One Week With the 2020 Volkswagen Passat R-Line Shows the Car’s Strengths

Automorbit, Cars – When people ask me what my job is, I’m never quite sure what to tell them. I rarely use my official title, senior editor, because it’s a bad habit in my industry that most writers are called editors. A lot of my colleagues use “automotive journalist,” but I’ve never quite embraced it; when I think journalist, I think Woodward and Bernstein. “Car critic” is probably closest to the mark—like a movie critic or a food critic. The problem is that it sometimes rings hollow, specifically when there is a car about which I can offer no criticism. Such is the case with the 2020 Volkswagen Passat R-Line I’ve just tested.

2020 Volkswagen Passat R-Line: More of the Same

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you the Passat has been a Volkswagen staple for decades. Back in 2012, VW split-off the North American Passat from the rest of the world, creating a bigger sedan that it built in its new factory in Tennessee. For 2020, the Passat got a “major-minor” update—basically new sheet metal (except the roof) and more equipment on the same old bones.

This drew criticism, because the new MQB platform, which underpins pretty much everything VW does, including the Jetta, Tiguan, Atlas, and Atlas Cross Sport, is a better-driving chassis. But that doesn’t mean the 2020 Volkswagen Passat R-Line’s old platform is bad. Indeed, during my test of it, the 2020 Passat turned out to be nearly everything I expect from a German sedan: direct, engaging, and comfortable. The latter is particularly noteworthy, precisely because my tester was a top-of-the-range R-Line model with big 19-inch wheels which could have, but did not, degrade the ride quality.

Reining-In the 2020 Volkswagen Passat R-Line

But I did say, “nearly everything I expect”? Because I managed to find one minor flaw: a bit of float over bumps at higher speeds. And higher speeds really were a bit of a problem for me. The 2020 Volkswagen Passat R-Line is powered by our old familiar friend, VW’s 2.0-liter, turbocharged, direct-injected four-cylinder engine. (It’s worth noting VW was an early adopter of the 2.0T format, and now that format is nearly universal.)

This faithful servant still delivers 174 hp, same as last year, but for 2020 VW bumped its torque, by 20 lb-ft, to 206. With its standard-fit six-speed automatic transmission, the 2020 Passat R-Line will get to 60 mph in a respectable 7.8 seconds, but it’s the wall of torque (and, well, okay, perhaps a COVID-related lack of traffic) that got me in trouble—seems the Passat likes to sneak up past 80 mph, and that’s where I started to feel the extra softness in the suspension. Not that I should be one to criticize—I too am showing softness with advanced age.

But the engine does return good fuel economy, and the big 18.5-gallon fuel tank, a relic from the days when the Passat was offered with a lusty-but-thirsty 280-hp V-6, gives it a nice long cruising range.

Inside, this 2020 Volkswagen Passat R-Line test-car is like a VW Greatest Hits album: Clear analog gauges (no video-screen dash option like on other VWs), three-dial climate controls, and a small but straightforward touchscreen stereo. Volkswagen installed a bunch of new safety tech for 2020, by the way; all Passats get collision warning with automatic braking and blind-spot monitoring, while the SE model and above get adaptive cruise, lane centering, and automatic high-beams

And let’s not forget that old Passat staple, the limousine-sized back seat, which is one of the basic reasons why the North American Passat differs from the MQB-based car sold in other markets. God bless the cheeseburger!

The bottom line is, I’ve tested-driven and critiqued cars for a lot of years now, and when it comes to the basics of getting a family of four or five where they need to go, there aren’t many cars that do it better than the Passat.

2020 Volkswagen Passat R-Line: Where It Could Be Better

Now, a lot of my fellow critics have found something to criticize—specifically the fact Volkswagen didn’t move the Passat to that new MQB platform. No question there would have been advantages. I’m sure my one itty-bitty complaint about the ride could be ironed out, and the 2020 Volkswagen Passat R-Line could probably get the fancy digital dashboard found in other VW models.

But I can also understand the reasons for sticking with the old platform, and they all come down to dollars and sense. Volkswagen has trumpeted its commitment to sedans in our market, but sedans are a dying breed, and we can understand the argument that it just doesn’t make sense to sink too much money into the Passat.

And while the Passat isn’t exactly a bargain—at least not at the higher trim levels—with a starting price below $24,000 and an all-in price of just more than $32,000, we can hardly accuse Volkswagen of price gouging. (Incidentally, in order to keep costs down, VW has gone the way of Honda: Most options have been eliminated, with the trim level–S, SE, R-Line, SEL–determining the Passat’s equipment level.)

Well, it’s true the 2020 Volkswagen Passat R-Line might be a better car if it was on the MQB platform. Maybe it would be even more engaging to drive, or have a little more backseat room, or more up-to-date tech. Maybe it’d make a stronger stand against newer competitors like Toyota’s Camry, Nissan’s Altima, or Honda’s crowd-pleasing Accord.

But the 2020 Volkswagen Passat driven for this test is solid—and this car critic simply can’t find anything worthwhile to criticize.

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