Merc’s entry-level hot hatch has grown a boot to take on the Audi S3 Saloon
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£26,430 when new
What’s this? The new VW Passat Bluemotion. It’s a spec-lite Passat Estate (though you can have a saloon too) with slipperier bumpers, a lower ride height, intergalactic gearing and a modest 1.6-litre diesel engine. Hardly an inspiring repertoire, true, but it’ll do a claimed 76.3mpg on the combined cycle, emit a tax-free 95g/km of CO2, and qualifiy for a paltry 17 per cent benefit-in-kind of tax. In layman’s terms, that means company fleet owners pay just 17 per cent of the car’s £24,695 in annual penance to the Chancellor. Handy numbers. Not quite given up of diesels yet then, VW? Not a bit of it, and neither have an army of buyers. Since ‘Dieselgate’ broke, VW’s European diesel sales have dropped by an earth-shattering, share-crumbling, um, four per cent. Hardly carmeggedon. Meanwhile, diesel’s share in the UK has actually grown by 5.6 per cent in 2016, despite petrol prices taking a dive.
Sounds like this car makes a lot of sense… In isolation, it does, but there is a problem. Which is? The Passat Bluemotion seems to want you to know, to feel, that you’re making sacrifices for its holy frugality. You climb in, perch yourself on the rough, grey fabric of the rather flat seats, and observe the fact there are ten blanked-off buttons visible on the dashboard. This is not a welcoming, kitted-out car. The car pictured flatters it – it’s a regular Passat Estate in the photos. Our test car got an optional 6.5-inch sat-nav, a reversing camera, parking sensors and adaptive cruise control. So at least we had a few things to play with. But otherwise, there’s manual air-con, an electric handbrake, electric mirrors, and that’s pretty much your lot it. Grey cabin, grey seats, and a feeling of (admittedly user-friendly and extremely well-built) dullness. Put it this way – a Ford Mondeo or Skoda Superb doesn’t make you feel like you’re actually being punished for picking such a sensible model. Neither do other Passats… Go on… A non-Bluemotion Passat might be a couple of mpg down, but it gets a much bigger toybox. Automatic lights are thrown in, as are parking sensors ,rain-sensing wipers, standard cruise control and an electric driver’s seat. Plus you don’t have to have the interior upholstered in Eeyore hide. So why would I buy this Passat? Because it’s a very, very easy car to pull impressive efficiency from. The 118bhp 1.6-litre engine is bit rattly especially when it’s cold, but if you’re willing to stroke the long-throw gearlever around to work around the tall gearing, you can make decent progress without - seemingly - consuming any fuel. Having covered 72 miles in the Bluemotion, the range computer hadn’t moved from a predicted 670 miles. It took 88 miles of motorway cruising before the fuel needle reluctantly creaked off the ‘full’ stop. And even with an hour of London traffic thrown in, a 70-mile round trip returned 56mpg. You could routinely score high 60s if you avoided gridlock. At a steady 70mph, I could maintain an indicated 82.6mpg. It’s almost a half-decent game to while away the gadget-free miles. Oh no! You’ve gone all sensible. We’re not done yet: the extra-long gearing means a 70mph cruise is held at below 1800rpm, so the engine sounds ever so distant, and there’s just a touch of wind noise around the mirrors to drown out with the radio. It’s supremely comfortable too – okay, the seats still feel cheap – but the lower suspension actually means the car turns in and deals with compressions more adeptly than a standard Passat, while making a smaller hole in the air to improve your economy. It’s a joyless piece of kit, this Passat, but one that’s very much on side when it comes to soaking up huge distances without fatiguing (or over-charging) its driver. One passenger remarked to me the dowdy but ecological Passat would make an ace minicab, and that’s actually a fairly high compliment. Really? Yes, because it echoes the feeling this VW’s built to last, and though you’d never relish driving it, if it’s what your employer or conscience demands, there’s a lot to be said for such an eminently worthy, sensible set of family wheels. Mind you, we’d probably plump for a posher Passat – or the even vaster Skoda Superb – if a fuel-allergic family wagon was on the TG shopping list.