Review update: 2020 Volkswagen Passat SEL is a chucker

April 29, 2020

The 2020 Volkswagen Passat is a mid-size sedan caught between two times. Even though it has a fresh design and the necessary safety upgrades, it rides on an old platform and is powered by an outdated powertrain. It’s what I feel like when I lace up new basketball shoes, then step onto the court. 

The redesigned sedan looks much better on the court than I do, though. Its limited moves limit its TCC Rating to a 5.6, which is not enough to impress in a segment bursting with great options, from the redesigned 2020 Hyundai Sonata to the stalwart Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Even Volkswagen is unsure how much the Passat has left in its tank; it has the same underpinnings as the old model and doesn’t get the powertrain and technology options available on its more popular crossover SUVs. 

But there’s value to be found in the Passat. It costs nearly as much as the 2018 lineup despite more standard safety technology and its new skin. 

Hit: Stylish front end

The long wheelbase and short overhangs of the redesigned Passat give it a sporty look, and the range-topping SEL trim I tested came with muscular 18-inch alloy wheels. The slim head- and taillights are connected by clean body lines front to back, and the grille is neither too bold nor too broad, which is refreshing at a time when designers have gone overboard on garish grilles. It’s a clean, attractive design but it doesn’t carry over to the cabin. 

Miss: Staid cabin

This is where the Passat feels like a mid-range jumper in a three-point era. The SEL trim pulls out niceties such as heated leather seats and the cabin has a spacious feel, thanks in part to a slim center console. But the fake wood trim underscores an uninspired effort awash in black plastic. The horizontally stretched dash is clean, but its centerpiece is a 6.3-inch touchscreen that has more bezel than screen. It might’ve impressed a decade ago. The backup camera display looks like my smartphone before I increased the font for everything. The SEL should be the captain of the lineup but it feels like a plain, almost dowdy, tagalong. It is roomy, however, and the trunk space is one of the best in the class at 15.9 cubic feet. 

2020 Volkswagen Passat SEL

2020 Volkswagen Passat SEL

2020 Volkswagen Passat SEL

2020 Volkswagen Passat SEL

2020 Volkswagen Passat SEL

2020 Volkswagen Passat SEL

Hit: Simpler spread

The lack of flourishes on the Passat SEL reflect a simplified lineup compared to rivals. It comes in S, SE, R-Line, and SEL, starting under $24,000 and topping out at about $32,000, including destination. That’s about $3,000 less than top trims from competitors. There’s no hybrid, or all-wheel drive, or engine upgrades, and the options are pretty much limited to accessories. The pricing is simple and straightforward, which can be a relief.  

Miss: Dawdling powertrain

The Passat moves by a dawdling 2.0-liter turbo-4 with a 6-speed automatic transmission that makes 174 horsepower and 206 pound-feet of torque. There isn’t much pedal travel on the accelerator, which makes it seem kinda responsive at highway speeds until you notice your foot is through the floor. Switching the gear lever to manual mode improves the responsiveness. From a stop, grind that pedal through the floor and as the turbocharger spools up the Passat seems to ask if that’s really what you want to do. The 6-speed is a throwback, like short shorts, knee-high white socks, and big mustaches on the basketball court. It welcomes late shifts at 6,000 rpm under throttle but in less aggressive driving, the switch from second to third can be long, late, and inconsistent with how it feels at other times. But, it rides low to the ground and has a sportier driving position than many other vehicles.

Performance probably isn’t the main concern for American shoppers. Value is the Passat’s strength. The base models include automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitors, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, the same 6.3-inch touchscreen on the SEL, and an impressive 4-year/50,000-mile warranty with two years of free maintenance. 

Just like it would be hard to put money behind me on the court, the SEL doesn’t earn our money either. 


2020 Volkswagen Passat 2.0 SEL

Base price: $ 23,915 including $920 destination

Price as tested: $32,015

Drivetrain: 174-hp 2.0-liter turbo-4 with a 6-speed automatic 

EPA fuel economy: 23/34/27 mpg

The hits: Good looks, good value

The misses: Staid cabin, dawdling powertrain.

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