Volkswagen Passat VS Subaru WRX
- Awesome fun
- Wagon practicality
- Feature laden
- Not cheap
- Interior a little dated
- Destined to be underappreciated
- Huge AWD fun
- Signature turbo engine
- Still decent safety
- CVT auto. Really?
- Feeling old inside
- Rough around town
Is life prying a hot hatch from your cold, dead hands? The story haunts car enthusiasts and echoes through time.
Family life has come knocking, so the go-fast hatchback must go, ultimately to be replaced by something more ‘sensible.’
Don’t worry, though, life isn’t over yet, you don’t have to kick around a dealership letting the depression sink in as you stare at SUV after SUV in a vain hope for something with a bit of spirit.
Volkswagen, the brand which likely gave you the hot hatch problem in the first place with its legendary Golf GTI and R, has the answer. While the word ‘Passat’ might not ring with much force in the minds of enthusiasts, this latest iteration, the 206TSI R-Line might just be the 'sensible family car' solution you’re searching for, and VW’s best kept secret.
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
For many folks around my age, the Subaru WRX holds a special place in the heart.
This is because those of us born from the late ‘80s to early ‘90s are the so-called “PlayStation generation.” Growing up at a time where videogames bridged the gap from 2D to 3D leads to a lot of imprinted memories, a lot of digital firsts, which wowed and inspired, and a lot of rapid-fire nostalgia as hardware advancements left once-thriving game franchises in the dust.
It was also high time for the World Rally Championship's well-regarded Group A rally category, which forced manufacturers to make cars much closer to their production counterparts. It was frequently dominated by none other than the Subaru WRX.
Combine these two worlds and you end up with a lot of kids feeling like they could do anything in Subaru’s newfound performance hero from the comfort of their bedrooms, many of whom would go on to buy a second-hand one to slap P plates on as soon as they could.
Read more about the WRX
It was a perfect storm and made the WRX the right car at the right time to put a previously small-time brand well and truly on the performance map.
The question with this test is: Should those kids, now in their late 20s or 30s, still be considering Subaru’s halo car? Or, now that it’s the oldest product in Subaru’s catalogue, should they wait for the imminent reveal of the new one? Read on to find out.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Dear former hot-hatch owner and wagon appreciator. The search is over. This is the anti-SUV your heart desires at a fraction of the cost of Audi’s S4, or bahn-storming RS4. It’s as comfortable as it is fun, with subtle looks to boot, just don’t expect it to knock your socks off in quite the same way as a Golf R. You’ll have passengers to think about, after all.
Although it's now the oldest car in Subaru’s catalogue, there’s nothing really quite like the WRX on the market. This is a car which is true to its roots, a rugged performance stalwart that comes with dollops of fun and compromise in equal measure.
Thanks to Subaru’s updates over the years, it’s fared better than some when it comes to technology and safety, but I’d still implore you to pick the manual to truly experience this car as nature intended.
The Passat is attractive but understated. Not a head-turner, but the kind of car which needs to be properly looked at to be appreciated.
In the case of the R-Line, VW has gone to lengths to toughen it up with its sleek bodykit. The 'Lapiz Blue' signature colour aligns it with performance heroes in the VW range like the Golf R, and the mean looking gunmetal wheels and slim rubber is enough to get those in the know rubbernecking at it.
It’s the market’s latest quiet performer, epitomising the ‘sleeper wagon’ vibe, evoking echoes of legends past like the Volvo V70 R without being as loud as Audi’s RS4. A car that's seen, but not looked at.
The interior continues this theme with a simple but attractive design adorned with LED lighting, highlight strips across the dash, and quality trims in the doors.
The Passat has been augmented with today’s expected digital features, including VW’s stellar digital cockpit and classy 9.2-inch multimedia screen.
Volkswagen’s Audi-descended digital features are some of the smoothest and best looking on the market, and the multimedia suite slots nicely into its gloss surroundings.
The interior is well built and inoffensive, but in terms of its design I cant help but notice the Passat is starting to feel a little old, especially compared to the new-generation Golf and its more revolutionary interior design which also arrived this year.
While it’s nice the Passat scores the brand’s new steering wheel and logo, areas like the centre console, shifter, and some trim surrounds are just starting to feel a bit dated.
I think Subaru was gunning for subtlety with the non-STi WRX. For a performance car, the design is a little sedate, with the WRX looking perhaps a little conservative to really stand apart from its Impreza sedan sibling, despite diverging from it some years ago.
There’s no mistaking the rally profile of the full-fat STi, with its huge wing and even bigger wheels, but here in the WRX premium it’s all a little toned down. Still, fans will love the absurd bonnet scoop, angry-looking alloys and quad exhaust. It’s stanced out a little by some flared bodywork, but the tiny lip spoiler at the back robs it of a bit of street cred. Perhaps it's to encourage you into the significantly more expensive STi…
Despite its relative age, though, the WRX still fits into Subaru’s lineup nicely. It has all the hallmarks; the small grille, the angled LED headlights, and the signature tall profile. The chunkiness is all there, too, both on the outside, with its flared bodywork and exaggerated scoop, and on the inside, with thick leather clad seat trim, and a chunky, satisfying steering wheel.
The abundance of red lighting in the dash cluster is reminiscent of the heyday of Japanese performance cars of years past, and while it’s not as plush on the inside as Subaru’s newer products, it’s not disappointing either, with nice use of soft trims.
The plethora of screens feels unnecessary, and the 7.0-inch multimedia unit is feeling very small now, compared to most more recent cars. At least the software has been updated since 2018 to have the more recent system used in the Impreza, Forester, and Outback. It’s simple and easy to use.
Compared to those Subarus, though, the WRX’s interior is feeling a little tired. It’s a bit small, and things like the CD drive and nastier plastic trims smattered around remind of days past for Subaru. It's a good thing the new WRX is coming soon.
Even if you’ve got a significant other breathing down your neck, you can tell them the Passat is even more practical than its Tiguan sibling!
In the cockpit the usual quality Volkswagen ergonomics are present. The key for drivers will be the R-Line’s lovely bolstered seats, quality partial leather interior trims which extend into the doors for comfort, and the sporty low seating position.
Adjustability is excellent, and that new wheel feels great.
Unlike the Tiguan R-Line, the Passat doesn’t get the haptic-feedback touch panel wheel controls, but to be honest you don’t need them, the nice clicky buttons on this wheel are the best.
Unfortunately, this is where the collection of lovely clicky buttons ends. The multimedia and climate panels in the updated Passat have gone completely touch.
To be fair to VW here, it is one of the better executions of touch interfaces I’ve had the misfortune to be forced to use.
The shortcut buttons which flank the multimedia screen have nice big areas so you don’t fumble them, and the climate panel is remarkably easy to use, with tap, slide, and hold functions for shortcuts.
Still, what I wouldn’t give for a volume or fan-speed dial at the very least. It mightn’t look as slick but a dial is unbeatable for adjustment while you’re concentrating on the road.
The back seat in every Passat variant is superb. I have leagues of legroom back there behind my own (182cm/6'0" tall) seating position and there isn’t a single area where VW has skimped out on the quality trims which appear in the front seats.
Rear passengers even get their own climate zone with easy adjust buttons and directional air vents. There are large bottle holders in the doors and three more in the drop-down armrest.
Rear passengers also score pockets on the backs of the front seats (although they miss out on the triple pockets in the new Tiguan and Golf), and for ease of access (you know, for fitting that child seat) the rear doors are huge and open nice and wide. They even have built-in sunshades to protect little ones from the sun.
Boot space? Now, this is where a wagon shines. Despite all that cabin room, the Passat R-Line still manages to sport a gigantic 650-litre boot capacity, complete with tie-down nets, a luggage cover, and even a built-in retractable divider between the boot and cabin – great for if you have a larger dog, and safe if you need to carry around lots of luggage.
Compared to the more forward-thinking designs in Subaru Global Platfrom vehicles, the WRX is feeling a little claustrophobic on the inside. Still, you could do much worse in a performance car.
Front passengers get nicely trimmed bucket-style seats with good side bolstering. Like a lot of Subarus, the seating position isn’t exactly sporty. You sit quite high, and for someone my 182cm height, it feels as though you’re peering down over the bonnet a little. Aside from that, height adjustability is pretty good from the electric seat, and there is a small bottle holder in the door, plus dual cupholders in the centre, a small centre-console box, and a small tray under the climate unit.
Overall, the dark trims in here conspire to make the WRX’s cabin feel a bit tight. This continues for rear passengers. The WRX really is a small sedan and room isn’t great for me behind my own driving position, with my knees touching the front seat. I have to duck a little to get under the sedan’s roofline to get in, and while the decent trim continues, the seat feels a little high and flat.
Rear passengers get pockets on the backs of the front seats, a drop-down armrest with two cupholders, and a decent bottle holder in the doors. There are no adjustable rear air vents or power outlets, however.
Being a sedan, the WRX has a rather deep boot, coming in at 450-litres (VDA). This rivals some mid-size SUVs, but it’s worth noting the space isn’t quite as usable, with a small loading aperture, and it’s a little tight when it comes to the available height. Still, it consumed our largest 124-litre CarsGuide suitcase with ample space to spare.
Price and features
Well, that depends on what you’re looking for in a wagon. If you could relate to my preamble you’re looking for the rush this car offers.
And if you were once willing to fork out the extra for a hot hatch, I’m willing to bet you’ll appreciate what the extra spend ($63,790, before on-road costs) gets you in the R-Line.
If not? You can save significant dollars looking to the stalwart Mazda6 wagon (even a top-spec Atenza will only set you back $51,390), Style-focused Peugeot 508 GT Sportwagon ($59,490), or the Skoda Octavia RS ($52,990), which is essentially a less powerful front-drive variation on the Passat theme.
Our Passat, though, while only just below the Luxury Car Tax (LCT) cut-off, is unique among its peers, offering Golf R levels of power as well as an all-wheel drive system to set it apart for keen drivers.
Standard equipment is good, as you’d expect at this price point, with the R-Line featuring 19-inch ‘Pretoria’ gunmetal alloy wheels to match its more aggressive stance and bodykit, 10.25-inch ‘Digital Cockpit Pro’ instrument cluster, 9.2-inch multimedia touchscreen with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, built-in sat-nav, 11-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, leather-appointed interior trim, sports seats with 14-way power adjust for the driver, heated front seats, full ‘Matrix’ LED headlight and tail-light clusters (with progressive LED indicators), and tri-zone climate (with a separate climate zone for the rear seats).
The R-Line also scores some bespoke interior trim items and a panoramic sunroof as standard.
That’s heaps of stuff, and while it’s still missing a holographic head-up display and wireless charging bay offered by rivals, it’s not too bad at the price offered.
Again, the engine and all-wheel drive system are what you’re really paying for here, as the lion’s share of gear is offered on more affordable versions in the Passat range.
The WRX Premium auto tested for this review is a sort of mid-spec variant. Wearing an MSRP of $50,590, it sits above the standard WRX auto ($43,990), but below the more hard-core WRX STi ($52,940 – manual only).
When you look for rivals, it’s a harsh reminder of the distinct lack of small performance sedans in today’s market. You might consider Subaru’s hero against the front-drive Golf GTi (Auto -$47,190), Skoda Octavia RS (Sedan auto - $51,490), and Hyundai i30 N Performance (manual only - $42,910). There’s a more direct rival coming soon in the form of the i30 N Performance sedan, which will also be available with an eight-speed dual-clutch auto, so look out for that in the near future, too.
While it's now the oldest Subaru on sale by quite a margin, the WRX has been augmented in recent times to offer more up-to-date features.
Standard are mean-looking 18-inch alloys clad in skinny Dunlop Sport rubber, full LED lighting, Subaru’s typical assault of screens, including a smallish looking 7.0-inch multimedia touchscreen (mercifully with updated software since I last drove this car), a 3.5-inch multifunction display in the instrument cluster, and a 5.9-inch dash-top-mounted display screen, digital radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, a CD player (how quaint), leather-accented interior trim, eight-way adjustable power seat for the driver, heated seats for front passengers, dual-zone climate control, and privacy tint for the rear windows.
The continuously variable automatic makes up the majority of WRX sales, so I’m told, which is particularly disappointing to hear. Especially given it’s a $3200 jump over the manual, and tarnishes the drive experience. More on this in the Driving section.
The WRX also comes with a safety suite that is impressive for a car of its vintage, which we’ll look at in the Safety section. Getting on it may be, but the WRX is surprising in how well it holds its own on the value front.
Engine & trans
The R-Line packs the good stuff here, a version of the brand’s renowned performance ‘EA888’ four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine which also appears in the Golf GTI and R.
In this instance it provides the namesake 206kW and 350Nm of torque.
The 162TSI which appears in the Alltrack was great, but this version is even better. The R-Line pairs this engine with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and drives all four wheels via VW’s ‘4Motion’ variable all-wheel drive system.
It’s an excellent powertrain, and none of its rivals provide a car in quite the same performance-oriented niche.
The WRX’s engine is a tuned-up version of Subaru’s signature horizontally opposed “boxer” four-cylinder. In this case it’s a 2.0-litre turbo unit (FA20) producing 197kW/350Nm, ample for a little sedan like this.
Disappointingly for me, our particular WRX premium was an automatic, and it’s not a great one. While most performance cars will drop in a lightning fast dual-clutch, or at least have the decency to offer a classic torque converter with clearly defined ratios, Subaru falls back on its rubbery continuously variable automatic, as derided in the rest of its mainstream range by enthusiasts.
We’ll explore this more in the Driving section of this review. It’s not as bad as you think it’s going to be, but it still doesn’t belong in a car like this.
The R-Line’s larger engine does carry a fuel consumption cost over the tamer 140TSI and 162TSI options in the range.
Official combined cycle fuel consumption is up from the mid-sixes in the rest of the range to 8.1L/100km, which is unsurprising.
In my few days of thoroughly enjoying this car, however, it returned a dash-indicated figure of 11L/100km, perhaps a more accurate indication of what you’ll get if you drive this vehicle as intended.
Like all VW petrol cars, the Passat R-Line requires mid-shelf 95RON unleaded fuel, and has a large 66-litre fuel tank.
Fuel consumption is likely to be at the bottom of your list of concerns when it comes to a small performance sedan, but on the official/combined testing cycle, this car will consume a claimed 8.6L/100km of mid-shelf 95RON unleaded.
Over our week of mostly urban testing, our car produced an unsurprising 11.2L/100km, which is actually under the official urban number of 11.8L/100km. Not bad for a performance car, really.
The WRX has a relatively large fuel tank for its size at 60-litres.
If you’ve driven a VW in recent years the Passat R-Line will be a familiar experience. If you haven’t, I think you’ll welcome what’s on offer here.
Put simply, this car in the 206TSI grade is one of the best engine and transmission combinations Volkswagen offers across its whole range.
This is because the brand’s signature dual-clutch automatics, which are fraught with minor issues when paired with lesser engines, shine when paired with torquier performance options.
In the case of the R-line, this means snappy performance typified by a strong turbo surge, angry engine note, and a responsive transmission.
Once you’re over the initial moment of turbo-lag, this big wagon leans back on its haunches and simply bursts to life out of the gate, with strong low-end torque controlled through momentous grip as the all-wheel drive system balances drive across the two axles.
The dual-clutch responds nicely, whether you leave it in automatic mode or choose to shift yourself, in one of the few instances where paddle-shift systems shine.
The R-Line’s progressive steering program shines when it comes to tilting this wagon into corners, giving you an unforeseen level of confidence, and it’s all backed by superb grip from the performance rubber and again, that variable AWD system keeping everything well and truly under control.
Despite the large power on offer, I struggled to get so much as a peep out of the tyres. And while performance is not quite Golf R level, it’s certainly somewhere between there and the Golf GTI, weighed down quite literally by the heft of the Passat’s larger body.
The trade off is well worth it. This is a car that allows the driver to have an absolute blast behind the wheel while also ferrying passengers in relative luxury and comfort.
Even the ride is finely finessed despite the large 19-inch wheels and low-profile tyres. It’s far from invincible though.
You’ll still want to steer well clear of potholes. What’s unpleasant in the cabin will be doubly so for the poor (expensive) tyres, and this makes the low-set ride not quite as ready for the trials of the suburbs as many of its more comfort-focused rivals.
Still, this is a performance variant by name and nature and while the goalposts are still way up in RS4 territory for hot mid-size wagons, this is the kind of reasonably-priced, warmed-over wagon which hot hatch lovers will be craving.
Suffice to say it’s more fun than you’ll have in pretty much any SUV.
It truly pains me that this car is an automatic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m okay with an automatic performance car. Dual-clutch iterations of cars like the Golf R are great, but the WRX automatic is a CVT.
This transmission isn’t great in the brand’s regular range, let alone in a performance application, where snappy response and a predictable, linear riding out of the rev-range are really necessary to extract maximum enjoyment.
I was surprised to find the CVT isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Perhaps through sheer torque, the WRX does hammer into its 2400rpm peak torque band rather quickly, for an immediately impressive 0-100km/h sprint of around six seconds, but it’s beyond this point where you’ll start to get dull, rubbery, and occasionally hesitant response from the accelerator. Not particularly appealing attributes when you’re carving up a few corners.
Handling-wise, the WRX is excellent with its robust all-wheel-drive system and firm-to-a-fault suspension. This makes it a true joy to fling around bends, with equally firm and rewarding steering giving you a truly organic and controlled handle on what’s going on at the wheels.
Subaru’s boxer engine gives the WRX a signature gruff sound under acceleration, with some turbo noise to boot, but with this particular transmission you won’t be getting the satisfying turbo blips you can extract with a swift kick of a clutch pedal in the manual.
Driving it around town every day is a little rough, with a brittle and busy ride, while the heavy steering will get on your nerves when you’re just trying to park the thing.
The firm ride, large wheels, and slim tyres makes the cabin noisy at all speeds, and occasionally sends shockwaves through the front of the car if you’re unfortunate enough to hit a pothole. It’s hardly the most pleasant companion to have on a freeway.
Honestly, if you’re after an automatic performance car, there are better options out there both in terms of response and everyday comfort, although none are quite like a WRX. I’d implore you to pick the manual if you can, it’s a better, more engaging experience in every way.
Volkswagen’s new ethos is one we can get on board with, and that’s to provide the full safety suite across the whole range in its latest offerings.
In the case of the Passat, that means even the base 140TSI Business gets its collection of ‘IQ Drive’ active features, including freeway speed auto emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane keep assist with lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and adaptive cruise control with ‘semi-autonomous’ steering features.
Extra stuff includes proactive occupant protection, which prepares the cabin in the instant before an imminent collision for optimal airbag deployment and seat belt tension, and a new emergency assist feature which will bring the vehicle to a halt when the driver becomes unresponsive.
The Passat range has the full array of airbags including a driver’s knee airbag, as well as the expected electronic stability, traction, and brake controls, for a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating, carried over from the pre-facelift model in 2015.
In good news for the WRX, Subaru’s signature EyeSight suite is mostly present here, albeit a slightly older version than the one that appears in its newer products. Regardless, key active items include auto emergency braking (works to 85km/h with brake-light recognition), lane-departure warning with lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, and auto high beams.
It misses out on reverse auto braking from more modern Subarus but features active torque vectoring to add to the standard suite of electronic aids like traction, brake, and stability controls.
The WRX has a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating, although it dates way back to 2014, well before active safety items were even considered.
Volkswagen continues to offer its five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty across its range, placing it alongside most of its Japanese and Korean rivals, but behind Kia and the latest batch of Chinese up-and-comers.
Still, none offer a performance wagon in this space, so the Passat remains the standard here.
Volkswagen offers its cars with pre-packaged servicing which we recommend as it comes at a significant discount overpaying as you go.
In the case of the R-Line this means $1600 for the three-year pack or $2500 for the five year pack, saving you a max of $786 against the capped-price program.
It’s not the cheapest we’ve seen, but it could be much worse for a performance-focused European car.
Annoyingly, the WRX requires six-monthly or 12,500km service intervals, a hold-over from Subarus past. It’s not cheap, either, with each six-monthly visit costing between $319.54 and $819.43 (ouch) for the first 10 visits covering five years of ownership. It averages out to $916.81 per year for the first five years. These are numbers which rival some premium European options.