What are you driving?
This is the latest version of the Volkswagen Passat GTE, the half-electric, plug-in hybrid version of VW's evergreen family saloon. As with the rest of the conventional Passat range, it's been given a mild update for 2020. That includes some lightly revised styling - most noticeable in the shapes of the new Matrix LED lights and the front bumper - and some extra electronic driver aids that allow it to guide itself for a few seconds at a time on main roads. Specifically, the GTE benefits from a new battery with more power density - the 13kWh battery now has 31 per cent more capacity than the previous model - allowing it an electric-only range of up to 56km, and scarcely-believable fuel consumption of 1.2 litres per 100km (218mpg). Now, clearly, that latter number should be filed next to the local bus timetable under 'fiction', but it does show how far plug-in hybrid tech has come, as that figure was achieved under the tougher WLTP economy test.
Inside, there have been some subtle updates too. There is the latest MIB3 infotainment system that brings with it much-expanded connectivity, both connecting the car to the internet and your smartphone, and connecting your devices to the internet via the onboard hotspot. You'll probably just ignore all of that and connect your phone to use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, of course, but it's impressive stuff, and the screen graphics are crisp and expensive looking. There's also a new steering wheel, which uses touch-and-brush-sensitive panels that allow you to access more functions and work through the trip computer and the options for the big digital instrument screen. The old analogue clock has also been removed from the centre of the dash (shame) and replaced by a neatly-scripted Passat logo, which is backlit. Speaking of lights, there is also LED interior mood lighting, with a choice of 30 colours (blue's the best - don't @ me).
On the outside, the GTE gets a body kit that mimics much of the styling of the sporty R-Line Passat, plus 17-inch alloy wheels as standard (our test car came with optional 18-inch rims). Standard kit also includes Nappa leather seats and steering wheel, a rear-view camera, three-zone climate and adaptive cruise control.
Name its best bits
I think, first off, we need to point out just what a good-looking car the Passat is. Yes, it is a simple three-box saloon shape, and therefore arguably pretty ordinary. But in a street mise-en-scène that is now populated mostly by bulky SUVs and crossovers, the Passat's more traditional shape looks rather enticingly sleek and appealing. No, it's not quite as good looking as, say, a Mazda6 or a Peugeot 508, but it is rather handsome all the same.
The same goes for the interior. Yes, it's basically the same cabin that we've become familiar with in this generation of Passat since it was first launched in 2015, and it's not - visually - all that different from the cabin of the previous generation B7 model. Still, the overall layout and design are nice. Everything is neat and clear, and well laid out. Can I say that the controls all fall easily to hand? No, I can't because it's a terrible motoring writing cliché (but they do). Actually, the only ergonomic snafu is that there's an over-reliance on the 9.2-inch touchscreen for some functions. As some other car makers have shown, a mix of screen and physical buttons works better.
Comfort levels are exceptionally high (as befits a car that was once the preserve of the nation-striding sales rep, you could spend all day in those seats and not feel the worse for it) and quality is off-the-scale good. If you think that only premium-badge brands 'do' quality properly, have a look here.
The plug-in hybrid powertrain is also broadly impressive. For a start, toggle the driving mode selector to GTE (effectively the Passat's 'Sport' setting) and performance is muscular, as befits a car with 218hp and 400Nm of torque. Thanks to the electric motor's instant-on torque, the Passat GTE shunts forward eagerly from low speeds, and doesn't overly run out of puff when you extend your right calf muscles.
Of course, that's not how it's supposed to be driven. Plug the GTE in regularly, as if it were a mobile phone, and you should be able to go for at least 35km with no assistance from the 1.4 TSI petrol engine. With practise and restraint, I'd say you'd get that figure closer to 50km. That's enough for most people to do most of their daily driving with no hydrocarbon help whatsoever.
In terms of handling and dynamic performance, the Passat here treads a relatively careful middle ground. In standard form, the Passat is actually a better steer, and a more entertaining car to drive, than you'd imagine. In the GTE, that is dialled back slightly by the need to cope with the extra mass of the battery and the electric powertrain, but it's still - in relative terms - rewarding, and never feels anything less than impressively slick.
It's also quite well priced. Expensive, certainly, but not such bad value once you take its €7,500 worth of rebates into account, and it compares well - especially in equipment terms - to the likes of the BMW 330e.
Anything that bugs you?
There's a caveat to the Passat GTE that goes equally for every plug-in hybrid model we've driven - you've got to keep it plugged in. As I said above, think of it like an early-generation smartphone, and plug it in whenever there's an opportunity to do so. Drive it as a plain hybrid, and the GTE's weight counts against it, and fuel economy suffers. Now, it's not too terrible when you do so. We managed around 7.0 litres per 100km when running with little-to-no charge in the battery, which isn't fabulous but equally not appalling. Plug it in regularly and use the electric part of the powertrain to its fullest and you could likely cut that consumption figure in half.
Oh, and you should buy the estate GTE, not the saloon - it's better looking and more practical.
And why have you given it this rating?
Take the usual caveat about plug-in hybrid as given - you have to 'buy-in' to the electric part of the car, and make sure it's plugged in and charged up as often as possible - and the Passat GTE is impressive. Quite apart from its handsome styling and well-appointed cabin, it's good to drive, and the hybrid powertrain is effective, once you learn how best to make use of it.
There is, of course, the question of whether or not a plug-in hybrid is quite enough anymore - should we be skipping over such technology and focusing on pure electric cars? The answer is not a simple one. Ideally, yes, pure-electric is better, but given the continuing paucity of public charging points in Ireland, we think that the plug-in hybrid capability of the Passat GTE is still hugely relevant for a great many Irish buyers, as it means longer journeys can be more easily undertaken, but shorter local journeys can be done on fully electric power.
What do the rest of the team think?
Neil makes a great point about the appearance of the Passat. What was once a restrained design has matured into something that stands out on the road next to all the SUVs and crossovers. And the GTE add-ons look good, too. The new Passat's upgraded interior is lovely, as well, with lots of connectivity options for buyers to discover over time. Owners of the older GTE will really appreciate the battery capacity upgrade and, as Neil said, plug-in hybrids have never been more relevant to Irish buyers. The only negative thing I have to say about the car, really, is something Neil alluded to - it's not in the least bit sporty to drive (straight-line performance aside, which is impressive). The suspension favours comfort and cruising over spirited cornering. To me, the GTE badge promises a bit of the latter as well. Anyway, most people don't care about such things, I realise, and there's a lot to recommend about the Passat GTE as a package for 2020.
Shane O'Donoghue - Editor
Aside from echoing what Neil already said about having to keep the Passat GTE plugged in as much as possible to maximise electric-only driving, the Volkswagen is one of those cars that you would happily undertake a cross-country journey in and it would convey you there in total comfort. It offers every bit as much, and often more, practicality as an SUV and the lure of low tax and potentially low running costs make this a very appealing prospect - and not only for company car users.
Dave Humphreys - Road Test Editor