For someone new to the suburban desert, it’s a strange place. An endless loop of beige with the occasional flash of grass greener than anything you’ll see anywhere else in the world.
Scattered with nearly new houses that I know are finished in plaster but resemble an unpainted mass of oriented strand board. I imagine that for anyone from here who visited my home, the endless winter seas of leafless trees and fading green needles would be similarly jarring. Then it appears, suddenly much closer than I was expecting.
A wall. Painted the same color as the desert but made from corrugated steel instead of sandstone. It’s my destination, Volkswagen’s testing oasis in the Sonoran desert. It’s a mysterious destination, but I’m here for a mysterious drive.
A new Volkswagen Passat. But instead of shiny fresh paint, this car is wrapped in white vinyl with black swirls and patterns. Trying to make sure that the camera’s sensor can’t pick up on the changes to the sheet metal that accompany the latest and greatest midsize sedan from Volkswagen.
But it turns out that they needn’t have gone to such a great effort. We’re told that the bodywork is all-new, but under this skin, this is the Passat with which we’re already well familiar.
After sales of Volkswagen’s midsize sedan dropped from 523,576 vehicles from 1998-2005 to just 145,116 with the 2007-2010 B6 model, it was time for a change. A big change, in every sense of the word. A new model, built specifically for North America. Well, North America and for the Middle East and South Korea. Built in the USA, at a new plant opened at the same time in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A bigger car, inside and out.
With the NMS Passat, a completely different car from the B7 and later B8 sold in Europe, sales picked up. The automaker beat the four years of B6 chassis sales in a little over a year of the new model.
In 2015, it was time for a refresh. Some new styling, some new power plants, and call it a day.
Now, five years later, there’s a new NMS Passat due for 2020. So is this one another big change, or is it more of the same?
Well, as I already spoiled a few paragraphs ago, it’s time for more of the same at VW. Underneath that camouflage, 2020 will see the same NMS platform continue, instead of the much more modern MQB platform that sits under the Atlas and Golf.
ALSO SEE: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas V6 Review
The hard points, like the wheelbase and the width, aren’t changing. Volkswagen pointed out that the sedan market, especially the large sedan market, isn’t exactly growing these days. That means that the automaker needs to be smart with where it spends money in order to keep it a viable car.
So where are the changes? The company says that the changes are in places where the buyer will notice them. The first one we noticed is that the V6 is dead.
The 2.0L turbo-four will carry on, though. And it will get some America-friendly changes. Power will stay the same at 174 hp, but the engine’s torque will get a healthy increase from 184 lb-ft to 207.
That’s not a figure that’s going to change the world, but it’s a difference that drivers will probably notice. VW was still working on throttle calibrations on these cars, which hopefully explains why I found it to be a little too sensitive on tip-in. Or maybe that’s the old trick of more throttle right away to placate buyers who are missing the extra grunt of the formerly optional V6. Either way, once moving the car pulled well. It won’t give you a GTI-like shove, but it will move this big car with a little verve.
All the way to a top speed of somewhere around 115 mph. I say somewhere around there because checking your gauges while driving at 115 mph isn’t a great idea. Especially when you’re in the middle of the steep banking on Volkswagen’s 4.7-mile high-speed oval.
On the high banks and long straights of the oval, the Passat feels reassuringly steady. Far more steady than my nerves. Or my vision. Which decided that a normal-size highway lane suddenly looks much smaller when you’re on a side-slope you couldn’t walk up, trying not to stare at the sky just to your left, or the guardrail that’s even closer and that you’re actually steering slightly toward. Because the neutral speed of the banking, the speed where you can point the wheel straight and go around the corner, is higher than the top speed of the Passat.
ALSO SEE: 2019 Volkswagen Jetta Review
Back off of the banking and the brakes haul the car down in a hurry from that speed. And while the camouflage wrap would show it off well, there’s no sign of cooked brakes.
The Arizona Proving Grounds is more than just that high-speed track, though. And while we didn’t get to see a new Passat cut-up into its base components after a run through the corrosion test program, we were able to drive it on regular roads, a handling course, and some dirt roads designed to bring out the worst in the car.
On the handling course, the Passat showed more body roll than would be acceptable from a Jetta or a Golf, but that’s the tradeoff for the softer ride the car exhibited on the bad-pavement section. Somehow, in the middle of glass-pavement Arizona, Volkswagen has managed to construct a piece of pavement that resembles the worst that the frost cycles and poor maintenance of the salt belt has to offer. On bumps that use up every last inch of the car’s suspension travel, it’s comfortable without being floaty, much like the current model because, as we’re told, this is pretty much the same suspension. Volkswagen calls it giving buyers more of what they like.
So what does that mean? It means a lot of things we can’t see on our test car. Like a new 8.0-inch touchscreen for the center stack (replacing the current car’s 7.0-inch version). That’s even on the base model. There are more high-end features making their way down to the base car too.
Like the active safety suite. Blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alerts, front assist with pedestrian detection, lane assist, and LED headlights. All standard. But wait, as they say, there’s more! Volkswagen is going Amazing Discoveries and adding radar cruise, ambient lighting, and satellite radio to every trim.
All of those new features are hidden, but one we can see is a new dashboard design. The one we’re testing adds some red trim and some slight changes to the gauges. It’s also missing markings on the gas gauge, though that might not carry-over to production. What it wasn’t was VW’s digital cockpit display. They weren’t talking about that feature making the move, either, though that could be simply saving something to reveal later. The rest of the interior still looks and feels as solid as the current car.
Volkswagen says that the sheet metal is entirely new–though with the same hard points underneath, there’s only so much that you can change. They’re saying that the roof has been re-shaped to give it a more coupe-like appearance. Something just about every sedan is doing these days. That makes it a little tighter for headroom in the back, though you’ll have to be either well over six feet or made up almost entirely of torso to feel cramped. Legroom still looks to be near the top of the class, with lots of room to stretch out.
The grille of our car was covered in that same wrap, but it looks to be much wider and taller than before. Like a scaled-up version of the new Jetta’s grille. Underneath that main grille was a second mesh opening.
On the sides, the new Passat looks to have the same shoulder line as the current model, running from the edge of the headlight, above the door handles to the tail lights. And while that wrap does as good of a job at hiding details in person as it does in photos, the camera is missing one important thing that the person has. Fingers. Running my hands along the sides of the car drew some puzzled glances from our VW minders, but I’m sure I could feel a second character line. At the level of the door handles. Like the Jetta’s, though probably less prominent.
So that’s our secretive look at the 2020 Volkswagen Passat. If you were hoping for a better look at that new bodywork, then you probably won’t have long to wait. We were told that we would get to see the whole thing in a few weeks. It’s not going to be a revolution, but with the current turmoil in the sedan market, that’s little surprise. If you want something completely different, your VW dealer would be happy to direct you to an Arteon. Or an Atlas. Or maybe even an A6, depending on how cheeky your salesperson is and what kind of payment they think you can swing.