Good: classy interior with loads of oddments space, great economy
Not so good: compromised ride comfort, no rear parking sensors
Remember when four-door family saloons were the car to have? Every household in Ireland aspired to own one and the badge on the bonnet was the indicator of how well you were doing. Now, the saloon segment is in decline. It's being attacked from above and below by crossovers and SUVs of all shapes and sizes as buyers seek to drive something a little more interesting. The mass-market manufacturers are being hit hardest of all, as brands on the up (e.g. Hyundai, Kia and Skoda) ratchet up their ambitions in line with ever-improving product, while the premium manufacturers (such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz) widen their portfolios to include those on a lower budget.
The Volkswagen Passat is one model in the midst of this turmoil, and though it retains its second place (in its class - to the Toyota Avensis) in the new car sales charts, the absolute number of sales is dwindling. That probably explains the arrival of a new specification called Edition-R.
This is a trim line (sitting between Comfortline and Highline) rather than a sporty new standalone model and buyers have the choice of 1.6- or 2.0-litre TDI diesel engines. Both come with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, though the latter 140hp option may be specified with Volkswagen's DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission. We tested the former, powered by the venerable 105hp TDI unit. And I believe this is the first time we've come across a car that uses a six-speed manual gearbox in conjunction with this engine.
It should be a perfect match. We've oft lamented the lack of a sixth ratio when cruising in a myriad of Volkswagen Group cars powered by this engine. And it does work very well on the motorway. However, away from that environment the gearing feels oddly high, meaning that even second gear sometimes feels too high for low-speed situations. No doubt this was in a bid for efficiency and the Band A4 taxation due to low emissions will appeal to private and fleet buyers alike. It's also worth pointing out that, back-to-back on the same day we obtained very similar fuel consumption figures for the Edition-R model as we did the 'eco special' BlueMotion variant.
So is the Edition-R worth €4,500 more than that car? Well obviously a big part of that price goes towards the styling - and the Passat BlueMotion looks quite weedy next to this car. That's thanks to new bumpers, sporty 17-inch alloy wheels, a small boot spoiler and a 15mm lower ride height. The interior is even more special thanks to the two-tone 'Kyalami' sports front seats and a distinctly sporty looking leather-rimmed steering wheel. A bright silver finish is used on the dashboard, door trims and centre console too, which helps modernise the already aging Passat cabin.
Our test of this car did reinforce how well thought out the interior is though. There are more useful nooks and crannies dotted around the cockpit than in most rival cars and the perceived quality is first class. It's quite spacious too with a large 565-litre boot.
Comfortable as the interior is, the Edition-R specification does detract from the Passat's usual cushy ride. It sits on sports suspension, which combines with lower profile tyres than the regular models to introduce more body movement and more jarring at low speeds. It's not what you'd call uncomfortable, but it's worth being aware of the compromise. In return the Passat feels a little sportier with firmer body control through the corners, but it's not a car keen drivers will get excited about.
Indeed, the Edition-R is more about giving the humble four-door saloon a little more cachet than it is attracting car enthusiasts. It does that, but the premium to pay may be too much to stomach for those that are already seriously considering alternative body styles.