There’s no sign announcing Volkswagen’s Arizona Proving Grounds – just a high, sand-coloured wall and a guard post amid the dusty landscape of cotton fields and desert scrub outside Phoenix. Inside, however, camouflaged under a dizzying wrap of uneven black and white shapes, Volkswagen’s 2020 Passat is being readied for its debut.
When it is officially revealed in late 2019, the mid-size Passat will sport a full-body redesign, bringing it up to par with the new Jetta and forthcoming Arteon luxury sedan. It’s hard to tell exactly what the Passat’s sheet metal will look like under its current eye-boggling livery, but a peak behind the walls of the Proving Grounds suggests an altogether more dynamic appearance with front-end cues borrowed from the new Jetta.
“The stance of the car looks wider, it looks bolder, it looks sportier since it has a more coupe-style design,” says Kai Oltmanns, the manager of product marketing for Passat. Underneath this sporty new skin are a few additional tech, convenience and safety features now available at lower trim levels, including standard LED lights, blind-spot monitoring and an eight-inch infotainment screen with satellite radio. The engine will be the same 2.0 TSI four-cylinder with a six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission carried over from the outgoing model, still good for 174 hp. Buyers will have to look to the new Arteon for all-wheel drive.
The interior of the 2020 Passat – at least those parts not shrouded by stickers and heavy black felt – feels comfortable, functional and sturdy without inspiring awe, which is exactly where it needs to be to compete in the mid-size sedan segment. “We are targeting the Hondas, the Toyotas, the Hyundais with this model,” Oltmanns says. “Camry, Accord, Sonata, the outgoing Ford Fusion … Since there are a couple of brands that are leaving this segment, we are going after them.”
As Oltmanns notes, as a result of changing tastes and increasing pressure on automakers to invest in electric and autonomous technology, sedans appear to be going the way of the internal combustion engine. Ford, most notably, is scrapping all of its passenger cars for the North American market, while GM recently drew the curtains on its Buick Lacrosse, Chevy Cruze and Cadillac CT6 sedans as well as the plants that produce them. At VW’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, and the Chattanooga, Tenn., factory where the Passat is built, however, sedans remain a vital part of the future.
“When we talked to the customer a lot of them said, ‘An SUV is too big for us,’” Oltmanns says. “[The Passat has] more of what matters, especially when it comes to safety, reliability and cost of ownership.”
Behind the wheel, the new Passat shows itself to be an agile contender, ably tackling the rutted dirt road of the Arizona Proving Grounds’ “squeak and rattle” course (with blessed little squeaking or rattling to be heard) and holding its own at over 150 km/h on the banked, NASCAR-style oval.
As with every new vehicle Volkswagen puts out into the world, the 2020 Passat has undergone an exhaustive battery of tests over the course of its development, many of them here in Maricopa. While the company maintains a number of R&D, engineering and testing facilities around the world – including a cold-weather track in Fairbanks, Alaska – Arizona’s blazing summer temperatures and arid climate assists engineers in determining how everything from spot welds to paint to interior plastic will hold up over the course of a vehicle’s life.
In addition to being left to bake under the harsh Arizona sun, vehicles are parked in a drive-in freezer before being run flat-out on the Proving Grounds’ high-speed track and spend months being subjected to a ruinous circuit of salt baths, humidity and gravel roads to ensure corrosion resistance. It’s a truly impressive ordeal. For the new Passat to emerge from this gauntlet refreshed, renewed and sporting updated sheet metal is great news for sedan-lovers (a small segment they may be). It may just be the blazing desert sun, but here in Arizona, the Passat’s future looks bright.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.
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