First drive: The Volkswagen Passat GTE is a comfortable and refined premium plug-in hybrid
Volkswagen has updated its plug-in hybrid with a bigger battery. Darren Cassey heads to Frankfurt to give it a go
What is it?
The Passat GTE is the petrol-electric plug-in hybrid version of Volkswagen’s hugely popular executive car. If you know the German firm’s nomenclature well, you might be excited by the prospect of sportiness thanks to those GT letters, but don’t get your hopes up – this is a sedate, laid back car best-suited to racking up effortless motorway miles.
That makes it perfectly suited to this segment, though, with almost 78 per cent of sales expected to go to company car fleets. This GTE model will be mighty appealing, then, because its low emissions make it favourable to business buyers. As such VW reckons it’ll make up a quarter of sales.
This being a mid-life facelift, in terms of overall updates to the Passat, it’s a case of evolution over revolution. There are updated engines and minor styling tweaks, and the Passat is the first VW to get the firm’s new semi-autonomous driver aid called Travel Assist. It’s great for stop/start traffic in particular, but while it works fine at speed, it’s some way behind similar systems used by the likes of Audi and Mercedes.
The big news, though, is this plug-in hybrid model. While it uses the same petrol engine as before, the battery has a larger capacity, which means it can travel further on EV power and potentially offer economy improvements.
What’s under the bonnet?
The hybrid system is made up of a battery and electric motor that combine with the 1.4-litre petrol engine to make 215bhp. Few other technical figures have been released, but it’s a sprightly set-up that feels plenty quick, while also settling into a relaxed cruise when necessary.
Volkswagen has revealed one important figure, though, and that relates to the battery. It’s 31 per cent bigger than before with a capacity of 13 kWh, so it can travel further on pure electric. Its range is 34 miles on the new WLTP test cycle – for perspective, it would be 43 miles on the old test, up from 31.
What’s it like to drive?
We’ve become so used to driving these electrified models that the biggest compliment we can pay the GTE is that it’s wholly unremarkable to drive. In fact, after driving the petrol and diesel engine versions, hopping in the GTE makes for a quieter, more refined experience, with its electric motors providing great response at lower speeds.
Around town this makes it ideal, as despite its size it’s easy to nip around in traffic and makes navigating traffic more serene. You can also switch between pure electric or full-power hybrid modes at the touch of a button, or let the car juggle the mix as it sees fit. If you have a destination plugged into the sat nav, it’ll even look at your journey to figure out how to best use battery power to maximise economy.
However, it’s not totally perfect – the brake pedal has inconsistent travel depending on the amount of battery regeneration, while the petrol engine is quite an old unit that’s not the quietest.
How does it look?
The Volkswagen Passat is pitching itself as a premium executive car, hoping to nudge its way into the sights of Audi and Mercedes-Benz owners, rather than more mainstream options such as the Mazda 6 and Ford Mondeo.
Gone is the dubious it-has-GT-in-the-name-it’s-sporty-honest styling of early electrified VWs, and in its place is a much less exciting but perhaps more suitable exterior styling pack.
It’s largely successful, with sharp, simple lines giving off an air of sophistication without trying too hard to shout about its eco credentials. In fact, if you didn’t notice the badging, you’d be hard-pressed to tell it apart from its more-polluting siblings.
What’s it like inside?
Inside, it’s the same no frills look as the outside. It does a good job of hanging on to the coat tails of more premium rivals, with modern styling and soft-touch materials used throughout, but there are a few cheaper-feeling items dotted throughout that mean it’s just not quite up there with the best.
It’s not far behind, though, and the Passat’s interior wins plenty of points in important places. For example, there’s loads of space for both front and rear passengers, build quality is excellent, and the latest infotainment system is one of the best out there. There really are few complaints to be had here, especially when you consider that the (as-yet unconfirmed) starting price will be less than for the outgoing model.
What’s the spec like?
UK specifications have not yet been revealed, but the generic European trim levels we’ve seen indicate that everything other than the very base model should be well-equipped. With the GTE having its own specific trim level and being a touch more expensive than standard cars, all GTEs should have plenty of kit.
What we do know is that Travel Assist, the basic semi-autonomous driving aid, will be standard on all trim levels, as is smartphone integration, LED headlights and taillights and safety equipment such as front collision assist. European GTE models get an upgraded infotainment system, three-zone climate control and a leather steering wheel, so expect similar details in the UK.
Since its introduction in the 70s, the Passat has sold more than 30 million units. Although its popularity is waning because everyone’s buying SUVs these days, this updated plug-in hybrid model makes a compelling case for the executive car.
Brake pedal inconsistencies aside, the Passat GTE is fantastic to drive, incredibly economical if you can keep the batteries topped up, and there’s loads of space. Particularly for company car buyers, the low benefit-in-kind will be hugely appealing. Fortunately, being kind to your wallet doesn’t mean compromising on quality.
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