RIDE QUALITY IS a term we throw around a lot in the topCar office, a catch-all phrase for the comfort levels experienced at the wheel in transit. Factors range from the obvious such as the suspension compliance, to slightly more indirect like the bolstering effects of the seats. Ultimately it determines how far we’re willing to travel in our cars without sacrificing our spines, spleens or lunch. Less than a month after my 3000km round trip to Pretoria, I was keen to head back out on a similar 1000km jaunt to Plettenberg Bay, a testimony to the appeal of my Passat. The prospect of a mere 108km road trip around the Peninsula with the rest of the topCar crew then would be a welcome challenge.
It’s like this: the car’s suspension is the bit that joins the wheels to its body, so a soft setting is advantageous as it soaks up unwanted bumps on poorly paved roads. Go too soft however, and you experience a nauseating pitching and yawing sensation as though you’re riding a mechanical bull in a gigantic bowl of marshmallows. The tyres themselves can do a fair job of absorbing the buffet from the road surface too but generally you will find that a vehicle with a large wheel/low-profile tyre combination suffers from a harder ride that can be tedious during your daily commute.
The Passat gets close to that magical Goldilocks setting – not too firm, not quite jelly, ironing out the wrinkles in the tarmac infrastructure of the Kommetjie coastal area convincingly. (In fact, it even sailed clean over the lightly corrugated gravel and dirt roads around Knysna on the Plett trip.) The occasional unexpected rut in the road can still rock your fillings, but I’m glad to report no such occurance during our stint along the Cape’s famous cycle tour route.
It’s in the quicker corners where I find the Passat excelling, most notably on the beautiful cambered asphalt between the city and Hout Bay. It’s clearly not a hoon machine, but bury it into a turn and the MacPherson strut front/multi-link rear suspension set-up makes a valiant attempt at staying flat. This inspires confidence, so you push a bit harder and it firms up satisfyingly, translated through the steering wheel and into your forearms. Feedback, albeit artificial, feels authentic – it’s a car I’m able to place easily. Flick-flacking through sweeping chicanes feels natural, unforced and strangely enjoyable. The turbodiesel stroked via the DSG transmission has just enough grunt to keep it all tight and dynamic as though being an enjoyable drive shares the Passat’s priority values along with comfort and efficiency – and I respect that.
Sure, my Passat might be the slowest of our fleet but it’s a trade-off against the best fuel economy and that’s enough of a saving grace for me, especially when combined with its sheer liveability. I even like its styling. It’s my Volkswagen Comfortable Slippers.
I PREFER DOING my big driving at night. There are a few reasons for this, such as the clearer roads and the cooler air, but mostly I like traversing the country overnight because like when tackling a 15-hour journey to the topCar Gauteng Motor Show my kids will spend the greater portion of that time napping, leaving me to carve up the sinuous national road on the odd occasion it isn’t arrow-straight asphalt. I don’t care how cute or smart your kids are, that much confinement multiplied by those levels of energy divided by a deeply concentrating dad makes for a pretty stressful formula. A memory card filled with Dr Seuss audiobooks would later be my saviour.
Two years ago, when I first did this round trip to the show in a Suzuki Grand Vitara, the thrum from its inefficient four-cylinder, five-speed drivetrain had made for a restless night. In last year’s silky-smooth Citroën C5 2.0 turbodiesel, however, my family had been mercifully lulled to sleep. Also, the French car had done the trip burning a super-conservative 6.5ℓ/100km, much more impressive than the Suzuki’s 11.1ℓ/100km. I was expecting an even better result from my Passat that, with city driving included, has thus far been averaging 6.2ℓ/100km. So at 4pm, when the traditional office-ound workforce made their way home, the Fisher family joined them on the N1 – destination; Centurion, Gauteng.
The next fourteen hours were perfectly uneventful, the Passat soaking up all 1320km of national road against an increasingly darker setting. Being winter, the seat cooling function was not tested, but the heaters certainly were. Cabin space was more than adequate up front for my wife and I, while the back bench was wedged to capacity with three boys, two residing in bulky car seats. The Passat doesn’t have any particularly clever hidey-holes or pockets, just the generic stuff you’ll find in sedans since their inception – but I’m never left wanting. The two-prong power point situated behind the centre console was a boon, allowing me to charge and power devices as varied as media players and my laptop. That’s versatility! If I was the type to use a GHD, this would have won me over to no end, I imagine.
The front seats are comfortable to settle in, but not so much you’d fall asleep in them – the perfect pews for a long distance haul then. They even manage to grip like sports seats when needed in a car I’ve applauded in the past for its surprisingly better-than-expected handling. Then there’s that efficient 2.0-litre turbodiesel/auto combo. It was good in the Citroën, but here in VW spec it’s even better, providing the kind of torque needed for effortless climbing with the low-frequency hum best suited to a tourer. Laingsburg rolled by, then Beaufort West, Colesberg, Bloem until we penetrated the Gauteng border, burbled through Jo’burg and beat the sun to our destination in Centurion at 6am. A power nap would ensue before joining the rest of the team at Zwartkops Raceway at 10am. That’s Zwartkops with a Zzzzzz…
The return trip was largely uneventful bar the adventurous return route via Kimberley courtesy of our external TomTom navigation device, which felt that we needed to avoid as much highway as possible. We did, in fact, manage to find every pothole-ridden piece of road between Jozi and Kimberely, a challenge soaked up by the Passat’s suspension. This trip took 15 hours and was about 140km longer, but we weren’t complaining – the Passat is an absolute pleasure to cruise in. We arrived at the threshold of Table Mountain just as the sun rose, and because the trip to Cape Town is almost entirely downhill, returned an economy figure of just 5.6ℓ/100km, bringing the total tally to 6.1ℓ/100km.
*As an aside, the 3000km journey figure didn’t include the 870 virtual kilometres I contributed to our team’s Forza4 world record attempt, in which we played 34 consecutive hours. Shew