MARICOPA, Arizona – Under the desert sun of Arizona, there’s a place where all the Volkswagen models we drive are hot-weather tested. A place that isn’t open to the public, and since there is no signage whatsoever, it could pass as a top-secret government site. It’s only the second time members of the press has been allowed inside since the Volkswagen Proving Grounds opened, exactly 25 years ago—last being the first time when The Car Guide got a sneak peak at the camouflaged 2019 Volkswagen Jetta.
This time around, we got the opportunity to flog the redesigned, 2020 Volkswagen Passat. It too was wrapped in a funky plastic shroud as to hide the styling details of the midsize sedan. The car will be officially unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show, or at least that’s what we’re assuming.
On sale since the 2011 model year, the current Passat has aged well, but it’s inevitably in need of a styling and technological makeover. Although we initially thought it would be developed on Volkswagen’s now-ubiquitous MQB platform that underpins many models from the Golf to the Atlas, the company is sticking with the current NMS platform for now. Called New Midsize Sedan, this architecture was made specifically for the North-American Passat, which is bigger than the one sold in overseas markets.
The NMS platform was designed with a front-wheel drivetrain, so the 2020 Volkswagen Passat won’t be offered with all-wheel drive, another aspect we thought could appear as the 2019 Nissan Altima now offers this feature as standard in Canada. And the Subaru Legacy has always included AWD in all of its trim levels.
The Passat will also keep the latest-generation turbocharged, 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission combo that appeared in the sedan for the 2018 model year. It produces 174 horsepower as before, but torque now peaks at 207 pound-feet—up from 184. In the current model, this powertrain delivers fuel economy ratings of 9.3 L/100 km in the city, 6.5 on the highway and 8.1 combined. That’s good for a midsize sedan. No word yet if those numbers will be improved in the 2020 model. By the way, the 3.6-litre V6 in the Passat is no more, which isn’t a big deal since almost no one chose it.
So, same platform and same powertrain. What has changed, we may ask? The Passat’s bodywork is all-new and although it was camouflaged on the cars we got to drive—and our cameras were confiscated as we entered the Proving Grounds – during a visit into an inspection building, a skeleton of the new sedan was sitting there uncovered. Oops.
The overall shape of the car seems to have been stretched out slightly, with a fastback-style roofline that’s a styling trend right now. The taillights are larger and point up into the trunklid, which is decked with the letters P A S S A T right beneath the VW logo. The front end of the car is unmistakably Volkswagen with a massive grille and a little more detail in the headlight clusters. An R-Line styling package will again be offered, giving the car a somewhat more aggressive appearance.
Current Passat owners told Volkswagen that they loved everything about their car, but would like a sportier, bolder appearance. However, it won’t be overdone like the Toyota Camry XSE is.
In the prototype car we drove, a black fabric cover was loosely fitted over the dashboard in order to prevent it from being snapshot during open-road testing. We “accidently” sneezed to blow it off—that darn Arizona dust got to us—and to be honest, there’s nothing really secret about the design and layout here. The dashboard is conservative, ergonomically laid out with typical VW rotary climate control dials and woodgrain accenting. Apart from a new eight-inch touchscreen, which will be standard in all trim levels of the 2020 Volkswagen Passat, it’s almost impossible to discern it from the dash in the current Passat. Again, owners didn’t want that to change, so VW didn’t.
In Canada, there will likely be trim levels available, including Comfortline, Highline and Execline. Aside from the new infotainment system with eight-inch touchscreen, the standard feature list will include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, a blind spot monitor, pre-collision warning with emergency autonomous braking, LED headlights and 17-inch wheels. Lane keep assist, rain-sensing windshield wipers, adaptive cruise control and ambient lighting will also be offered.
It’s a little early to make an assessment on the 2020 Volkswagen Passat, as we’ve driven a prototype that might still have some issues to sort out. However, the car felt solid, its handling on the test course revealed that it’s still one of the most fun to drive in its segment, and the cabin is once again among the most spacious as well. The only thing we’d like to see improved is the quickness of the steering, as it requires many turns from lock to lock, which means a lot of wheel spinning in simple parking manoeuvres.
By inviting us to their Proving Grounds while the car is still in its development phase, the automaker just wanted to show us that the Passat is alive and well, in a car market that’s shrinking every day as consumers turn to SUVs. This new Passat will go on sale next fall.