Refined Volkswagen Passat fights to maintain relevance

Refined Volkswagen Passat fights to maintain relevance

Scaled back to just two models for 2019, and losing its VR6 version, midsize sedan swims against rising tide of SUVs, crossovers

While family sedans have been rapidly losing ground for American drivers in favor of SUVs and crossovers, with such automakers as Ford canceling them out altogether, Volkswagen Passat presents a good argument for keeping them around.

Passat remains a viable midsize sedan for grownups who enjoy driving, those who have perhaps aged out of their adolescent Golf GTIs and have families to tote around, yet resist the siren call of the practical but lumbering SUVs.

Volkswagen cut its Passat model choices for 2019 to just two, the Wolfsburg Edition that replaces the standard S model, and the upgraded SE R-Line, all powered by 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 engines.  That’s because the higher-performance VR6 Passat also was discontinued for 2019, reportedly in the name of fuel efficiency and cleanliness.

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Nineteen-inch alloy wheels dress up R-Line models | Bob Golfen

While the changes were presented by VW as being for simplicity’s sake and environmental reasons, these moves could be seen as a scaling back of the Passat as midsize family sedans overall continue to take a beating in U.S. showrooms.

Yet Passat has a lot going for it.  The VW retains the style and sportiness of a modern passenger car with plenty of room inside for five regulation-sized adults, along with a load of luggage or gear in the cavernous trunk.

For a family conveyance, Passat has engaging driving characteristics, within the boundaries of the requisite comfort ride of this class. The VW is certainly less-responsive than the pricey sports sedans from BMW or VW’s upscale sibling, Audi. But it does equate itself well with a fairly firm suspension, above-par steering and solid brakes.

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Passat has room for five people, and a spacious trunk | Bob Golfen

The overall effect might not be as exciting as that of your old Golf GTI, but it does provide satisfying drivability in VW’s usual semi-sporty fashion. Definitely a cut above the regular run of midsize sedans in this price range, such as segment leaders Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

Passat, which celebrated its 45th anniversary last year, remains a niche player compared with those cars, but what the VW offers that the others lack is a certain European refinement, restraint even, that make it both appealing and accommodating.

For instance, the dashboard in the test car included all the modern applications of vehicle information, entertainment and connectivity, but it does so in an attractively straightforward manner rather than the overwrought cockpit styles of many new vehicles.  No extreme contours, colored lights or other gimmickry.

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The dashboard is clean and classic | Bob Golfen

The effect is almost retro, despite the video screen, with a welcoming familiarity and controls that are intuitive and easy to use.  It confirms the adage that good design never goes out of style.

The test car was a 2018 model, which essentially continues unchanged into 2019, except that it was one of the erstwhile R-Line versions, basically a trim level that added some sporty flash to the look of the basic Passat.

The SE R-Line now enfolds both the former R-Line and SE levels into a single 4-cylinder model with upgrades in both trim and equipment.  The optioned-up interior of the test car, pretty much the same as that of the 2019 SE R-Line, was nicely furnished in leather and metallic trim.

The 2.0-liter turbo-4 generates 174 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of maximum torque, which comes on at a low 1,500 rpm, linked with a 6-speed automatic transmission.   Acceleration is decent if not brilliant, with relaxed highway cruising and adequate passing power.

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The 2.0-liter turbo four is the only engine option | Volkswagen

Fuel mileage is very good at 25 city and 36 highway, another factor favoring sedans over tall wagons.   Even so, that sparkling VR6 will be missed.

Pricing for the two new-model Passats has gone up, but reflects the higher content of standard equipment compared with the former range of trim levels.  What is now the base-model Wolfsburg Edition starts at $26,190, more than $2,000 higher than the former S, yet about $1,000 under the 2018 SE.

Starting price for the SE R-Line is $30,890, nearly $6,000 more than the 2018 R-Line tested here, but it includes the full range of upgrade features that had been found last year on the top-drawer VR6 models.

Volkswagen continues the good fight of family sedans vs. wagon-back crossovers with its trimmed down but still enjoyable Passat, which brings a higher level of elegance and refinement to the popularly priced family-sedan class.

2018 (2019) Volkswagen Passat 2.0T R-Line (SE R-Line)

Vehicle type: five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive
Base price: $24,995 ($30,890) Price as tested: $27,040 (NA)
Engine: 2.o-liter turbocharged inline-4, 174 horsepower at 5,000 rpm, 184 pound-feet of torque at 1,500 rpm Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 110.4 inches Overall length/width: 192 inches / 72.2 inches
Curb weight: 3,2,76 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 25 city / 36 highway / 29 combined
Assembled in: Chattanooga, Tennessee

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