2020 VW Passat: Making Incremental Moves in a Declining Segment

Most of what you see is new, most of what you don't see isn't.

What you see here is Volkswagen's big debut for January's Detroit auto show, the new 2020 VW Passat sedan. If a couple things in that sentence strike you as diminished in relevance, well, that's because they are.

An increasing number of prominent brands have declined to participate in the Detroit show, sending the organizers scrambling to keep the event vital, while the basic sedan has seen its U.S. market share plummet from 38 percent in 2012 to 26 percent last year as the Rise of the SUV continues unabated. But VW says that it still believes in auto shows and that it still believes in sedans, so here we are.

And there we were, in downtown Detroit for the official unveil of the new car. The shape is a little more dynamic than before thanks to sheetmetal that VW says is all new except for the roof panel. The new look—which Volkswagen oddly calls "coupe-like"—is meant to address current customers' biggest gripe about the outgoing model: its boring styling.

Thus VW's German design studio gave the car more bodyside creases; a bluff, SUV-like front end; and a rather tasteful rear-end treatment. Indeed, while the whole is attractive enough, the rear angle is the car's best, with the "Passat" wordmark spread out and spanning the trunklid between the taillamps; a visually interesting stamping where several creases terminate at the upper corners; and, on the R-Line at least, a diffuser-like element placed between rhomboid exhaust finishers. The back looks clean and classy, and is particularly well resolved.

The interior is as expansive as before, with tons of rear leg- and headroom, as well as decent forward and rear sightlines. The dash and instrument cluster are new, and soft-touch materials can be found in most places fingers and elbows will contact. Harder plastics aren't difficult to find, but they at least look okay.

The new design should satisfy the aesthetes in VW's focus group, who we were told were just peachy with the cushy, comfy, and freeway-optimized driving experience of the outgoing car. This finding is perhaps true, but it also serves as convenient justification for keeping the American model on the same platform as before. It makes sense to reduce costs given declining demand for sedans, but it's worth noting the Chinese market—which previously had essentially the same car as ours—now gets its own roomy Passat on the more modern and better-driving MQB architecture, which serves under myriad models across the VW Group empire.

Yet while enthusiasts and fans of automotive progress—groups to which we belong—may care about the new Passat's old mechanicals, people who prioritize feature content will not. Volkswagen says it took the money it might have spent moving the car to MQB and sunk it into more equipment. Newly standard on the 2020 model are blind-spot monitoring, front brake assist, LED exterior lighting, infotainment voice control, an 8.0-inch touchscreen, and satellite radio. One USB charging point is located up front, while rear riders get two. Standard safety features include blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and front collision mitigation with pedestrian monitoring and automatic emergency braking, while optional driver-assistance tech includes adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, and automatic park assist.

The trim levels include S, SE, SEL, R-Line, and Limited, although the latter is a launch-only trim. All 2020 Passats will be powered by a carry-over 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making the same 174 horsepower as before. It does get a torque bump to 207 lb-ft, an increase of 23. The sole transmission is a six-speed torque-converter automatic. Using the previous bones means there are no means for electrification of any kind—not even mild hybridization—or all-wheel drive, so they won't be available. Nor will the Passat have items such as the all-digital gauge cluster offered on MQB-based cars like the littler Jetta.

The Chattanooga, Tennessee-built Passat looks new but likely won't drive all that new, which probably will be fine with the customers Volkswagen intends to court primarily using value. Pricing hasn't been finalized, but the target is the same or slightly lower than before, so expect the 2020 VW Passat to start around $25,000 when it goes on sale next year.

This story was originally published on December 12, 2018. It has been updated with the most recent information.

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