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Mark Savage's auto review column, Savage On Wheels, looks at a new vehicle every week and tells consumers what’s good, what’s not so good, and how the vehicle fits into the marketplace.

2020 Volkswagen Passat SEL Review

Mark Savage
The 2020 Volkswagen Passat SEL is a handsome roomy sedan with decent power, good handling and excellent ride.

When was the last time you heard of a car costing less than it did three years ago?

I’m betting never, unless it was a 3-year-old used car.

Well, Volkswagen is making a big push again in the U.S. You’ve likely seen its ads for the new Atlas Cross Sport crossover. Yet VW hasn’t abandoned sedans like most U.S. car makers. And its restyled 2020 Passat is not only a crisply styled sedan, it’s less expensive than when I drove a comparable SEL three years ago.

READ: 2019 VW Arteon 2.0T SEL 4Motion Review

The 2020 Passat SEL, its top trim level, retails for $32,015, including delivery. The previous SEL went for roughly $35,000.

There is a key difference. The mid-size Passat now offers but one engine choice. Gone is the 280-horse V6 that made Passat a rocket. In its place is VW’s fine, torque rich 2.0-liter turbocharged I4. It’s rated at 174 horsepower but torque has jumped 22 lb.-ft. to a 206 rating. That’ll get your attention if you tromp the gas pedal.

No denying the 6-cylinder was quicker, but for most of us lugging the family around town to drum or tennis lessons, this turbo I4 does the job. Get heavy on the gas and the I4 will grumble a little louder but pull the front-drive Passat up to highway speeds easily. Its 6-speed automatic probably should be a more efficient 8-speed, but retaining the 6-speed helps keep production costs down. It’s a little sluggish shifting sometimes, mostly in the 20-40 mph range. It’s fine off the line.

Credit Mark Savage
According to the EPA, the Passat is tested at 23 mpg on city road and 34 mpg highway. With a mix of both the test vehicle got 30.9 mpg.

Plus gas mileage remains attractive, rated at 23 mpg city and 34 mpg highway by the EPA. That’s down a bit from earlier Passats with an I4, but the car has gained 40 lbs. worth of electronics, sound deadening, etc. I managed an impressive 30.9 mpg in about 60% highway and rural road driving.

The Passat, made in Chattanooga, Tenn., rides on a 110.4-inch wheelbase that coupled with a fine multi-link rear suspension delivers a comfortable well-controlled ride. I ran the Passat over a Wisconsin Rustic Road that can shake loose tooth fillings in many cars. The Passat cruised the road like a near luxury sedan.

It also handles well, with quick light steering. There is a bit of body lean in fast tight turns, but generally the feel is sporty. Braking was impressive too with 12.3-inch discs up front and 10.7-inch discs in back.

For the record, AWD is not available in any trim though.

Inside, the Passat is quiet with little road noise and only moderate wind noise. Fit and finish are good featuring black leatherette seats with gray stitching and a black dash and doors with fake wood trim. The center stack features gloss black trim, also by the shifter, while the rest of the console is a matte silver.

The biggest surprise may be the dash. Folks used to tall dashboards with giant infotainment screens that protrude several inches above the dash will be amazed by VW’s elegant low, lean unit that creates great sightlines. The screen is built into the stack or dash’s face and is an ample 8-incher, while a 6.3-inch unit comes on the entry level model.

The screen is simple to use with large touchscreen buttons along the sides, plus there are tuning and volume knobs. The SEL comes with a navigation system too and a Fender premium sound system with subwoofer.

Credit Mark Savage
The Passat's interior features black leatherette seats and an elegantly low dash.

Seats are well-shaped, comfortable and powered in the SEL, plus there’s a power lumbar support for the driver and three memory buttons too. Likewise, both front seats are heated with three levels available. Rear seats are heated too.

Head and legroom are spacious front and rear and Passat has a giant 15.9 cubic foot trunk usually not found on anything but full-size cars or mid-size crossovers.

Another surprise inside is a D-shaped, or flat-bottom steering wheel. This provides a sportier look plus allows a bit more knee room. There is not a heated wheel though and the tilt/telescope steering column is thick, so for short drivers can create tight knee room when exiting the vehicle. Longer-legged drivers will be fine as they will sit further back from the wheel, their knees lower.

There are plenty of electrical hookups here, but no wireless phone charger. VW includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connections though.

Overhead is a power sunroof and manual shade, plus VW includes the basic electronic safety features we expect, blind-spot warning and smart cruise being most useful. There also is an intelligent crash response system, SOS button overhead, and an automatic post-collision braking system. No lane departure assist or warning here, but that puts driving back in the driver’s hands and I’m fine with that.

Credit Mark Savage
The Passat starts at $23,915 and with the SEL goes all the way up to $32,000.

Volkswagen also now offers two years of free maintenance with Passat, along with a four-year, 50,000-mile warranty. Oh, and Passat has earned a 5-star crash rating.

Really $32,000 is quite a bargain in the mid-size car market, on the scale of $1,000-$2,000 less than the market-leading Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

But if you want to save even more money the Passat S starts at $23,915 with delivery and the SE at just $25,845 and comes with a few more goodies we’d all likely want. And there’s an R-Line model for the VW buyer looking for a bit racier trim. It adds a small spoiler, rear diffuser and 19-inch tires, up from standard 18-inchers. The R-Line starts at $29,565.

Bottom line, if you want a mid-size sedan with crisp styling, great ride and elegant interior, plus save some cash in the bargain, check out VW’s new Passat.

Overview: 2020 Volkswagen Passat SEL

Hits: Handsome roomy sedan with decent power, good handling and excellent ride. New interior looks more elegant, low flat dash, easy info screen use, heated front seats, flat-bottom wheel, and quiet. Also a sunroof, blind-spot warning and smart cruise, good sight lines and a big trunk.

Misses: Tight knee space under thick steering column when exiting, no wireless phone charger or heated steering wheel. Some engine noise under heavy acceleration.

Made In: Chattanooga, Tenn.

Engine: 2.0-liter turbo I4, 174 hp

Transmission: 6-speed automatic w/Tiptronic

Weight: 3,325 lbs.

Wheelbase: 110.4 in.

Length: 193.6 in.

Cargo: 15.9 cu.ft.

MPG: 23/34, 30.9 (tested)

Base Price: $32,015 (includes delivery)

Invoice: $30,740

Major Options: None

Test Vehicle: $32,015

Sources: Volkswagen, Kelley Blue Book

Editor's note: Mark Savage's auto review column, Savage On Wheels, looks at a new vehicle every week and tells consumers what’s good, what’s not so good, and how the vehicle fits into the marketplace.

Mark Savage writes the auto review column, Savage On Wheels, for WUWM (formerly for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) and Savageonwheels.com. He is the former executive editor of American Snowmobiler magazine and FineScale Modeler magazine, both part of Kalmbach Media in Waukesha.
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