The Passat GT First Drive

Look. It’s good. It’s actually really good. But I can’t help wanting more. It doesn’t make me giggle, it doesn’t sound that much better, and it doesn’t feel as special as VW is trying to convince you it is. It feels just a little too anodyne, a little too safe, a little too smart. It just doesn’t feel sexy.

Volkswagen’s enthusiast offerings are constantly living in the shadow of the Golf GTI and this new Passat GT is making some pretty clear allusions to that heritage. The story, the name, and the red lipstick all allude to that original hot hatch, but it misses out on some of the most important features.

Do you remember when the new Dodge Charger came out and it had four doors and mid-2000s design and just generally didn’t look like something that Beau and Luke Duke would jump in through the windows of? It’s not that the new Charger wasn’t cool, it’s just that Dodge saddled it with a lot of history, a lot of expectations that it couldn’t live up to. Volkswagen’s kind of doing that here, albeit not to the same degree. The car is good, it’s just that everything surrounding it makes me want more.

The story of the Passat GT, in case you weren’t aware, is that it was born in the Chattanooga skunkworks, the product of passion and a desire to prove that America could make something special. Engineers worked overtime to make something that enthusiasts would like. They even asked me, on behalf of VWVortex, what I thought of it long before any concepts ever saw the light of day.

They added GT badges all over, lowered the car, tuned the exhaust, painted the roof black, gave it some lipstick, and installed two-tone seats. But that’s where they stopped. And that doesn’t quite feel like enough.

That’s the back of my head looking at a camouflaged Atlas, which at the time was still known as the BSUV and behind me is a Passat GT

This is where I think it’s helpful to remember the GTI’s story. It sounds similar, it follows many of the same beats but there are some crucial extra details. Sure, both cars were made quietly by passionate people, but the GTI’s engine was from a race car and made nearly twice as much horsepower as the standard Golf’s. And there were badges and easter eggs, sure, but they were kept deliberately subtle because this was meant to be a secret that VW was letting you in on.

Obviously, expecting this to make twice as much horsepower as the standard V6 would be ridiculous, but there’s little to recommend this over a regular V6 Passat. The GT is really good, but that’s mostly because the V6 Passat is really good. The GT sounds good, but that’s because the V6 sounds really good. It’s quick, but guess what, so is the V6. 

I’m sure that if you put this alongside the regular V6 Passat, it would sound better. But are you really gonna do that? Ever? And if you do by some miracle, will it really matter when they’re apart and the regular car still sounds great?

And yes. This drives well. The suspension has been tuned expertly, letting the car soak up bumpy country roads while still providing you with a confident and sporty ride. And traction is good, breaking only when you’re being dumb and doing so very predictably and minorly. 

As I said, it’s a good car. 

But I want more. I want more power or a stupid exhaust setting or a secretly insane 0-60 time. It’s a full-size sedan with the big engine, special badging, and I drove it in Detroit. I was expecting the full muscle car experience. Leno tells a story about being allowed to pick the options for the family Galaxie 500 and the result being so loud and powerful that his dad took it back to the dealer because he thought it was broken. 

I know that’s not really possible in an era that values making cars that aren’t also deathtraps, but the car VW described, the car that deserves special badges and the adoration of enthusiasts needs to at least inspire a mischievous grin. The Passat GT didn’t.

What it inspires, I suspect, is the approving nod of a German accountant. Which, I guess, makes sense since that’s exactly who VW of America had to convince to make this car. And there’s something to be said for that. After all, doesn’t the “very good, if a little reserved” description apply equally to the Golf R?

The good news is that VW is proud. Product manager Steven Warrick actually pulled strings to get one of his own to replace his Atlas and I think everyone reading this is on board with that. I just get the sense that some special badging and a slightly louder exhaust might not be what everyone was waiting for to buy a Passat instead of an SUV.

We know that VW can turn the wick up on its engines reasonably easily and you can’t convince me that the V6 is only capable of making 280 hp. So why not give it a little more power, actually make it special? I suppose that would affect the (really rather reasonable) $29,996 starting price.

I think you can tell that I’m struggling with this car. I want to like it because it’s fun, but the badge is giving me pause. It makes promises that the car doesn’t quite live up to. This is anything but a scathing indictment, but the GT is stuck somewhere between the GTI and the R-Line. It actually offers buyers a little something special but in my opinion, it isn’t quite enough to make it a true enthusiast’s special. There’s a reason the Passat GT is missing its I.