When I was a child growing up in the eighties, the only people I ever recall seeing behind the wheel of a Volkswagen Passat were the elderly. Throughout the years, South-Africans missed out on a few generations of the bigger VW, but many of the initial models that were traveling our roads way back then are still treasured possessions to many. It was only with the fifth generation that the Passat badge was reintroduced to our shores, and while there wasn’t anything wrong with the car per se, it never really took off again on the sales charts. A roomy, family-sized car, Passat has grown in every aspect: overall length is up 62mm (to 4,77m), width is up 74mm (to 1,82m) and height with 10mm (to 1,47m). But let’s be honest from the start – the Passat isn’t aimed at anyone below thirty five who is single, childless and generally considered fabulous. No, it is more suited to middle-aged professionals with a child or three; someone relatively conservative who finds a BMW too flashy but doesn’t have the extra cash for a Mercedes Benz.

From the outside, the car is fairly easy on the eye with plenty of VW’s new design language visible. The rear light clusters instantly remind you of their flagship-model, the Phaeton, while the front features the trademark smiley-grille in an almost over-the-top chrome finish. In terms of exterior design I only have two gripes, with the first one being the chrome finishing on the grille (a feature that’s apparently on the way for all Volkswagen models). It is fortunately not used on too big a surface, but I think it’s a bit much for the Passat’s traditional conservative elegance. What really bothers me though is the car’s rear styling – the straight diagonal lines of the back doors make the boot look out of proportion, almost as if it has been taken from another car. That aside, I found the Passat to be elegant enough for the market it’s aimed at, and it has a surprising amount of presence on the road.

Based on a stretched version of the Golf platform (as opposed to the previous generation’s link with the Audi A4), the increase in size has allowed VW to give the front and rear occupants even more leg, shoulder and head room. The Passat’s interior is designed to provide maximum safety and comfort to its occupants and many of its features – most derived from the Phaeton – add value to the pleasure of driving. For starters, there is no need to turn the key anymore as the ignition is now switched on by pressing a button on the dashboard. In Highline trim the Passat is fitted with sport seats that are height and reach adjustable with electrically adjustable lumbar support. Nappa-leather with standard seat heating is optional while electric windows, climatronic air-conditioning, a heated rear window and slightly tinted windows are standard. In terms of safety features, each Passat comes standard with front, side and lateral head airbags, cruise control, ABS brakes, an anti-spin regulator (ASR), ESP with brake assist, EBD and an electronic park brake (EPB). Park distance control, satellite navigation and a Bluetooth telephone interface is optional across the range.

Fitted with Volkswagen’s renowned 2.0-litre turbo diesel engine (transversely mounted this time), the Passat has 103kW’s of power available at 4000rpm and 320Nm’s of torque at on 1750rpm. With so much torque being available at such low revolutions, the Passat has surprising sprint performance, reaching 100km/h from standstill in 9,8 seconds before topping out at 209km/h. Considering this amount of performance, Volkswagen’s claimed consumption figures of a mere 5,9-litres per 100km when fitted with the manual gearbox is especially impressive. When fitted with the brilliant DSG gearbox, Passat will produce the same performance figures, but its combined fuel consumption figure goes up to 6,6 litres per 100km.

In the South African market, Passat is a bit of an oddball. Traditionally it is falls more in the middle-executive class, yet in sixth generation guise also fights the battle in the small luxury car segment. The Passat 2.0TDI Highline retails at the higher end of the mid-exec market, with prices being R252 000 and R265 000 respectively, and depending on your gearbox of choice. Compared to its traditional competitors, you can get an Alfa Romeo 156 in either 1.9JTD or 2.4 JTD Lusso guise for R235 000 and R251 000 respectively, while Peugeot’s 407 2.0 HDI will set you back R249 000. People in the market for a mid-exec car will hopefully go for the Passat as it really does exude a lot more class and sophistication than its previously-mentioned competitors. Add to that the trusted Volkswagen name and in theory you have a winner.

The question in my mind is, however, whether people will settle for conservative elegance when they can have stunningly modern automotive masterpieces. Take the Volvo S40 2.0D as an example; last year’s car of the year in diesel guise will cost you R12 000 less than the Passat. For a mere R6 500 extra, you can also get an Audi A4 2.0TDI. And if your budget’s not too tight, BMW’s brand new 320d – another 2006 COTY nominee – and Merc’s C220 CDI are also very worthy options at R274 500 and R290 000 respectively. Yet again it comes down to brand perception and brand loyalty. As a whole, the Passat is a good car that will undoubtedly satisfy the traditional Passat enthusiast. Once they’ve become accustomed to the chrome grille. Unfortunately I seriously doubt whether it packs enough punch to take the title.

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