An hour outside of Phoenix, hidden behind a giant, unassuming brown wall and some shrubbery sits Volkswagen's 1,600-acre Arizona proving grounds. Complete with a 4.7-mile high-speed oval and more than 200 employees, it's one of the Volkswagen Group’s eight manufacturing, design, and production facilities in the U.S. It’s also where the company stress tests almost every vehicle under its umbrella. That includes SEAT, Skoda, Bentley, and even Lamborghini.
The last time we got a crack at the facility was to test the Jetta prototype ahead of its debut. And now for the second time since 1992, Volkswagen invited journalists to VW invited journalists to its Phoenix-area facility to sample the 2020 Passat prototype. VW encouraged us to push it to its limits in a number of different settings: A dirt course, a high-speed oval, and over rough roads.
Like the Jetta, the Passat plays an important role in VW's U.S. lineup. After 40 years on the market, in one form or another, the company has sold more than 1.7 million examples in the United States. In 2011, VW moved Passat production from Germany to its then-new, $1.1-billion Chatanooga,Tennessee facility. The company has been pumping out Passats (and starting in 2017, Atlas's) since. This new-for-2020 model calls Chatanooga home, too, and will include a few U.S-specific elements when it comes off the line.
Gallery: 2020 Volkswagen Passat Prototype: First Drive
For one, it's larger – we thought the camouflage might be playing tricks on our eyes, but Volkswagen says U.S. safety regulations forced the company to stretch the car (VW didn't say by how much, though). In turn, that means it's also a bit heavier. That extra length should improve interior volume and trunk space on paper (though Volkswagen wouldn’t reveal that, either), but it was hard to distinguish any noticeable improvement from the driver or passenger seat. At any rate, the Passat still has a bunch of headroom and legroom relative to the segment.
Hidden under all that camouflage is a new sloped roofline. The sharp angle makes this new Passat “sportier and bolder than the outgoing model,” product manager for Passat, Kai Oltmanns, promises. We'll have to wait for the final product to decide for ourselves, though.
New 17-inch wheels come standard and 18-inch wheels are an option on mid-trim levels. Fans of the sportiest sedan should be pleased, too – the R-Line carries over for 2020 and gets Honda Accord Sport-like 19-inch wheels and other agro cues.
Don't pull up the Passat's sheet metal too far, though, because you won't find anything new underneath.
Don't pull up the Passat's sheet metal too far, though, because you won't find anything new underneath. It still rides on the same platform, not the rumored MQB found under cars like the Jetta, Golf, and Atlas. That means no all-wheel drive and no room for any I.D. electrified bits (the Passat also ditches the V6 permanently). The lack of VW’s popular modular architecture should be a clear indication of how much longer the car will survive in the brand’s lineup. Simply put, the company feels it can spend its money elsewhere (read: crossovers).
“This segment is shrinking, and we figured that we can give the customer all they need with the current platform instead of spending to switch to a new one,” Oltmanns says.
That said, the turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder under the hood of the Passat is still pretty good. Horsepower remains at 174, but torque gets a bump to 207 (from 184). That extra oomph gives the car more life – the Passat is now more eager to get off the line. Even slight throttle pressure will get the the big-bodied sedan moving.
Without MQB underneath, the Passat's cornering abilities remain limited. The mid-sizer meanders around amiably without an inkling of aggression, and the steering rack is extremely light. Not that either of those things are bad; the outgoing Passat prides itself on being the more comfortable option of the class, and that same thinking carries over to the new model. Even at 117 miles per hour on VW’s high-speed oval, the Passat was relatively quiet and comfortable. The only noticeable difference is damping; this one feels a bit tighter, more composed, and even a little stiffer.
At a glance, the new Passat probably won't be a game changer. Without a committed switch to Volkswagen’s MQB platform, the mid-sized sedan lethargically limps into a new model year without any major mechanical changes. But our small sample size doesn't tell the whole story.
VW promises better packaging and more available tech on the production version, which should keep things fresh. We know that the Passat will adopt an updated, more-responsive iteration of the current 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system on all trims, as well as other standard features like blind-spot assist, braking assist with pedestrian detection, LED headlights, voice control, app connect, and satellite radio.
Only four yet-to-be-disclosed trim levels will carry over to the new model, and previous range-topping options like lane assist, rain-sensing wipers, adaptive cruise control, ambient lighting, and navigation, will be available on mid-tier trims this time around. The 2020 Passat will debut early next year, before going on sale later in 2019. No word yet on pricing.