You know those car ads, the ones which feature a sharply specced new model cruising through an implausibly tranquil city? They’re often set at night, when the crisp lines and angular features common to so many modern machines look sharpest, and see the protagonist taking advantage of all of their new steed’s most noteworthy features as heads turn and admiring glances are exchanged.
Well, as I slink home from PH HQ in VW’s new Passat Estate R-Line, that’s where I find myself. The refreshed styling, Moonstone Grey paint and ‘Edition Black’ trim are handsome without appearing too OTT. The interior is equally well appointed, with a slick design centred around a crisp 9.2-inch touch screen. And as I pass beneath the glowing edifice of the South Bank IMAX, and slip by the crowds of warmly-wrapped commuters outside Waterloo, the refined cabin, heated seats and eight-speaker stereo combine to create the kind of cool, calm, comfortable little world that any marketing exec would be proud to convey.
This is how far the Passat has come. There have been go-faster editions before (W8, anyone?) but the latest sharp-suited generation - unveiled at the Geneva show in March - feels like it has earned a proper range-topper. The car driven here develops 272hp and 258lb ft from its 2.0-litre petrol four which, when paired with Volkswagen’s ubiquitous seven-speed DSG and 4Motion all-wheel drive system, is enough to see it to 62 in 5.8 seconds and on to a top speed of 155mph. No, the formula is not by any means revolutionary - being identical to the drivetrain aboard the Skoda Superb Sportline Plus we drove not so long ago. But it is new to the Passat.
So what sets it apart? Well, the badge, for one thing. Despite Skoda’s continued rise in universal esteem there will still be those who’d rather their neighbours saw a Volkswagen parked on their driveway. More substantively, though, it does feel a little lighter on its toes, a touch more agile in the corners, too. Where the Skoda is the consummate cushy cruiser, able to devour the miles with the best of them, the VW retains a little more driver focus; turn in is sharper, feedback a little greater, pedal response a touch more immediate.
This is all to the car’s benefit. Travelling the length of the M4 and back - where it returned 38.8mpg - the Passat still showed itself to be perfectly comfortable stretching its legs, and the refinement which stood it in such good stead in London proved equally as laudable as the capital fell into the distance. Once in the real world, a far cry from the bright lights of a slow-moving city, it proved no less likeable.
Under grey Welsh skies, covered in mud and grime and pressed into continual service, the Passat promptly revealed the unflappable nature that makes it VW’s second most popular model. The estate in particular, which across all eight (yes, eight) variants now offered in the UK, apparently outsells the saloon two to one. It’s easy to see why.
At various times it transported four adults to lunch – the three-zone climate control with separate controls for the rear seats proving popular – carried the dog to her walk, when she seemed perfectly content with the comfort of the boot, and, with the rear seats down, swallowed an entire Ikea bookshelf and several boxes of books. So what? I hear you cry, that’s what any decent wagon does. True, but not many can do so at this price point, while offering this level of refinement, this range of tech or – once your cargo has been deposited – this level of easy-going engagement. The R-Line Edition also strikes a noteworthy balance between desirability and usability; would you really want to expose an S6 or E53 to such abuse?
Then the heavens opened – or rather refused to close - the inclement weather near continuous from the Severn Bridge to the Irish Sea. Muddy, slippery, leaf-littered rural roads make for the perfect place to catch out temporary all-wheel drive systems, but VW’s latest 4Motion arrangement remained nonchalantly capable throughout. The car didn’t even blink upon arriving at a flooded bend, merrily fording it in the face of retreating crossover drivers. Another win for the traditional estate over the unnecessary ‘off-roader’, without even considering the fact that the aforementioned Billy bookcase only had to be hoisted half the distance off the ground to be put in the back.
Not that any of this is a surprise. The Passat has quietly become an utterly dependable family workhorse, and now fills out VW’s reputation for well-built, well-equipped and thoroughly capable cars almost as well as the Golf below it. That the addition of features like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to that all-important infotainment screen now allows owners to more seamlessly merge their in-car experience with their day-to-day one only makes things more pleasant. Much the same could be said about the fitment of that familiar powertrain, which makes the Passat no fire-breather, but adds a seamless sort of briskness to its long list of amenable features.
Buyers in the mood for this kind of car certainly aren’t entirely devoid of options. Those in need of slightly less room will likely opt for a Golf R or Focus ST estate, which deliver a slightly more angular experience – and at eye-level with the Passat, the Skoda Superb Sportline and Vauxhall Insignia GSI are both worthy enough rivals. But the R-Line does enough to ensure that the segment’s benchmark is now VW-shaped.
SPECIFICATION - VOLKSWAGEN PASSAT ESTATE R-LINE EDITION
Engine: 1,984cc, 4-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 272@5,600rpm
Torque (lb ft): 258@2,000-5,400rpm
Top speed: 155mph