25 August 2016

Review: Volkswagen Passat GTE

D'you know, I think I've gotten very tired of driving diesels, writes Brian Byrne. A thing that came home to me recently as soon as a few minutes after driving the Volkswagen Passat GTE.

The GTE is the one with a plug-in hybrid powertrain. A 1.4 TSI 155hp petrol engine with an electric motor in the system. And, leaving the hybrid out for the moment, it was just so pleasant to have the much quieter hum of a petrol motor ahead of me.

Sure, diesels have become very refined. Very quiet. Very well balanced, no longer shuddering the gear lever incessantly at idle. And seriously smooth to drive.

But maybe there's something about the more low-frequency grump of the oilburner that tips over into the unconscious. I'm sure there's an academic somewhere could come up with a thesis that it makes us growl a little more too?

The Passat is Europe's best selling medium saloon by a long shot, in a segment which has been in decline for some years because of the ongoing rampage of the SUV through all sizes of the passenger car. Though the mid-sized segment has shown some recovery in the first five months of 2016.

There are reasons why Passat should retain its position, despite VW's emissions-fueled and expensive reputational woes. In its current version, it has a simple elegance that appeals to a wide profile of buyers. It has a presence which its predecessor lacked, especially with the latest style of the current VW grille. With the GTE, that latter has a few tweaks in blue to signal the car's electric pedigree.

The overall style may not be as interesting as, for instance, Ford's current Mondeo, or as hyper-sculpted as Hyundai's i40, but it is pleasant, and won't date for some time, even as the share of second owners rise in due course.

The inside is familiar now. A fairly straight dashboard with full width vent appearance. The normal analogue main instrumentation, with the tachometer replaced by a more complex power/charge/boost readout. The infotainment screen with touch operation, radio stations displaying their logos. Very good speakers, too, by the by ... not something I bother to comment on, but maybe the system sounds better in a petrol car too?

Goes without saying, of course, that there's lots of room in the Passat. Front and rear, and a fine boot. Wouldn't be European best seller without all those, where people do much longer journeys than we do, and many of them with full families on board. That last also accounts for a growth in the estate versions of such cars in Europe, though not so much in Ireland.

The hybrid system has three modes. There's pure EV, up to certain speeds and acceleration load, and of course battery level. A full battery can theoretically take you over 40kms.

Then there's standard hybrid, which switches seamlessly between petrol and electric power, again depending on load and battery capacity, recharging the latter in various conditions such as over-run and braking.

Finally, there's using the engine full time and charging the battery without using it unless you push things hard into a 'boost' situation, where the electric motor adds power. There's also a fourth 'GTE' mode which steams up everything for a more sporty drive.

Because it's easier for all that switching, the transmission in the Passat GTE is a dual-clutch automatic, which adds to the overall enjoyment of a car of this size.

Other than it makes the bottom line on the finance application form rather higher than without them, all these electric options are invisible in real life use. I could have charged the battery at home from a standard 13amp plug, or at a fast charger in a nearby service station, but I didn't bother. I simply drove the car on 'charge battery' until it was full, then used it in EV mode for both short and longer journeys. If I owned the car, I'd use the plug-in a lot and petrol stations very little.

Unlike the Golf estate which failed to enthuse me a little while ago, I got into this car every time with a sense that I was going to enjoy the experience at a number of levels. The most important of these was that everywhere I went was an easy excursion, whether short and local or longer and strange spaces. Most of all it was comfortable. And blessedly without that underlying thrmmm of a diesel.

Many of the Passat GTE’s functions can optionally be controlled and monitored via smartphone using the ‘Car-Net e-Remote’ app. These include charging the battery, activating the air-conditioning functions or seeing where the car was last parked. The standard car comes with adaptive cruise control with autonomous emergency braking, satellite navigation, Bluetooth, parking sensors, LED headlights and a charging cable.

Prices for the Passat GTE start at €41,450 for the saloon and €43,715 for the estate and this includes an SEAI grant and VRT rebate.

Buying this over the non-hybrid entry 125hp petrol engine costs some €14,000 extra (but includes the autobox, and a significant amount of extra spec and power). Buying the diesel beyond the same petrol unit costs a couple of grand more. Both of those figures, along with a potential buyer's regular annual driving distances, will define which of the three variants should be bought.