I recently had the chance to get behind the wheel of the new Volkswagen Passat, and I’m disappointed. Disappointed in my peers, that is. I’ve read plenty of commentaries about how VW’s newest sedan is watered-down, cheapened, and boring – and I just plain disagree.
First, please let me confess that I’m a Volkswagen dork. I own two old VWs at the moment – one that I’ve adored for fourteen years, longer than anything else but my elderly cat. It’s won a number of trophies at Waterfest (the car did, not the cat), and I owe most of my (somewhat embarrassing) social life to my cars. Further, in an interview at this year’s Geneva auto show, I demonstrated my Vee Dub purism by slightly infuriating VW of America boss Jonathan Browning. The veins in his temples were sticking out by the time I was done giving him a hard time about the Jetta, a car that is a couple of ill-placed cost-savings measures and cheap tricks from being a great machine.
The Passat, on the other hand, is just fine. No, it’s more than just fine. It’s elegant, understated, mature, and handsome. And it takes only one look at the Toyota Camry’s sales figures to see how popular of a recipe that is. Sure, the Hyundai Sonata is impressive to look at, but to my eyes, it’s dramatically overstyled and I bet it’ll age poorly.
Clean designs like the Passat’s age well. They also appeal to a lot of people. Remember the frenzy at VW dealerships in 1999 when the B5 Passat and A4 Jetta were all the rage? Look at those two cars—they perfectly embodied German car design: simple and functional. And they each looked $10,000 more expensive than they were.
The new Passat does exactly the same thing. In fact, I drove it to Cars & Coffee in Orange County – and the organizers let me in. To the exhibitor’s area. And when I parked it between an incredibly opulent brown Mercedes CL63 AMG and (an admittedly pretty homely) BMW M6, it looked great. It looked elegant, substantial, rich. It looked like it belonged there. Try that in a Sonata!
It’s more of the same from inside the cabin. VW’s five-cylinder is a segment exclusive, and it gives the Passat more character than anyone’s four-cylinder. The steering isn’t perfect, but none of the cars in this class have perfect steering, and it’s better than the Camry’s, far better than the Sonata’s, and probably about as good as an Accord’s. What matters most: the Passat is comfy, it’s smooth, its back seat and trunk are absolutely enormous, it’s easy to use, it’s quiet, it’s refined, and it feels very, very expensive.
When no one was looking, I took the Passat for two laps on Buttonwillow raceway while there for another event. And to my surprise, it handled very, very well. Obviously no, it’s not a rear-wheel drive sport sedan, but it did just fine. Chassis balance is great (though you can’t disable stability control) and the brakes held up commendably. My only kvetch is that the steering wheel kicks back under bumps at the limit—something I also noticed on an on-ramp.
(And by the way, I took a Jetta TDI out for four laps. I will no longer accept any criticism on the way that car handles. I said it before and now I’ll say it in Italics: torsion beam rear suspension or not, the Jetta is a fine handler. To quote a colleague who’d like to remain anonymous: anyone who says the new Jetta doesn’t handle well needs to go to driver’s school. Amen.)
Volkswagen has pulled the e-brake and done a U-turn: the company can’t continue selling cars in the U.S. without making a profit, so it needs to pump up the volume. And where other car companies have gone and turned their backs on their existing customers, VW’s charging forward with a two-tiered product strategy: their premium cars that attract a (relatively) small number of fervent fans will continue on: GTI, Golf, the diesels, New Beetle, and CC, Jetta Wagon. And the mass market gets Jettas and Passats tailored specifically to their wants and needs.
What’s the problem with that? I see none. The only problem I see is that so many of my esteemed peers are comparing the new mass-market cars with the old, expensive small-market cars. Obviously the old $28,000 Passat did a few things the new $20,000 Passat doesn’t. But guess what: nobody bought that $28,000 Passat. And I’d rather have a Passat that people buy so that we enthusiasts can get things like the GTI, the Golf R, the (surprisingly hot) new Beetle, and—keep your fingers crossed—the next Scirocco.
Volkswagen is the people’s car, and now it’s bending over backward to appeal to more people. And the problem is….?