2020 Volkswagen Passat First Drive: Can More but Less Save the Sedan?

We’ve just finished driving Volkswagen’s latest Passat, the new for 2020 model. If you’re thinking it doesn’t exactly look entirely new, then you’re right. This one’s more about evolution, and that’s fitting in today’s sedan marketplace where survival of the fittest is the name of the game and companies struggle to maintain their piece of a shrinking pie. VW’s banking on value as its natural selection-enduring trait with this latest model, which means more stuff, less money, and no big surprises.

One look down just about any road in the country, and it’s immediately apparent that the crossover is the new sedan, and the pickup is the new family ride. The light truck share of the car market is growing, and it’s now accounting for about two-thirds of sales. It’s why Ford has officially announced it’s done with cars (other than the Mustang) and why GM and Chrysler are quickly headed down the same path.

Even at Volkswagen, light truck sales, meaning crossovers, are more than half of company annual volume. The Atlas and Tiguan are selling like hotcakes, bringing in conquest buyers and raising transaction prices. But even if the sedan segment is just 30 percent of the US market, that’s still somewhere in the ballpark of 5 million sedans a year. More sedans are sold in America than the entire German vehicle market. More importantly, there are increasingly fewer competitors to share that pie.

Volkswagen’s solution to keeping its hat firmly thrown into the big sedan ring is one of the company’s founding qualities. Long before they were about much of anything else, VWs were about value. And that seems to be the mission statement of the 2020 Passat.

The design is an evolutionary one. It falls somewhere between a normal mid-cycle refresh and an all-new model. This is the same platform that’s underpinned the Passat for a decade, but they’ve gone far beyond just new bumpers. All of the sheet metal, save the roof, is brand new for 2020. They’ve made it look like a bigger version of the Jetta by adding a new chrome grille flanked by standard LED headlights. They’ve also added what they call a Tornado line from front to back, and have fitted new wheels to each trim. The press release says that “interior space of Passat is something our customers value, so we didn’t change it.” Which is code for “this is the same car, so it’s the same size inside.”

That doesn’t mean it’s completely unchanged, though. It’s received an all-new dashboard design that’s massively more interesting than the outgoing car. It doesn’t look like the Jetta’s or Golf’s, instead it looks like the inside of the rest-of-world B8 Passat (as well as a certain five-door hatch VW recently introduced here),  which is a very different car underneath than the one we get. It’s a more upscale design, with vents running from the edge of the cluster to the passenger door adding some style to the cabin. What you won’t see from the Euro Passat, or any other VW, is the virtual cockpit display. This older platform can’t handle it, VW told us. That said, if you’re a fan of 2000s VWs, you’ll love these analog gauges, and there’s still a digital display for trip info and other useful tidbits in the center of the cluster.

The new dash gets some interesting trim appliques, like a few different patterns of fake wood, but the plastics, especially where you come into contact with the car, are rock-hard, and the wood and silver plastic dash accents look a lot more convincing in photos than they do in-person. Still, the overall look is still clearly VW, just VW with the value proposition as a bigger part of the equation.

Volkswagen’s simplified the trims this time around, and there will just be four. Yes, that’s double what 2019 had, but, well, let’s not talk about 2019. 2018 had six trims, so it’s down from that. The base S starts at $22,995, a price that matches 2018’s base price. Only this one gets $1,720 more in kit, like satellite radio, and a load of driver aids like front assist with pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitors, rear traffic alert, post-collision braking, and the previously mentioned LED head and taillights. SE sees $520 more in stuff, but gets a price cut of $450. Radar cruise, lane-keeping, and park assist are available as you move higher up the trim levels.

Under the extra creases of the new Passat’s hood is a 2.0L turbo-four that’s a whole lot like the one that was under the old car. With the same 174 hp but torque boosted 12 percent to 206 lb-ft. That’s enough extra shove to be noticeable, sent through the same six-speed auto it had before. On the road, this is a quiet engine, and it makes some pretty good turbo noises, though you’ll never confuse this engine with the one from a GTI. It’s got much more pep than the Tiguan, despite the similar numbers, but ultimately the amount of shove is hampered by the slow reactions of the auto box. Even using the adorably tiny shift paddles, you’re never, ever going to mistake this one for a DSG. Fuel economy is down from the previous car, likely thanks to some 80 lbs of extra features, coming in at 23 city, 34 highway versus 25/36.

We covered the suspension changes around this time last year, when we drove this car in prototype form. It’s unchanged from 2019. It’s not as crisp as a Jetta or Golf, but then again, that’s not what large sedan buyers are looking for. Mazda’s already largely sewn up that segment anyway, so putting more effort and extra cost into a completely new tuning probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

In the canyons surrounding Los Angeles, the Passat isn’t exactly happy, but neither does it fall on its face. Unload and reload the suspension over a dip and you can feel that the tires are giving up, rolling over, and calling it a day quite easily. Drive it more sensibly, like on the highway, and it’s well-damped and quiet. Even on Southern California’s miserable groovy concrete roads. It feels more VW than the crossovers, but less VW than the smaller sedans. A bit of a Goldilocks, depending on what it is you’re searching for. The brakes were putting out some unpleasant smells by the time we got back to sea level, but at no point did they fade or threaten to act out while driving.

Where the Passat really shines, is interior space. This one’s clearly designed for the US market, and it has an absolutely massive cabin. We’ve all seen the word cavernous thrown around to describe vehicles with rear seats the size of a medium-sized moving box, but here it applies. This is First Class legroom for people in the back. The front’s huge too, though the power driver’s seat sits much higher than the manually adjustable passenger’s chair, and so puts tall drivers up close and personal with the sunroof. Put that same driver in the right seat, and they’ll have loads of air for their hair.

This new iteration of the Passat isn’t going to offer autobahn-ready handling, it’s not going to offer a nearly-Audi interior, and it’s not going to offer a V6. What it is going to offer is a comfortable and relatively quiet drive with an interior that looks good. It’s also going to start with loads of features, offer even more for not much more money, and ring in at not much more than a compact sedan. Volkswagen’s hoping that’s what sedan buyers want, and it’s definitely hard to argue the value proposition of a huge four-door with a trunk that costs less than a Tiguan. And, don’t forget, that if you want something a little more engaging and a lot more stylish, there’s an Arteon sitting right over there on the other side of the showroom. It’ll give you that big dose of Euro, for a few more fat stacks.