We tend to think of cars in either 'premium' or 'volume' terms. Here though, is one that could comfortably fit within either definition, the revised version of the eighth generation Volkswagen Passat. Though targeted at the medium range Mondeo sector, it's long had an appeal stretching beyond, up towards the premium mid-sized executive saloon segment. Global buyers like that and the result is a worldwide favourite the Wolfsburg maker simply can't afford to get wrong. Hence the smarter looks, extra technology and efficient returns of this classy contender.
Under the bonnet, the key news for Passat buyers is the introduction of an extensively re-worked version of this model's volume 150PS diesel engine, now badged the 2.0 TDI EVO 150PS. As before, it can be had with a 7-speed DSG auto 'box and now features Active Cylinder Shutdown for greater efficiency, the first time that this feature has been fitted to a Volkswagen diesel engine. Diesel and 4MOTION 4WD feature as usual in the 'Alltrack' estate variant which gains a higher ride height for limited off road ability.
For petrol people, there's the VW Group's familiar 150PS 1.5-litre TSI EVO unit, available with either manual or DSG auto transmission. Up to a quarter of Passat sales are expected to be taken by the Plug-in hybrid petrol/electric GTE version, which mates a 1.4 TSI petrol engine with an electric motor. This derivative now uses an upgraded lithium-ion battery which now enables a longer 36-mile WLTP-rated driving range. Across the line-up, there's a new 'Travel Assist' feature which allows the car to be driven at highway speeds in partly automated mode.
The difficulty in attracting buyers away from the likes of BMW and Audi is that you need your product to offer all the attractions of a BMW and Audi but at a more competitive price. That includes looking as expensive as these brands, which is something the Passat has often struggled to achieve. Not any more. At least not from the outside, where this facelifted version of the eighth generation Passat looks sleek, chiselled and polished, with full-LED head and tail lights that emphasise the car's width.
Inside, cabin quality is at least the equal of what you'd find in more expensive premium brand mid-sized saloon, especially if you're able to stretch to one of the higher trim levels. The interior features a big central 8-inch screen and a set of optional digital 'virtual' dials. The seats, as in most Volkswagens, initially feel unyielding but are supremely comfortable over longer distances. Three adults can fit in the back too - there's far more space than you'd get in a 3 Series, a C-Class or an A4. The boot measures an enormous 586-litres, while the estate gets even more, with 650-litres available under the tonneau.
So, what have we here? A strong contender to be sure. This revised version of the eighth generation design, the fastest-selling Volkswagen on the planet, looks smarter than before, the interior feels upmarket and there are all sorts of super-slick systems and features that are more like those you'd expect to find in a BMW, an Audi or a Mercedes.
It drives well too. Thankfully, Volkswagen hasn't tried to inject a whole load of unnecessary sportiness across the range. The Passat was always at its best as a comfortable mile muncher and the big steps forward that Volkswagen has made in refinement, comfort and economy in recent years make this car more accomplished than ever in that regard. Crucially too, it continues to combine all of this with residual values that often actually improve on those delivered by the premium brands. There are, it's true, more affordable, sharper handling choices in this class. But there are none that leave you with a nicer feeling when you wake up in the morning, pull the curtains and see one of these in your driveway. It's a feeling that's very Volkswagen. And perfectly Passat.Click here to find out more about our Volkswagen Passat range
Skoda's Superb features a smart suit, a slick chassis and strong engines in this improved version of the MK3 model. Hatch and estate versions of this enhanced design look sharper inside and out and the brand now offers a Plug-in hybrid option for the the first time too. Plus the pricing remains sensible.
As you'd expect, this updated Superb has been fitted out with the latest suite of Volkswagen Group engines and these are all mated to DSG auto transmission, demand for manual gearboxes in cars of this size having petered out somewhat. The petrol range kicks off with a 150PS 1.5-litre TSI EVO unit. Next up is a revised version of the 2.0-litre TSI powerplant with 190PS; and the top petrol powerplant is a 2.0-litre TSI engine developing 272PS, which comes with all-wheel drive as standard. In the diesel line-up, the starting point, as before, is a 120PS 1.6-litre TDI; next up is a heavily revised 2.0-litre 150PS diesel unit now badged 'TDI EVO'. Beyond that is the 2.0 TDI 190PS unit, which can optionally be ordered with all-wheel drive. You can also now talk to your dealer about a Superb iV plug-in hybrid model, powered by a 1.4 TSI petrol engine that delivers 156PS and is boosted by an 85kW electric motor. The combined maximum power output of the two power sources is 218PS - which promises to deliver exceptional performance along with significantly reduced fuel consumption and emissions.
On the move, as ever in a Superb, the ride and refinement are exemplary and the dynamic demeanour of the car is sharper than you might expect, thanks to its light, stiff MQB chassis. As a result, the car feels surprisingly agile through bends you'll be able to attack with reasonable gusto thanks to feelsome steering and a standard XDS+ Electronic Differential Lock that reduces understeer and improves stability as you turn.
As ever, there's a body style choice between hatch and estate. Visual changes to this revised version of Skoda's third generation Superb are relatively slight; you'll need to be a brand enthusiast to note the smarter, narrower full-LED headlamps and tail lights, plus the restyled bumpers and revised badging. The front grille now bears double slats, is larger and protrudes a little further down into the front bumper. At the rear, a horizontal chrome trim strip, which connects the full LED tail lights and the new 'SKODA' block lettering, might catch the eye, as might the smarter 18 and 19-inch wheel designs.
Inside, if you owned an earlier version of this MK3 model, you might notice this revised car's extra chrome highlighting, the revised seat covers and the extra decorative trims for the centre console and dashboard. Added 'Simply Clever' touches include a space organiser beneath the boot floor. And a 'Phone Box' system that allows for inductive handset charging. A fully digital 'Virtual Cockpit' instrument display screen is now optional too, replacing their usual dials. As ever with a Superb, space for rear seat passengers is class-leading thanks to this MK3 model's lengthy 2,841mm wheelbase. And the boot is huge too, rated at 625-litres in the Hatch version, expanding to a cavernous 1,760-litres with the rear seat backs folded. If this still isn't big enough, you'll need to talk to your dealer about the estate variant. Here, there's a 660-litre boot, expandable to an impressive 1,950-litres when the seats are folded.
And in summary? Well the Skoda Superb looks the part, making it ever easier to convince those whose car views are at least a decade out of date that a Skoda deserves a place on your shortlist if you're in the market for a medium-ranger. Compared to a Mondeo or a Mazda6, a Superb represents a very different take on the theme. The Mazda is a pin-sharp drive, the Mondeo tries to blend size and sprightliness, but the Superb makes no real pretence at sportiness, instead offering a reassuring heft and vault-like build quality.
Above all, the Superb delivers space, and that's a quality you can never really have too much of in this corner of the market. Why? Because it's the one attribute where more mainstream marques can really land a telling blow on the premium badges. A BMW 3 Series or a Jaguar XE is never going to be able to offer as much space inside as a Skoda Superb. Cars like those are just not remotely viable if you need a lot of family interior room, so for those who need something cut from more generous cloth, give the Skoda the once over. It's slick, presentable and, yes, simply clever.Click here to find out more about our Skoda Superb range
Vauxhall Insignia Grand Sport
Vauxhall reckons that this Insignia Grand Sport has 'the aura of a car from the premium, upper class'; you decide. It certainly looks a great deal smarter than its predecessor. It comes only in hatch form, but as an alternative, there's the option of a 'Sports Tourer' estate. The prominent grille and slim-line headlamps enhance the wide horizontal design of the front end and provide it with a bold appearance. The grille sits lower than on the outgoing model and further emphasises its solid stance. What Vauxhall calls a 'sweepspear' feature starts in the front door and gives the impression that this model is always ready to pounce, which is a nod to the athletic lightness of the Monza Concept car that inspired it.
More importantly, under the skin, this design has shed up to 175kgs over its predecessor. Its roof is 29mm lower and its track has increased by 11mm. The overhangs have been reduced considerably and the wheelbase enlarged by 92mm. And the exemplary drag factor of 0.26 makes this car one of the most aerodynamic vehicles in its class. The cabin has also taken a step up-market. The driver sits lower and is surrounded by clean lines, pleasant surfaces and impressive build quality, a highlight being the frameless touchscreen of the improved IntelliLink infotainment system. The extended wheelbase gives passengers in the rear more space. There's a roomy 490-litre boot too.
On the move, this Insignia feels like the bigger car it's now become, the suspension floating you over broken surfaces that would have troubled and impeded the previous model. Importantly, this second generation model is 175kg lighter than its predecessor and that really shows when cornering at speed, where there's less body roll than before and generally, a much higher level of agility. As for engines, well most buyers will continue to want a diesel, with the majority of sales likely to go to the 1.6-litre Turbo D unit we tried, offered with either 110 or 136PS. If you trade up to the 170PS 2.0-litre diesel, efficiency drops off markedly, though there's the compensation of 400Nm of pulling power, a figure that will be improved further if you go for the 210PS biturbo variant.
Engine-wise, you'll find much more that's really different if you turn your attention to petrol power, with all three units on offer being pretty new. Small capacity turbocharged engines that use unleaded are very much in vogue at present and the 1.5-litre unit supplied here should suit that trend, offered with either 140 or 165PS. There's also a 200PS 1.6-litre Direct Injection turbo petrol unit. Key Insignia features include a super-slick 8-speed auto gearbox. And the top 210PS diesel variant comes with a sophisticated intelligent all-wheel drive system that uses a state-of-the-art rear torque vectoring system for greater cornering traction and sharper turn-in.
And in summary? Well, can this second generation Insignia really appeal beyond the medium range Mondeo segment? Will business buyers used to signing up for yet another BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 or Mercedes C-Class really be minded to consider it? The Griffin brand hopes so. What we can tell you is that if this car carried a premium German badge, those customers would buy into it without question. The quality and technology is that good.
But of course, it does bear a Vauxhall badge - which requires in turn a degree of open-mindedness on the part of potential buyers. That's asking a lot but it's difficult to see what else the brand could have done in pursuit of its objectives here. If you're buying in this sector and are amongst the few people untroubled by badge equity, you'll find plenty to like.Click here to find out more about our Vauxhall Insignia Grand Sport range