VW Passat — Is this refresh enough?

MotorwayAmeria.com photo

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

There is still a market for mid-sized sedans, but it's a shrinking segment and it takes cutting-edge products with new technology, new designs and bigger and more fuel-efficient engines to keep buyers engaged. Several automakers have stepped up with new and desirable products in an effort to win over crossover buyers.

The latest is Hyundai with a striking new Sonata. Likewise, Honda, Toyota and Nissan have put in considerable effort to keep customers in family sedans. Volkswagen has introduced a freshened mid-sized Passat for 2020, and it carries over several desirable attributes including incredibly spacious rear seats, a pleasing driving demeanor, a nice array of safety equipment, up-to-date technology, and an attractive price.

But Volkswagen does not seem serious about really advancing the Passat the way it needs to be advanced in the U.S. in this new age of hatchbacks. The dashboard design is dated, the navigation/infotainment screen is a small 6.3 inches when competitors are installing tablet-sized screens, there has been little advancement in engine and transmission offerings, and exterior styling — while pleasingly conservative and updated — does little to differentiate it from previous Passats. And the 2020 Passat continues to ride on an old platform unlike the Passats for the Chinese and European markets, which are built on the newer MQB architecture.

But the refresh did bring new LED head- and taillights, more sculpted front and rear bumpers, and new wheel designs.

The 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder that Volkswagen has used for the past few years is a good base engine and it has been infused with an additional 22 pound-feet of torque for 2020 — but it's not just the base engine, it's the only engine available. The potent 280-horsepower V-6 was discontinued two years ago and VW saw fit not to add another engine.

While competitors such as the Nissan Altima and Honda Accord have also discontinued six-cylinder engines, they have introduced turbocharged 4-cylinder engines as a more powerful option. The Altima's optional engine features 248 horsepower and the Accord's up-level engine churns out 252 horsepower. And here's another thing — the base engine in the Toyota Camry pumps out 203 horsepower, the Altima 188 horsepower, and the Accord base 1.5-liter engine makes 192 horses.

The carryover Passat 2.0-liter 4-cylinder is rated at 174 horsepower and 206 pound-feet of torque. Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, the Passat can climb from 0-to-60 in about 8 seconds. We had no problem with everyday performance in our testing, but we kept asking ourselves — why didn't the maker of outstanding cars, engines and transmissions in VW's and Audi's worldwide do more with the 2020 Passat in the United States?

Perhaps gas mileage is much better with the smaller Passat powerplant? It's OK on regular gas measured at 23 mpg city, 34 highway and 27 combined. But the aforementioned competition all get better mileage with their base engines.

On the plus side, the VW engine is smooth and refined and the six-speed transmission does a good job. Combine that with predictable handling, accurate steering, a smooth ride that should please everyone, and a quiet interior. And with its nearly 16 cubic feet of trunk space and the back-seat space of a much bigger sedan, the Passat would be an excellent choice for a long-distance vacation for up to four adults.

The interior is not cluttered with buttons, and controls are not complicated to use. We appreciate this ease of use including proper tuning and volume control knobs for the radio and clear climate controls. Between the speedometer and tachometer is multi-function trip computer that helps monitor everything from fuel consumption to trip distance. And it includes a digital speedometer.

But all trim levels are saddled with the small 6.3-inch infotainment screen — a thing of the past in most mid-sized vehicles.

The Passat comes with the requisite safety features including standard blindspot warning with cross traffic alert, forward collision warning and automatic post-collision braking, and VW has as standard its Intelligent Crash Response System that shuts down the fuel pump and unlocks the doors.

The Passat is available in four trim levels — S, SE, R-Line and SEL — starting at $23,915 including a $920 destination charge. The R-Line, such as our test car is designed as the sporty model with a more aggressive front end treatment including C-signature air intakes in gloss black, and extra vertical chrome strips on the grille; and19-inch two-tone, five-spoke aluminum alloy wheels. Our car came well equipped for a price of $29,565 including destination.

The basic bumper-to-bumper warranty is 4-years/50,000 miles. Volkswagen's excellent Carefree Maintenance Program comes with all cars.

2020 Volkswagen Passat

Base price: $23,915; as driven, $29,565
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 174 @ 5,200 rpm
Torque: 206 foot-pounds @ 1,700 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 110.4 inches
Length: 193.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,325 pounds
Turning circle: 36.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.9 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 23 city, 34 highway, 27 combined
0-60: 8.0 seconds (estimated)
Also consider: Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord

The Good
• Very spacious interior
• Pleasant, comfortable ride
• Good price point

The Bad
• Outdated infotainment screen
• 2020 model rides on old VW platform

The Ugly
• Only one engine available