There’s an anodyne unpretentiousness to the updated 2020 Volkswagen Passat. It looks more distinctive than before yet doesn’t call attention to itself or announce much of anything about the person who owns it. It’s a plainly wrapped family sedan with modest performance and generous interior and cargo space. While additional equipment that was previously available only on its higher trim levels is now standard across the range, the latest Passat’s mid-cycle improvements don’t bring it any closer to the leaders in its segment.
Built at VW’s factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the 2020 Passat features almost entirely new body panels (only the roof carries over from the 2019 model) and a freshened interior. But this is still the familiar United States-market Passat underneath, rather than a version of the European-market Passat that rides on the VW Group’s newer MQB platform. That architecture also underpins the sleeker German-built VW Arteon sedan, which is a bit more upscale and is positioned above where the 2020 Passat lineup tops out.
Just because the Passat is rather anonymous looking doesn’t mean it isn’t handsome. Volkswagen has added standard LED headlights, stronger character lines down its sides, and a bolder front-end design. But its reserved, chiseled lines remain at odds with the more flamboyant curves on the headlining players in the family sedan segment, including the Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda 6, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry. Even the sedate Subaru Legacy makes this VW appear conservatively drawn. Sportier R-Line models carry a touch more visual heft with model-specific treatments for the grille and front and rear bumpers, as well as standard 19-inch wheels. Our test car, however, was a top-spec SEL model that rolled on 18-inchers (17s are standard).
Despite the Passat’s updates, its straightforward interior is minimalist to the point of being a throwback. The main instrumentation is a big analog tachometer on the left, a big analog speedometer on right, and a digital display between them. A concession to modern sensibilities comes in the form of a 6.3-inch infotainment touchscreen atop the dash, which is not huge by current standards, but it does cover the bases, functions well enough, and brings Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. R-Line models add a leather-wrapped steering wheel and two-tone upholstery. However, you’ll have to step up to the SEL to get real leather on the seats, as lesser trims feature VW’s V-Tex Leatherette, which is a nice way to say vinyl, albeit pleasant, easy-to-clean vinyl.
What’s best about the Passat interior is how much of it there is, particularly in the back seat. VW gets the absolute most out of the car’s 110.4-inch wheelbase, which helps afford the Passat a solid 39.1 inches of rear legroom. That’s 1.1 inches more stretch-out space than in a Toyota Camry and only slightly less than in a Honda Accord, which rides on a longer 111.4-inch wheelbase.
Except for a 22-lb-ft increase in torque (now up to 206 pound-feet) for the standard turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four, the 2020 Passat’s powertrain carries over. It still develops 174 horsepower and is paired with a standard six-speed automatic transmission. The previously optional narrow-angle V-6 is no longer available. VW claims the 2.0-liter’s increased torque should trim a half-second from its zero-to-60-mph time. Despite weighing only 68 more pounds than a similar 2018 Passat 2.0T model we tested, however, our 2020 example’s 8.3-second run is 0.3 second slower than before. Through the quarter-mile, its 16.2-second pass at 88 mph is 0.2 second slower at the same trap speed. Not only is the 2020 Passat’s acceleration slower than before, it’s notably off the pace of most of its competitors that we gathered last year for a five-car family sedan comparison test.
On the road, the Passat benefits from VW’s ability to tune a chassis. It doesn’t have the initial turn-in and instant reflexes of a GTI, let alone a Honda Accord. The 0.84-g skidpad orbit we recorded in our test car is below the average of our recent comparison test, but the VW’s suspension keeps it planted in place on abrupt corner entries . The transmission responds quickly and smoothly, the steering feels suitably precise, and its driver has to do something especially stupid for its stability control to intervene (such as max it out around our 300-foot skidpad).
We’d like the Passat more if it had a stronger version of the turbo 2.0-liter four, such as the one found in both the Arteon sedan, which is rated at 268 horsepower and comes mated to an eight-speed automatic. But that would surely push the Passat’s price closer to the more attractive Arteon and its $37,015 entry point. Compared to most of its peers that can top $40K with options, our SEL test car carried an attractive as-tested price of $32,410. And all 2020 Passats now come with additional standard content, including automatic emergency braking, blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, and satellite radio. The SEL adds niceties such as heated rear seats, a premium Fender audio system, and a parking assistant.
The latest Passat, while competent and a better value than before, is not meant for carving up a good road nor for standing out in traffic. To a savvy shopper looking for a family car that blends in, it is a sensibly priced driving appliance. But we’d gladly pay a little more for stronger performance and a touch more character.
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