 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 114 mph