Volkswagen's latest Passat isn't quite as new as it looks. The German maker's obsession with grafting its corporate family face on everything with wheels has endowed the Passat with a very different look - in fact, every body panel, save the roof, is new.
The interior has also been upgraded, with even higher-quality materials and (real class this) an analogue clock inspired by the marque's Phaeton luxury sedan.
But underneath, the platform and suspension are carried over unchanged from the previous model. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just that seeing isn't always believing.
Now we've got that out of the way, the thing that really makes our test Passat interesting is its specification. Which sounds a bit dull, but it won't be if you're in the market for a mainstream mid-size sedan, because the new 118 TSI version featured here costs just $47,000 - cheaper than any Passat in the previous range and very competitive with more mainstream rivals from Japanese and Korean brands.
How's it done? The TSI 118 is powered by a 1.8-litre engine, which sounds modest, but thanks to VW's expertise with direct-injection technology and a turbocharger (that's the 'TSI' bit) it makes 118kW/250Nm and can hit 100km/h in just 8.5 seconds. Combined economy is 7.1 litres per 100km.
Petrol power is becoming a rarity among European models in this segment (the Passat turbo diesel is still under $50k, by the way), but pretty much the power of choice among Asian brands.
The powertrain, including VW's twin-clutch seven-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), is fantastic. The perky power delivery of the TSI engine and the snappy DSG are a perfect combination of performance and efficiency; this may be a small-capacity engine but you won't feel like you're missing out.
Nor will the neighbours be any the wiser, as VW has not stuck a '1.8' badge anywhere on the car.
The Passat is staggeringly refined and smooth, but certainly not sporty. The steering is light, the suspension set up for comfort, the 16-inch 55-series footwear prone to squealing if you push too hard.
That's okay: this car is more about pseudo-luxury travel than fast corners. The quality of cabin materials is absolutely stunning for the price, and though this is VW's entry-level Trendline trim you still get a multi-function leather-bond steering wheel, semi-climate air conditioning, Bluetooth preparation, cruise control and an eight-speaker stereo system with iPod adapter cable.
The Passat TSI 118 is a masterpiece of engineering and specification. But despite that, the styling and driving experience left me absolutely unmoved, which is a shame in a market so cluttered with interesting cars.
I have no hesitation in saying the Passat is the nicest family sedan you can buy for less than $50,000. Unfortunately, it's also the dullest.
It's just Superb
If we're talking Passat, the elephant in the room is the Skoda Superb. The VW-owned Czech brand offers a Superb TSI 118 with the same powertrain as the Passat for $1000 less.
The Skoda's styling has more character, although the cabin isn't quite as sophisticated. The Superb has better specification though: it boasts the Twindoor boot/hatch design and adds detail touches like rear parking radar (badly needed on the VW), dual-zone air-conditioning control and tyre pressure monitoring.
The bottom line:
Pleasingly quick, impressively economical, beautifully built and competitively priced: it's difficult to find fault with the Passat TSI 118. And even more difficult to get excited about it ...