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Test Drive: One Week In the 2020 Volkswagen Passat 2.0T SEL

These days, if it’s a sedan, it’s a sport sedan

Todd LassaWriter, Photographer

When you think about the 2020 Volkswagen Passat, it's important to know a little bit of recent history.

Built in a sparkling new assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the 2012 Volkswagen Passat became the Great People's Car Hope when VW launched it in early 2011. Finally, the German giant that has struggled in the U.S. market since Type 1 Beetle sales peaked in the early 1970s had a midsize family sedan that was a plausible competitor for the bestsellers—the Toyota Camry, the the Honda Accord, and the Nissan Altima.

That Passat earned Motor Trend's 2012 Car of the Year award, and we named it an Automobile All-Star. And thanks in part to a memorable Darth Vader "The Force" Super Bowl XLV commercial, the VW Passat was a success, regularly selling more than 10,000 units per month in the U.S. for much of its first model year.

Since then, compact SUVs have replaced midsize sedans as the automotive appliance of choice, and VW's Chattanooga plant has added the Atlas and Atlas Sport Cross as its chief products.

It would seem the 2020 Volkswagen Passat doesn't have a chance, then. If VW can continue to grow the distinctively American-style Atlas/Atlas Cross Sport sales, it's easy to imagine the Passat going the way of the Ford Fusion and Buick Regal.

2020 Volkswagen Passat Interior and Features

Extinction, meanwhile, isn't on the cards for the Camry, Accord, or Altima, or for that matter the spectacular-looking new Hyundai Sonata, or the Kia Optima. In the seven Super Bowls since VW's "The Force" commercial, there have been two new generations each of the style leaders, the Accord and Sonata. It's no coincidence these style leaders also are the segment leaders, in terms of features, advances, quality, and ride-handling balance. These two are holding on, more or less, to their not-insignificant sales volumes even as their consuming constituents flock to crossovers or SUVs in droves. They'll be well-positioned if and when the tide turns against tall station wagons.

Meanwhile, VW has tried to keep up with no more than minor tweaks; it finally gave the Passat a "major-minor" update last year, but it essentially consisted only of interior upgrades and cosmetic exterior changes that make it look even more like a long-wheelbase Jetta. But hey, the Passat always has always been a conservative, upright, stolid German sedan compared with the overtly style-conscious Honda Accord and Hyundai Sonata.

Being a close relative of the Audi A4, the 2020 Volkswagen Passat and its earlier incarnations always have had a high-quality interior, with exceptional materials and top-of-class fit and finish. Problem is, other brands for decades now have studied the VW-Audi interior quality phenomenon, and they all have caught up. The 2020 Volkswagen Passat's interior is a nice place to be, especially in the big, capacious back seat, but it's no nicer and certainly not as distinctive as the best of its competitors.

2020 Volkswagen Passat: Impressive for an Old Platform

The driving experience behind the wheel of the 2020 Volkswagen Passat fits a similar description. Its nearly decade-old platform exhibits good ride quality and fairly crisp handling, based on a test drive that didn't allow for on- off-ramp speeds that would grind the outer front tire into the pavement with inevitable front-wheel-drive nose dive. Steering feel and feedback are pretty good, and the Passat is a comfortable car without being too isolating. But it simply doesn't do anything exceptional enough to push itself close to the front of the midsize-sedan pack.

2020 Volkswagen Passat Powertrain

The Passat's 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine is smooth enough in stop-and-go driving. It's refined for a turbo I-4, though you're better off to focus on the sounds coming from the radio, especially when you're sitting at stoplights. With a max torque number higher than the horsepower number, and coming in at just 1,700 rpm, the Passat launches very nicely and makes for very confident merges into highway or freeway traffic.

The 2020 Volkswagen Passat is not quite the family car version of the VW GTI you might be looking for, but in a world full of SUVs, all sedans are arguably sporty drivers these days. For mainstream consumers, VW has moved on to Tiguans and various Atlases; until, and if, it redesigns the North American Passat onto its MQB platform, there's nothing to recommend it over Asian-brand competition.

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2020 Volkswagen Passat 2.0T SEL Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $31,490/32,410 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 2.0L turbo DOHC 16-valve I-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 23/34 mpg (est)
L x W x H 193.6 x 72.2 x 58.0 in
WHEELBASE 58.0 in
WEIGHT 3,325 lb
0-60 MPH 7.8 sec
TOP SPEED 130 mph (est)