Sales of big saloons might not be what they used to, but the cars themselves are more competent than ever, as evidenced by the latest Volkswagen Passat.
Sharing much of its DNA with the smaller Golf means that the latest Passat is lighter and more efficient than its predecessor, while feeling even classier still.
The engine range is restricted to diesels and a plug-in hybrid GTE model that marries a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine with an electric motor to give a pure electric range of up to 30 miles.
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Big boot hampered by narrow opening
Although there is little to complain about when it comes to the Passat’s 586 litres of boot space, the slightly narrow opening (due to it being a saloon rather than a hatchback) means you can’t carry the kind of bulky items that would fit easily into a FordMondeo. Note also that the batteries of the plug-in hybrid GTE result in a 30 per cent reduction in boot space.
As you’d expect for this class of car, the rear backrests drop at the press of a button, forming a completely flat loading bay.
Passengers will find that there's generous legroom front and rear, so that one six-foot adult can sit behind another with room to spare.
Rounding things off, there's a useful number of cubby holes and cupholders, plus a big glovebox.
A great motorway cruiser
All versions of the Passat will make for a relaxing companion on a long journey, with supportive seats (even more so on SE-spec models and above), a good driving position with plenty of adjustment, and generally compliant suspension.
However, it’s worth noting that the ride becomes noticeably noisier, not to mention firmer, if you opt for the 18-inch wheels - if you do choose these we’d recommend also ticking the box for VW’s adaptive suspension.
Diesel engine are available in 1.6-litre or 2.0-litre capacities with a number of different power outputs. All are noisier than a Ford Mondeo diesel when cold or driven at low speeds, but become quieter once cruising.
For the ultimate in quiet running you’ll need a plug-in hybrid Passat GTE, which wafts around in near silence on its electric motor. Combined with the lack of wind noise, it adds to the Passat’s refined nature, although ride comfort suffers as a result of the weight of the batteries in the back of the car.
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Dashboard layout 9/10
Great quality and easy to use
VW builds some of the best dashboards out there, and the Passat Estate is no different. The latest model features the kind of clear dials, easy to use heating controls and soft-touch plastics we’ve come to expect, while the touchscreen system has some of the most responsive software we’ve encountered in any car.
Although far from essential items, opting for the 8-inch screen in the centre of the dash, not to mention the upgraded Active Info TFT display that replaces the conventional dials with a digital screen only serves to enhance the impression that the Passat is every bit the premium car.
Easy to drive 8/10
Light controls don't quite disguise its size
The Passat is a big car, and it feels it to drive. All of a sudden the narrow ramps and tight turns of multi-storey car parks can seem quite intimidating.
Once you are used to its width in particular, you’ll start to appreciate the light and linear controls, which make the Passat easy to drive through town or on the open road. Both the six-speed manual or automatic DSG gearbox are easy to operate.
Only the 118bhp 1.6-litre diesel struggles to keep up with fast-moving traffic, particularly if you have passengers in the car with you. In all other models overtaking is easy.
Fun to drive 6/10
Rivals are better in this regard
In reality, either of the single turbo 2.0-litre diesels will offer enough performance for most, whether you go for the 148bhp or 187bhp version. However, in terms of steering response and body control the Ford Mondeo is the better car, and thus also more fun to drive.
Although it’s expensive, the twin-turbocharged 2.0-litre diesel that sits at the top of the range has enough power to put a smile on your face, particularly when combined with the tenacious grip of its four-wheel-drive system. Similarly, the extra boost of performance from the GTE’s electric motor gives it a useful turn of speed.
Volkswagen has a good reputation
Volkswagen finished sixth out of 24 manufacturers in the 2016 UK Vehicle Dependability Survey, above Mercedes, Audi and BMW.
You also get the reassurance of a three-year, 60,000-mile warranty, matching the cover you get on a Ford Mondeo, but falling short of five-year warranty that Hyundai offers on the i40.
Volkswagen provides a year’s worth of breakdown assistance as standard.
Fuel economy 8/10
All models are fuel-efficient
For ultimate on-paper economy you’ll need the plug-in hybrid GTE Passat. This car returned 157mpg in EU fuel tests, although to achieve that figure in normal driving you’ll need to regularly plug in to make the most of its pure electric range of up to 31 miles. Remember too that on the motorway with a depleted battery the petrol engine will struggle to return much more than 35mpg.
For most people, therefore, one of the diesels might well make more sense. Both the 1.6-litre and the 148bhp version of the 2.0-litre returned close to 70mpg in EU tests, while the Bluemotion version of the diesel managed 76mpg, matching the most efficient Ford Mondeo. However, in reality you need to work the smaller engine harder, meaning it’s more difficult to get close to such figures.
Opting for the DSG automatic gearbox reduces fuel economy by about 5mpg. Go for the top-spec twin-turbo model with four-wheel drive and DSG, and you can expect to achieve about 40mpg in normal driving.
Holds its value well
The Passat is slightly more expensive to buy than an equivalent Ford Mondeo or VauxhallInsignia, but it will hold its value better. Combined with similar costs for servicing and insurance, this actually makes the VW the better bet for private buyers in the long run.
Company car drivers (and up to 80 per cent of Passat sales are expected to be fleet) should note that manual versions emit less CO2 than those equipped with a DSG automatic gearbox. For ultimate tax efficiency the GTE hybrid emits just 40g/km of CO2, although it’s more expensive to buy than a Kia Optima PHEV.
Scored top marks in crash tests
SE-spec models and above feature radar cruise control that can keep a set distance between you and the car in front, as well as an auto braking function that in an emergency can bring the car to a complete stop if it detects an impact is imminent.
Along with being fitted with nine airbags as standard, this helped the Passat score five out of five stars in Euro NCAP crash tests.
Optional extras include Predictive Pedestrian Protection, which scans ahead for people and can automatically apply the brakes if it senses a collision is unavoidable.
Standard spec 8/10
Worth upgrading from the base specification
Basic S spec includes 16-inch alloy wheels, a 6.5-inch touchscreen display, air-conditioning and Bluetooth phone connectivity.
It’s worth upgrading to SE Business, however, which adds parking sensors front and rear, along with 17-inch wheels, adaptive cruise control and satnav, while GT and R Line models include among other things 18-inch wheels and multi-zone climate control, but are on the pricey side.
The Alltrack variant's specification falls part-way between those of the SE Business and GT versions, but it also gets a body kit in black textured plastic to add extra off-road protection.
Our favourite version
SE Business 2.0 TDI, list price £25,675
Options you should add: Metallic paint (£540)
The verdict 8/10
With its classy interior, upmarket image and low running costs, the Passat is not only a rival for the Ford Mondeo, but also a viable alternative the BMW 3-series, Audi A4 and Mercedes C-class, particularly for those who value space over driving thrills. The GTE is also an accomplished plug-in hybrid, if more expensive than a Kia Optima PHEV.