2020 Volkswagen Passat 2.0T R-Line Review - Sleepy Time
2020 Volkswagen Passat R-Line 2.0T Fast Facts
The next time certain product planners in Wolfsburg look in the mirror, they have a question to ask themselves: “How did we let the Volkswagen Passat get so damn dull?”
Especially after a refresh.
It’s not like the company is incapable of producing quality, fun sedans. The Jetta GLI is a hoot. The Arteon might struggle to find buyers, but that has little to do with the car’s dynamics, as it’s pretty fun to pilot. Even the non-GLI Jetta mixes practicality and pleasure well enough.
Why, then, did the Passat, which was once relatively engaging, if not an outright sports sedan, get so boring?
I’m not saying the car needs to cater to enthusiasts; I don’t expect that in this class. But there are plenty of sedans that are sold to folks who see cars as Point A to Point B appliances that still offer some joy to those who prefer to exercise their rides.
[Get Volkswagen Passat pricing here!]
In other words, it’s not a binary. It’s not sports sedan that only Car and Driver subscribers care about or boring commuter that ticks all the right boxes with the staff at Consumer Reports. It’s a spectrum. And it’s not that hard for any given OEM to build a large sedan that eats interstate miles in comfort and makes drives to the kids’ soccer games perfectly pleasantly unremarkable while also giving some grins to the driver when he/she hits an on-ramp. Even if our driver barely knows enough about cars to locate the fuel-filler door.
One doesn’t have to care about cars to recognize fun.
Indeed, the previous Passat showed that VW understood that. I once took a manual-transmission example from Chicago to D.C. in a day for an assignment at a previous job, and the car was both a wonderful long-distance hauler and a bit of fun in Pennsylvania’s mountains.
Today’s Passat is only one of those things.
It’s not a total dog. It offers enough acceleration for urban driving, and the steering, while too light and artificial, isn’t the worst I’ve tested. Handling is acceptable, though merely that.
And yes, its freeway ride is nice and comfortable, without being unduly soft.
But I just couldn’t get excited about this car. When I sent it back to the press fleet, the most memorable part of my experience, at least in terms of on-road dynamics, was that the lane-keeping system was WAY too aggressive in its interventions.
Anyone reading this who draws a paycheck from Volkswagen will try to argue that the car offers a spacious, comfortable interior to go along with that nice ride. And they wouldn’t be wrong. But there’s no reason to settle. No reason to say, “hey our car is large and comfortable and that’s all the average American buyer cares about, so screw it.”
Ask the rivals. The Accord remains fun to drive, Ford’s last Fusion was a hoot, the Mazda 6 banks on a zoom-zoom reputation, and the Camry has gotten more lively in recent years, even before we factor in the TRD model. Even the midsize sedans that focus less on performance are not particularly boring to drive. Hyundai balanced it right with the new Sonata, for example.
Even within VW’s own lineup sit vehicles that are supposed to prioritize utility over fun, and they aren’t quite as boring. The Tiguan is one of the more engaging crossovers in its class, and while the Atlas/ Atlas Cross Sport aren’t the most interesting vehicles in the world, they aren’t total snoozefests from behind the wheel. Their relationship with boredom has more to do with looks.
The Passat just feels like a misread of the market. We know there are different versions for America and Europe, and it feels like VW just dismissed any American buyer who isn’t an enthusiast as some dull automaton who is content to drive a boring car, as long as it has the ride features and a cabin that can accommodate the derrieres of families that are a little too familiar with the value menu at the local fried-food shack.
To be fair, maybe that is true. Maybe the average American is blissfully gliding towards a future of self-driving autonomous pods. Maybe those of us who get paid to write about cars, and those of us who spend some of their time reading our musings, are in more of a minority than we realize. We might not see that reality because of our own blind spots. Maybe buyers are fine with boredom, because driving isn’t fun to them — it’s a chore.
If that’s the case, the Passat will work just fine. But, and this could be the car-guy bias speaking, I don’t think it is. There’s no reason why this car can’t be comfortable AND interesting.
And it is comfortable. There’s no argument there. It feels roomy, and while my own freeway stints were short, I’m sure it would make a good companion for road-trip vacation, at least in terms of eating miles without fatiguing driver and passengers. But the previous car managed that without bringing about the doldrums.
The refreshed exterior styling, which only carries over the roof panel, doesn’t help. A more “dominant” grille, a roofline that’s meant to be more coupe-like, slimmed-down headlamps, and the R-Line’s specific touches (vertical chrome in the front bumper, gloss black C-shaped air intakes, rear spoiler and diffuser) don’t quite do enough to boost the car’s panache.
It’s an all-around conservative look that appears to be what a designer might conjure up if ask to draw a generic car. By contrast, the Jetta takes a similar approach, but it has little touches that enliven the appearance. Meanwhile, the Passat just blends in, anonymously.
That’s not to say it’s ugly. I personally typically like cars that are handsome in a plain way, and the Passat fits that bill. The problem is that if the car isn’t going to be entertaining to drive, it should at least be interesting to look at.
And as usual, Volkswagen offers up a mostly-black interior that’s great for function, not so much for form. It’s refreshed, sure, with an emphasis on a horizontal styling element and a trapezoid infotainment screen, but it’s familiar. At least there’s a consistency across the brand, and at least the interior materials feel more or less nice enough for the price point.
The features list is par for the course. Nineteen-inch wheels, sunroof, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, USB, ambient interior lighting, forward-collision warning with autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keep system, adaptive cruise control, remote start, keyless entry and starting, satellite radio, and smartphone mirroring. There were no charged options, so the sticker rang in just under $30K.
The Passat is a nice, spacious, comfortable car. It’s attractive, though plain. It’s functional. It has a decent feature list and it’s priced right.
Normally, that would add up to a winner. Unfortunately, this version of the Passat is just not memorable enough to stick.
Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.
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