2020 Volkswagen Passat first drive review: This is fine

Meet the new Passat. It's the same as the old Passat, mostly.

Volkswagen pulled the wraps off the 2020 Passat sedan earlier this year, debuting a refreshed look and... not much else. The updated model features the same underpinnings and technology as its predecessor, a platform that dates back to 2011. Volkswagen is banking big on the new look, better perceived value and its reputation to carry the new Passat through this point-five update, hoping the average customer doesn't know or care about the rest.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

"We said, OK, let's keep the carryover platform," VW Group of America CEO Scott Keogh said in an interview earlier this year, "and focus on the things the customer sees and interacts with. That is the design, the aesthetics, the look, the feel."

On some level, I suppose we should be happy that VW is still committed to playing the midsize sedan game at all. The US market is skewing more toward SUVs and crossovers every day and, according to the automaker's figures, sedan sales are down nearly 10% for the industry and nearly 8% at VW alone. Where some companies are simply leaving the segment, VW is simply staying the course.

More torque, less efficient

Under the hood, the Passat is packing the same 2.0-liter turbo-four engine as before -- once again, the only engine option available in the States. It still makes 174 horsepower, but (surprisingly) gets a bump to 206 pound-feet of torque -- 22 pound-feet more than before. The six-speed automatic transmission also returns, sending power to the front wheels only.

With more torque, the new Passat can hustle from 0 to 60 mph half a second quicker than before, which is a purely academic improvement that you'll barely notice over the 8-ish-second 0-to-60 sprint of its predecessor. You may, however, notice the slight reduction in fuel economy, which is estimated at 23 miles per gallon city, 34 mpg highway and 27 mpg combined -- down around 2 mpg across the board versus last year.

Design tweaks

For as much that is the same inside, the Passat's exterior update goes a bit above your basic midcycle refresh. VW says that pretty much all of the sheetmetal below the roof has been reshaped in some way for 2020.

That said, the biggest changes you'll notice are the new front and rear bumper designs and the now-standard projector headlamps, multi-segment daytime running lights and rear taillights -- all of which are LED illuminated. A new "tornado line" crease runs along the Passat's flank from the nose to tail, bringing a bit of new Arteon flavor to this aging sedan. There are also new wheels, which now start at 17 inches for the base model with optional 18s and 19s on the menu.

The new look adds about 1.7 inches of length -- pretty much all front overhang -- and about 50 to 80 pounds to the curb weight, depending on trim level and equipment. 

Safety and cabin tech

2020 model-year Passats now come standard with forward pre-collision warning with pedestrian detection, auto braking assist and post-collision braking, but most of the safety technology is largely unchanged from the previous generation. One new feature is the addition of Parking Steering Assist system to the list of options. Thusly equipped, the 2020 Passat can detect and steer itself into parallel or perpendicular parking spots with the touch of a button.

2020-volkswagen-passat-17
Volkswagen

The rest of the options, including the also standard blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and a rear camera, work as well as I remembered from last year's Passat. My SEL tester is much fully loaded with optional adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping steering assist, parking distance sensors and automatic high beams.

Inside, the sedan's cockpit gets an overhaul that largely echoes the exterior -- a new look over the same old architecture. My Passat SEL features a reshaped dashboard with wood accents. Dark brown leather trim for the seats lend the cabin a handsome, if not a tad basic, appearance.

However, front and center in that reshaped dash is the same 6.3-inch version of the MIB II infotainment suite as before. In a world where even the compact Golf can be had with a beefy 8-inch display, the Passat's screen feels tiny. Being based on an older platform, the Passat also lacks Volkswagen's Digital Cockpit. At the very least, it does support Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink as standard features, but overall, the Passat's cabin tech suite is sort of a bummer.

The driving experience is basically indistinguishable from the previous generation, which is to say it's fine. The power delivery is OK. The ride is comfortable enough and the Passat is a fairly quiet cruiser. It's not a bad driving experience. It'll get you where you're going with minimal fuss, but there's almost no character -- no joy.

There are a few nitpicks to address. The seating position is awkward. The steering wheel isn't centered with the driver's seat -- it sits about 2 inches inboard -- which is mildly infuriating once you notice it. I was also annoyed that I couldn't tilt the wheel as low as I like. These aren't new problems, but carryovers from the previous car.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Not much more for your money

At the very least, the new Passat is a slightly better value than its predecessor. Reorganized trim levels have the 2020 Passat ranging from a base S model coming in at $22,955 -- the same price as last year, despite more standard equipment -- to the line-topping SEL model's $31,095. Those prices are, of course, before a $930 destination charge. 

However, the new Passat is only really a better value when judged against its predecessor. That value proposition falters when other automakers enter the conversation. A HondaAccord is more expensive, but offers a much more satisfying driving experience than the aging Passat with a more premium cabin. Kia's Optima and the Hyundai Sonata also offer value for the dollar that make the Volkswagen a tough choice to justify.

VW seems to be hedging its bets for the midsize sedan segment. On one hand, it doesn't want to leave the segment uncontested. On the other, it doesn't see enough value in the shrinking and increasingly competitive space to justify investment or even improvement. The result is the 2020 Passat. It's fine, but it could be so much better.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

Discuss 2020 Volkswagen Passat