Volkswagen Group is an astonishingly large and complex organisation. It owns Volkswagen, Audi, Bentley, SEAT, Skoda, Bugatti, Porsche, Lamborghini, Bugatti, Ducati and a few truck makers to boot. This has allowed it to almost achieve total market domination, fielding several world-beating and bestselling vehicles all in one go. Unfortunately, the problem with producing so many different cars is sometimes you end up making one that steals sales from another.
Roll forward the Volkswagen Passat Estate and Audi A4 Avant. Both are well-built, classy, practical, comfortable five-door estates. So why is the Passat significantly cheaper? We compare the two to see if there is any reason other than the badge that you should pay extra for the Audi.
Looks are, of course, subjective, and you could argue the merits of either model are an advantage. But most people seem to be of the opinion that neither the Passat Estate (which is supposed to compete with family rivals such as the Ford Mondeo), or the A4 Avant (designed to be pitted against the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes C-Class) are anywhere near the most stylish model in their respective classes.
Despite the brand’s reputation for creating cars that age well, Volkswagen’s Passat has been around in its current form since 2006, and despite a fairly extensive makeover a few years ago to bring it in line with the rest of the range, it isn’t as fresh and modern-looking as the Mazda 6 Tourer, or even the Hyundai i40 estate. But this is Volkswagen, and they do conservative and classy better than anyone, and remember that the Passat is due a replacement in 2015. The Passat looks more expensive than it is, helped by lashings of chrome trim. Unfortunately, even its cheaper cousin, the Skoda Octavia, looks almost as classy nowadays.
The A4, in traditional conservative Audi style, doesn’t stand out from the crowd much either. It’s been around for several years too with only minor updates, and looks it. It prefers to look businesslike and neat, with only its lower stance and more intricate headlamp designs marking it out from the Passat. It’s far from being as aggressive looking as the as the new BMW 3-Series, or swoopy and elegant like the new Mercedes C-Class. But again it isn’t ugly.
The problem is, however, that compact executive buyers choose their car more on image and style, and the Audi simply looks dated and dreary. The Passat isn’t fresh either, but it wins here by default because it’s for a less image-conscious family buyer.
Interior and practicality
The Passat’s interior is one area that has improved a bit since its launch in 2006. Although it was hardly shabby then, over the years VW has added fresher dials, updated soft-touch trim and a classier centre console. It’s all very familiar to buyers of other Volkswagen products, which means it’s ergonomically excellent but a bit lacking in character.
However, its high-quality driving position, comfortable seats and good amount of cabin storage mean it perfectly fits the bill as a traditional family car. Some testers have complained that without the optional navigation system (standard on Executive models) the radio console looks a touch basic.
The innards of the Audi notch up the class and quality a bit. It’s more driver-focused, and there is a substantial amount of soft feel, matte-effect plastic to make it feel every inch of its pricetag. However, many testers have commented that the cabin again feels its age, looking a bit dated and failing ergonomically in places, such as the overly large centre console robbing space from the driver. Quite a few owners complain about the discomfort caused by the offset pedals, although it seems less of a problem in automatic versions where you don’t need both your feet. These issues are only highlighted more because of the excellence of rivals’ cabins.
The Passat offers better headroom the A4, and even more passenger space. The Volkswagen also has a better shaped and bigger boot. The Audi doesn’t quite offer the kind of ergonomics and cutting-edge class you would expect for a car of this pricetag.
Common thinking would say that the Audi should be well ahead when it comes to driving well, but the differences aren’t as big as you would expect.
The Passat’s chassis has received some minor improvements since launch, and as soon as you get moving it’s clear what Volkswagen’s intentions were. Motoring critics summarised that it was obviously set-up for refinement and composure rather than a sporting drive, which is what most family estate buyers would prefer. The ride quality, especially around town, is one of the best in its class, and both road and wind noise are isolated very well. It does everything you expect of it, and more. The only downside is that for the enthusiastic driver, the outright handling and steering feedback don’t make for the most involving drive.
That’s where the A4 Avant comes in, or so you would expect. Audi’s are traditionally set-up for a more sporting drive, and this is clear from the off, with a firmer ride and better body control than the Volkswagen. However, many testers felt that the ride was a little too firm and harsh, especially on S-Line models which have sportier suspension and bigger wheels – testers say these models are downright crashy. The Audi offers excellent grip, however, especially in the four-wheel drive quattro models, as well as tauter handling and sharper steering. Many say that despite this, it simply can’t offer the feedback and involvement of rivals such as the 3-Series, which is a shame.
The Passat cannot match the large engine range of the A4 estate, but it doesn’t have to. The 2.0-litre TDI diesel, in both 138 and 168hp forms, is refined, punchy and flexible for a diesel. The only petrol in the range worth considering, say testers, is the 1.4 TSI, which is even more refined and flexible, and surprisingly economical.
In contrast, the A4′s four different versions of the same 2.0-litre TDI diesel unit are a touch bewildering. The most common choice is the 141hp mid-spec model, which feels similar to the Passat, but is a bit faster thanks to the A4′s lighter weight. The 2.0-litre TSI Petrol, borrowed from the Golf GTI, is smooth and punchy, suiting the more sporting character of the A4. Those looking for more power should consider the six-cylinder 3.0 TDI, which offers 242hp in quattro form. Or there’s the storming S4 variant, whose 328hp supercharged engine can fire you to 62mph in around five seconds.
Equipment and value for money
Considering its £21,700 starting price, the basic S model Passat isn’t exactly sparsely equipped. It offers climate control, alloys, electric windows all-round, electric heated mirrors, automatic tailgate opening, an eight-speaker audio system with USB and AUX, and stop-start.
Our choice is Executive spec, which adds goodies such as touch-screen navigation system, cruise c
The Audi, in base spec, is similarly equipped to the Passat, but costs a whopping £4,000 more. High-spec models add luxury extras such as a Bang and Olufsen sound system, Xenons, and Audi’s MMI media interface. All sorts of crash assist options are extra, and as with most options lists on executive models, it’s easy to spec your Audi to near £40,000 even with a diesel model, which puts it in range of all sorts of exotic machinery.
In terms of fuel economy and emissions, both cars are very similar, and the pick-of the range 2.0-litre diesel in both cars can approach 60mpg. Only the Audi’s bigger petrols and diesels suffer at the pumps, although they are quite economical for the performance offered.
The difference between Volkswagen and Audi’s range has always been a matter of contention. Some say that the Audi is worth the extra for the badge appeal and more sporting drive, others say Volkswagen offers much of the same for much less money. Here it’s a case of the latter.
The A4 Avant, while not a bad offering, feels and looks dated and offers less space, comfort and refinement for more money, and doesn’t offer enough of a sporting drive to compensate. The Passat estate, a worthy all-rounder, is the winner here.
Find out more
Read our Volkswagen Passat Estate review and Audi A4 Avant review sections – they include summaries of critics’ reviews, as well as more details about each engine on offer. Also, check out our Passat Estate deals and A4 Avant deals pages – they’ll give you an idea of how much you could save off the list price of each car.