We tend to think of cars in either 'premium' or 'volume' terms. Here though, is one that could comfortably fit within either definition, the revised version of the eighth generation Volkswagen Passat. Though targeted at the medium range Mondeo sector, it's long had an appeal stretching beyond, up towards the premium mid-sized executive saloon segment. Global buyers like that and the result is a worldwide favourite the Wolfsburg maker simply can't afford to get wrong. Hence the smarter looks, extra technology and efficient returns of this classy contender.
As much as we like to think that the automotive world revolves around this sceptred isle, the truth is somewhat different. Here, we hold up the BMW 3 Series as the paragon of success in building sales volumes on the back of premium build quality, but in global terms the 3 Series is a bit-part player compared to Volkswagen's Passat. How successful is the Passat? You might want to sit down for this one. It sells more than the entire product line-ups of BMW or Audi; fully 1.1 million cars a year, with China and the US the biggest recipients. It's a car that plays a very deft hand, bridging the gap between the mainstream and premium marques while delivering comfort and value that's often market-leading. It's why the Passat is now Volkswagen's most successful nameplate and the reason why Wolfsburg can't afford to get generation eight wrong. Hence this revised version.
Volkswagen is very good at creating a premium driving experience. It always has been with the Passat, so it is perhaps appropriate that the revised version of this eighth generation model was the first car in the company's range to showcase a whole new generation of media and active driving assist technology. The car's latest 'Travel Assist' system now allows 'level 2' partially-autonomous driving at speeds of up to 130mph and the Adaptive Cruise Control system's now predictive, meaning to can anticipate and adapt to road conditions before you reach them. All of which clues you up for what you're in for here. A driving experience that in every way is prioritised towards laid back comfort. Exactly as a typical Passat user would want. Refinement and ride quality are difficult to better in this class - even if you stretch to a contender with a posh premium badge. The flip side of that is that no version of this car is able to offer up a really memorable handling package. Mind you, typical Passat owners would probably be mystified by why such a thing would ever be needed. For them, a model of this kind is there for the journey, not for the way it should be driven. Under the bonnet, the key news for Passat buyers is the introduction of an extensively re-worked version of this model's volume diesel engine, now badged the 2.0 TDI EVO, available with either 122 or 150PS. As before, it can be had with a 7-speed DSG auto 'box and now features Active Cylinder Shutdown for greater efficiency, the first time that this feature has been fitted to a Volkswagen diesel engine. For petrol people, there's the VW Group's familiar 150PS 1.5-litre TSI EVO unit, available with either manual or DSG auto transmission. Up to a quarter of Passat sales are expected to be taken by the Plug-in hybrid petrol/electric GTE version, which mates a 1.4 TSI petrol engine with an electric motor. This derivative now uses an upgraded lithium-ion battery which now enables a longer 36-mile WLTP-rated driving range.
The difficulty in attracting buyers away from the likes of BMW and Audi is that you need your product to offer all the attractions of a BMW and Audi but at a more competitive price. That includes looking as expensive as these brands, which is something the Passat has often struggled to achieve. Not any more. At least not from the outside, where this facelifted version of the eighth generation Passat looks sleek, chiselled and polished, with full-LED head and tail lights that emphasise the car's width. Inside, cabin quality is at least the equal of what you'd find in more expensive premium brand mid-sized saloon, especially if you're able to stretch to one of the higher trim levels. The interior features a big central 8-inch screen and a set of optional digital 'virtual' dials. The seats, as in most Volkswagens, initially feel unyielding but are supremely comfortable over longer distances. Three adults can fit in the back too - there's far more space than you'd get in a 3 Series, a C-Class or an A4. The boot measures an enormous 586-litres, while the estate gets even more, with 650-litres available under the tonneau.
There are three trim levels to choose from - 'SE Nav', 'SEL' and 'R-Line' - and the usual saloon and estate body styles. Prices start at around £28,000, running up to around £42,000 and there's a premium of just over £1,500 if you want the estate. As before, there's the transmission choice of either a 6-speed manual gearbox or a 7-speed DSG auto, the self-shifter standardised further up the range. All variants are well equipped, even entry 'SE' derivatives featuring full-LED headlights. 'SEL' examples can be identified by their 17-inch 'Nivelle' alloy wheels, and also offer Vienna leather seats, the Discover Navigation system with an 8-inch colour screen and Voice Control. SEL cars also have tinted rear windows and silver roof rails for the Estate. 'R-Line' trim brings 18-inch 'Monterrey' alloy wheels, sports suspension, an R-Line exterior styling pack and Nappa leather front sport seats embroidered with the R-Line logo. There are also stainless steel pedals, 3Zone climate control and black roof lining, while keyless entry and an easy open boot also feature as standard on this top trim level. The Plug-in hybrid GTE version and the SUV-style 'Alltrack' estate variant get their own specific trim specs.
For all the talk of premium quality and engine refinement, the Passat is a car that absolutely has to nail the right numbers when it comes to efficiency, largely because it still relies on company buyers for a significant slug of sales. If a fleet manager thinks the company's better off putting you in something Korean or Japanese, that's what you're going to get. Fortunately, this current car seems to make all the right numbers, aided by the fact that the volume 2.0 TDI 150PS diesel engine now joins the base 1.5-litre TSI EVO petrol unit in offering 'Active Cylinder Shutdown'. This shuts down two of the engine's four cylinders under light-to-medium throttle loads to save fuel. The 2.0 TDI 150PS diesel manages up to 60.1mpg on the combined WLTP cycle and up to 123g/km of CO2. The 1.5 TSI EVO petrol manages up to 46.3mpg (WLTP) and up to 138g/km. The other engines look pretty efficient too. The Plug-in hybrid petrol/electric GTE can now go up to 36 miles (WLTP) between charges. And manages up to 282.5mpg and 27g/km of CO2.
So, what have we here? A strong contender to be sure. This revised version of the eighth generation design, the fastest-selling Volkswagen on the planet, looks smarter than before, the interior feels upmarket and there are all sorts of super-slick systems and features that are more like those you'd expect to find in a BMW, an Audi or a Mercedes. It drives well too. Thankfully, Volkswagen hasn't tried to inject a whole load of unnecessary sportiness across the range. The Passat was always at its best as a comfortable mile muncher and the big steps forward that Volkswagen has made in refinement, comfort and economy in recent years make this car more accomplished than ever in that regard. Crucially too, it continues to combine all of this with residual values that often actually improve on those delivered by the premium brands. There are, it's true, more affordable, sharper handling choices in this class. But there are none that leave you with a nicer feeling when you wake up in the morning, pull the curtains and see one of these in your driveway. It's a feeling that's very Volkswagen. And perfectly Passat.