While the logic behind plug-in hybrid cars is sound, it is a technology that has endured a rocky ride of late. For that you can primarily blame the removal in 2018 of the Government’s plug-in car grant for anything other than pure EVs, which makes every new plug-in hybrid £2,500 more expensive to buy than it would have been when the grant was in place.
To help address this Volkswagen has chopped an average of £2,300 off the price of its plug-in hybrid Passat GTE (the actual saving varies depending what model and spec you choose), a car made all-the-more newsworthy by the fact it’s just been given a mid-life facelift.
VW’S LONGEST-SERVING NAMEPLATE
To recap, the Passat was launched in 1973 and, now in its eighth generation, represents the longest continuously serving nameplate in the Volkswagen line-up (the Golf came in ’74). It’s available in saloon and estate configurations, with the latter outselling the former by two to one.
In terms of market positioning, the Passat is also the biggest fish in the fast-evaporating D-segment pond, where it outsells cars such as the Ford Mondeo, Vauxhall Insignia Grand Sport and Peugeot 508. Taking a close-up look at the 2020 Passat it’s not particularly difficult to see why. The styling is crisp and clean, and the quality evident in the heft of the doors and the solidity of the interior. In fact, in many regards it’s more like a rival to the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class than it is for anything from Ford or Vauxhall. And even then it scores marks over its fellow Germans by being so much bigger inside and having a longer list of standard equipment that includes, for example, LED headlights and wireless connection to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
WHAT’S CHANGED FOR THE 2020 PASSAT?
Truth is, not a great deal has changed under the skin of this 2020 Passat. On the inside, the infotainment has been upgraded and the analogue clock makes way for a Passat logo, and there’s some upgraded safety tech for the cruise control and lane assist systems. Under the bonnet meanwhile only one new engine makes an appearance in the form of a 2.0-litre ECO diesel that can shut down two of its cylinders when not needed in order to boost economy.
Elsewhere it’s more the case that existing drivetrains have been tweaked, including that of the plug-in hybrid GTE tested here. As before it matches a 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine with a lithium-ion battery and an electric motor. This time though VW has managed to eke a bit more all-electric range out of the GTE which, according to admittedly outdated NEDC economy figures has increased from 31 miles to 43 miles. Along with fuel economy of up to 217mpg (provided you plug in – a lot. If not less than 40mpg is possible), the powertrain’s other seeming advantage is a combined output of 215bhp. That might sound like a lot for what is ostensibly a ‘green car’, but bear in mind VW’s use of the GTE badge – and the associations this has with legendary GTI models – and it makes more sense. This, then, is a green car that ought to have a mean side, too.
IS THE PASSAT GTE SPORTY?
Only it doesn’t – and we are not merely talking about the way it goes, but also how it stops. This is because the consistency of the GTE’s brake pedal leaves a lot of be desired, particularly framed in the context of this car being an engaging drive. To be fair, this kind of thing isn’t unique to the Passat in the world of plug-in hybrids, and is a result of the car juggling regenerative braking (to help top up the batteries) with traditional pads and discs. Swapping between the two, with everything else that might be going on (steering, bumps, an erratic driver) is clearly not an easy job, and in the Passat it manifests itself as a weird, inconsistent feel through the middle pedal.
The steering’s not brilliant either – at least not in terms of delivering the build-up in weight that you crave from a performance car. Instead it’s light and has the slower rate of response you’d expect from an executive saloon such as, well, a Passat.
Perhaps what’s most enjoyable about the GTE is just how easy it is to access and use the various driving modes. Our test car was in ‘Advance’ specification with the larger of the two available touchscreen infotainment systems, and it makes experimenting with the onboard tech incredibly intuitive, whether that means dipping in and out of electric mode, reserving battery charge for later in your journey, or harnessing full power in GTE mode. Do so and the car gains pace very effectively, while the six-speed automatic gearbox gives you some control in terms of holding on to the revs or leaning on some engine braking as well. Driven at a moderate pace it’s an effective way to cover ground.
What it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, is sporty or involving. Again, that mostly comes down to consistency – or lack thereof – in how the car responds when you press the pedals, and specifically never knowing exactly how or when the engine, motor and gears will align to give you the intended forward thrust. What this essentially does is rob you of the immediacy that a car needs to be truly involving.
WHERE THE PASSAT EXCELS
Is that really such a bad thing, though? After all, if we are being honest, haven’t the Passat’s qualities always resided in it being the exact opposite of a sporty drive? Which is to say it should be smooth, quiet, and able to consume miles with the relaxed gait of an elite marathon runner. Viewed in that light it is easy to look more favourably on the GTE and the vault-like seal from the outside world that it provides. It’s a bit like a modern Volvo in that sense; a calm space to gather your thoughts at the end of a long day – particularly if you’ve specified the adaptive dampers for the best possible ride comfort.
The electric motor does add something here, too. It takes the form of a quiet sophistication and the knowledge that the battery-powered range really is sufficient to see you through the commute. And so while the gains for the 2020 Passat might small, they are nonetheless worthwhile. Business as usual for the veteran VW, in other words.
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