2020 Volkswagen Passat Prototype first drive review: Staying the course
VW’s refreshed Passat gets a new look, more torque and different features across its trim levels.
Emme HallFormer editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
When I reviewed the 2018 Volkswagen Passat earlier this year, the experience left me less than impressed. A redesigned Passat is on the docket for 2020 -- we'll see it at the Detroit Auto Show in January -- and after a brief stint behind the wheel of a prototype at Volkswagen's proving grounds in Arizona, I can tell you the new sedan should be more appealing than before, though it doesn't shake up the current car's formula.
Power still comes from a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four engine with front-wheel drive standard. The engine's 174 horsepower is unchanged from the current Passat, but torque output increases from 184 pound-feet to a healthier 207. As before, a six-speed automatic transmission will handle shifting duties. No other powertrains will be offered. The Passat's V6 engine died for the 2019 model year.
With limited drive time at Volkswagen's proving grounds, I can't really give the new Passat a complete dynamic shakedown. Based on these brief first impressions, the Passat ought to maintain its place as a staid commuter car, proving solid -- if soft -- performance. Light steering and lots of body roll mean the Passat is better suited to everyday driving rather than back-road blasts.
Remember, this isn't a brand-new Passat -- it doesn't move to the flexible MQB architecture of Volkswagen's other recent products. As far as design goes, even in this camouflaged state, you'll notice the wider grille, reminiscent of what's found on the 2019 Jetta. Reshaped headlights come standard with LED bulbs. Around back the Passat will get LED taillights, but it's tough to discern any major design differences in the rear through the camo. The sedan will ride on standard 17-inch wheels, with 19s available on higher trims, including a sporty-looking R-Line version.
Inside the dash and center console are covered -- so much for any glimpses of a new interior. However, like the outgoing Passat, rear seat space in the new model is generous -- my 6-foot, 3-inch back seat rider had plenty of room. But thanks to the more heavily sloped roofline, headroom suffers.
As far as features go, the current Passat is pretty nicely equipped, and that won't change for 2020, though many features are now standard on lower trims. The new Passat will get standard blind-spot monitoring and forward collision warning with pedestrian detection. On the infotainment front, an 8-inch touchscreen will be standard across the board, with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and satellite radio along for the ride.
The 2020 Passat will have a fair number of optional extras, including rain-sensing wipers, lane-keeping assist, interior ambient lighting and adaptive cruise control. Speaking of, Volkswagen says the adaptive cruise system is the same as the one found in the current car, meaning it doesn't work below 15 miles per hour, therefore making it useless in stop-and-go traffic. VW says vehicle packaging is to blame for this less-than-robust system.
Following its debut in Detroit in January, the 2020 Passat will go on sale next summer. I can't imagine these changes will suddenly make the Passat a stronger seller, though with many companies axing their sedan offerings, Volkswagen could certainly stand to pick up an extra buyer or two -- assuming they don't go for the just-as-fresh, nicer-to-drive Jetta.
Stay tuned for our full first drive of the 2020 Passat early next year.
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