Drive Story : VW Passat // New chasing the old

We aim for the deep south of France on a single tank of fuel… our mission, to find old cars and buy great wine.

Our car of choice for the adventure is a Volkswagen Passat 1.6TDI SE with Bluemotion technology – and it sure beats flying.

Words: Keith Adams Photography: Keith Adams and Michael Hayward

Hunting the perfect reds, with a touch of rust

You can get here on one tank of diesel in a Volkswagen Passat TDI Bluemotion
You can get here on one tank of diesel in a Volkswagen Passat TDI Bluemotion

It has to be said that the latest generation of super-economical family hold-alls are a real enabler for the roaming driving and travel enthusiast. Think about the Volkswagen Passat Bluemotion, for example – thanks to the large 70-litre fuel tank and parsimonious 1.6-litre turbodiesel under the bonnet, some fairly exotic locations are yours for the taking – and all for the price of a fill-up. And some time off work.

Since going on sale in January 2011, the seventh generation Passat has already become a familiar sight on UK roads. It’s a clever reskin of the previous car, and has been improved in a number of important areas – namely in the area of active and passive safety, fuel economy and emissions. And our 1.6TDI SE is a perfect reflection of the industry’s desire to standardize smaller, more efficient power units – 114g/km in a full-size family saloon is the result.

With that in mind – and the Passat’s recent record performance of 1527 miles on a single tank – we decided it would be good to fill-up, head south, and go searching for some of the world’s finest red wines. Bordeaux is the obvious place to head, but we’re looking for something a little more off the beaten track, and decide instead to head further south to the Beziers region and follow the Canal du Midi, seeing what vineyards we can stumble upon along the way.

Flight fans will be quick to tell you that an Easyjet to Toulouse is potentially going to cost rather less than the £90 or so you’ll need for a single tank in the Passat – and we’re going to need at least a full one each way. But where the car scores so heavily is that you’ll have freedom to roam once you make it south, you’ll be able to load up a large boot, and not worry about a luggage allowance on the return journey. The car is a no-brainer, then.

As we board P&O’s finest for Calais, we ruminate the journey ahead, and what it is about the Passat that makes it the ideal partner for the 800-mile drive to Beziers. They sell more than 20,000 per year in the UK, and reps love Passats for their mile-munching ability. We’ve learned the hard way, it’s best to ignore the government’s combined fuel figure (in the Passat’s case it’s 64.2mpg), and expect that the real world average is going to something around 55mpg. We know we can expect more, if we’re patient and follow the recommended gearchange points…

One thing we won’t be doing is wafting down the autoroute, racking up kilometre after boring kilometre, spending hundreds in tolls. France is too beautiful for that and deserves so much more. So before we’ve even set on foreign soil, we’ve brimmed the tank and dialled in the ‘avoid tolls’ on the excellent, albeit optional, touch screen satnav/infotainment system. It would prove to be a wise decision.

Once away from the boring Calais/Boulogne hinterland and heading south, a magical transformation happens – the villages you drive through become sleepier and increasingly charming. Also, the connecting A-roads become more interesting and challenging. The Passat might be bought by reps with little interest in driving feel, but they’d be rewarded by this one if they do push. It’s grippy, steers well and is poised through quick bends. But as the greenery sweeps by, we’re overtaken by a sense of relaxation, and roll along at the same modest pace as the locals (oh, how times have changed) – which is no bad thing, as the 105bhp 1.6-litre would struggle to provide thrilling pace, especially when combined with the ultra-long gearing of the new-to-the-Passat 1.6TDI six-speeder.

Renault 4 still in daily use...
Renault 4 still in daily use…

Despite that, the miles pass quickly, and after a quick overnight stop off in Orleans, we’re driving through France’s gorgeous green interior and heading for the fantastically-named Autoroute du Soleil. It’s here that we really begin to appreciate how Volkswagen remains at the top of repmobile tree with its Passat – because as we pass through Clermont-Ferrand and drive south through the Massif Central, the car’s motorway refinement really begins to shine through. But its quality runs deeper – the driving position is first rate and forward visibility is excellent – but more impressively, despite the distances, we remain fresh, unstressed and free of aches and pains.

The hills are getting steeper and the traffic more obstructive, though, and long-striding sixth gear (nearly 40mph/1000rpm) lacks any meaningful punch on gradients, and often we’re changing down to fifth, and even fourth, in order to maintain a decent speed. But this niggle pales into insignificance once the Millau Viaduct appears on the horizon – a glorious feat of engineering fusing French need with British architectural flair. The bridge spans the Gorge du Tarn, is 2460m-long, took four years and €400m – and is absolutely beautiful. Crossing it incurs a €6 toll – money well spent.

Crossing the bridge serves as a reminder about just how stunning a country France is –and as soon as we’ve crossed the cavernous gorge, the topography changes. We’re down to our last quarter of a tank and we’re in a rockier country where the hills are steeper, the colours more golden, and the hillsides are dotted with vineyards. We really do start to feel like we’re a long way from home. But this is the real reason for our single-tank drive to south west France – to search out our favourite red wines.

We’re starting to worry about the fuel situation as we reach the end of the A75 and trundle towards Beziers – the warning chime sounds, and our range is dipping quickly. So as we pull into a local supermarket and fill-up with refreshingly inexpensive diesel… and our average is 58.5mpg. We can live with that.

Talbot Samba is quite a spot these days...
Talbot Samba is quite a spot these days…

We spend far too long taking time out to search and photograph the old cars that the French are still driving, and an old-car aficionado goes nuts about. So the sight of plenty of Talbot Sambas. Renault 18s and rusty old Citroens seem to make the trip worth it… and that’s before we go wine-hunting!

The joy of the Languedoc region is that there are countless wineries in the region, and you’ll not travel far without seeing mile after mile of vineyards, promising a fair old selection of grapes to choose from. We base ourselves in Puisserguiser, a medieval village on the D612 half way between Beziers and Carcassonne. As stop-offs go, few could possibly be better, because its 14th century cloisters and surrounding driving roads make for a fascinating contrast. The Passat isn’t ideally sized for the village itself, but once we’re on the hunt for the best wines in the Canal du Midi region, it’s perfect for us, offering grip and poise as the roads turn mountainous in the way to Carcassonne, and a surprisingly supple ride on the worst village surfaces.

We stop regularly, checking out the wineries, and comparing grapes along the way. For a region that boasts 300 days of sunshine per year, it’s difficult to find a dud bottle – and that draws us to the smaller, family run businesses, rather than the more opulent air-conditioned shops that you know are selling for a premium. Because like the Passat, we prefer a wine of deep quality and lasting appeal, without the need for fancy packaging.

We found our perfect wine at Pech de Saint Paul...
We found our perfect wine at Domain Pech de Saint Paul…

Oddly enough, our trek brings us back to Puisserguier, and the heart of the Corbieres region, and a family run business called Domain Pech de Saint Paul selling bottles from what looks like a small garage. There’s no frippery here, just a great sense of history, for a winery that’s been around for generations. If you’re so inclined, you can bring your own bottles for filling up, but we happy to buy a selection of red and whites to bring back to the UK as soon as we’re ready for a return journey.

We’ve gone for quality and quantity in the end – as the St Paul delivers a great selection of wines at very reasonable prices. And that gets us thinking about the Passat again – our fuel to get down here has been well under €100 and given that it offers more space and comfort – not to mention convenience – than the alternative public transport could ever dream of. We’ve enough wine in the boot to keep us happy for months to come, and we’ve enjoyed a great summer adventure in the process. The Passat has been a perfect companion on our wine hunting trip – and clearly shows just how far it’s possible to go with 1.6-litres and a whole lot of intelligent engineering.

We’re looking forward to the drive home…


Keith Adams


  1. I always preferred the Renault 4 to the Citroen 2CV – the Renault 4 seemed to me the archetypal French car that a French farmer would actually drive, whereas the 2CV seemed to me to be the kind of car that a British person drove because he or she thought that it was the archetypal French car that a French farmer would actually drive.   Love the Samba and also where it is parked!  You’d have to be a bit careful getting out if you didn’t want a broken leg.  

  2. The more I see and hear about VW Golf’s & Passat’s the more I like them.  The initial retail cost still puts me off though… shame, but perhaps next time.

  3. 55mpg isn’t much better than I can get out of my Honda FRV 2.2i-ctdi driving gently! The FRV will crack 53mpg on a run if you keep it down to 65-67 mph and will just crack 50mpg at 70mph indicated. I borrowed my wife’s Golf 1.6tdi 90 the other week and did 200 miles at an average of 72mpg. OK, it was mostly motorway, but that was pretty good and it’s not a “Bluemotion”, just a basic model.The Passat looks nice, it’s just exepensive and of course has one of the awful (and often troublesome) electronic parking brakes.

  4. I fail to see wht the fuss is about electric parking brakes. I sample one on an Audi A6 and it was simplicity itself to use. A quick flick of the switch to put it on, then it released itself when you pulled away. I thought it was a brilliant device and fail to see how anybody can have issue with it. Far prefereable to yanking a sodding great lever against a ratchet.

  5. I have a 2006 Passat TDI 105bhp and it’s been great to drive and own (although it’s doing it’s best to upset me at the minute with running issues). It’s terribly bland to drive but as a wafter it’s perfect. The best thing is, when it was running correctly, it was averaging about 55mpg.As for the electronic hand brake, it’s been great. So natural when you take the time to get used to it and how it operates. Most issues are caused by owners not understanding how to work it

  6. Had/have an electronic parking brake on the Espace – brilliant – no trouble in six years – only problem I have now is in the wife’s Clio, which doesn’t have one – it’s rolled away twice so far! 

  7. Nice report, However at present I
    have a Love Hate relationship with VW especially “Bluemotion” and the awful
    1.6TDi, Ours fitted to the Golf is one of the early ones so perhaps Vw have
    sorted the faults out by now? As looking on the net and Vw forums not one
    recorded complaint with the Passat, though none have actually matched Vw economy
    We average 41 mpg, No that isn’t
    me driving with the handbrake on nor am I driving like a boy racer, this is long
    well planned journeys as it struggles to better 38 in town, As usual Dealers can
    find no fault what so ever and are completely uninterested showing the Apathy of
    “British Leyland” in the Dark Years, Vw UK couldn’t care less.
    I could bore everyone to death
    with the faults ours has, But the main bits are this, Splendid motorway car,
    Dreadful town car, with little economy to compensate, Incidentally the 1.6s are
    worth nothing (and are difficult to re map) Whilst the good all round 2.0
    provides much nicer driving machine only costs a few £hundred pounds more
    initially to buy, but command nearly £2k more come resale! These are considered
    Gold dust by Dealers who struggle to get shot of anything
    “Bluemotion”..As for fun factor try to overtake anything slow moving on a country lane,
    this could make your bottom twitch like a rabbits nose.

  8. What a lot of pictures of interesting cars. Except that red saloon car – for the life of me I just can’t work what it is……..;D (Not a very exciting car is it, the Passat)

  9. Whilst B”tching about my “Highly
    efficient Embarrassment” completely forgot to mention the splendid pics of once
    everyday cars now rendering endangered species, Samba’s, 505s, even Fiat 128 3p
    (was the 3p its value once rust got hold?) And the splendid Graveyards full of
    old Relic’s, I Remember stumbling across old abandoned lots that used to be
    littered here and there, which brings on the question “where have they all
    gone?” or is this down to local authorities disposing of these old classics…
    Sad but thats progress! Nice Memory Lane Keith!

  10. @dontbuybluemotion – don’t worry, I wouldn’t even buy a VAG car……..not Italian enough you see……

  11. @Simon Hodgetts To rub salt in the
    wounds I traded in a Rover 220 D under the Scrappage scheme! I drove it over
    300 miles to its Death….It never missed a beat and in all the years we had it, hardly cost us anything in
    repairs (though rust was taking over) I really miss that car, Whilst its

  12. Looks like a great trip.We have the new version of the Passat here in the USA, it is being made in a new (non-union) plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I am not sure how much in difference there is between then USA market version vs. the Euro one. They have some great ads for it here, one noting the long range of it, of about 750 miles to a tank of gas, where the 2 guys in the car instead of listening to the radio or music, listen to a ‘learn Espanol’ CD’s. They get out of the car 750 miles later to get fuel and are speaking fluent Spanish.

  13. 120


    This may sound like a bit of an advert. But you guys who
    love old cars should get yourself to Galicia and Asturias in Spain.The Government of Galicia (Xunta de Galicia) still uses Renault
    4s for everyday transport.

    BL/Rovers are disappearing at an alarming rate.

    However one friend son has a 600. He says it is a “cracking”
    car. Recently had an accident in it. I bet in the U.K. it would have been a write-off.
    Not here it is being repaired. The price of second hand cars are higher and eh repair wages are lower than the UK.

  14. I will never buy a VAG ever again – despite having owned several and been happy with them. My wife’s former company Jetta was in our ‘freindly local’ VW dealer for a service, and I cycled down one cold November morning after getting the call the day before to say it was ready to collect. Getting there for 8.00am as per their website the lease company advise and their door sign says they are open from. Would they let me in? No. The place was full of staff and I had to wait half an hour outside in the freezing cold. I’m sure one of them put it up on You Tube. VW would not take the complaint due to it being my wife’s company car and the ‘Data Protection Act’. They just do not care. Will never buy VAG ever again.

  15. I had a Mk IV and Mk V Golf TDi and in the 8 years I had them only warranty work was an auto dimming rear view mirror.

    My Dad presently has a 1.6 TDI Golf Plus and I have trouble getting it BELOW 45mpg. NO warranty issues in its first year.

    After my Golfs I thought I would try to support the UK car industry and bought a Swindon built Honda Civic iCtdi and it was a complete P.O.S. and 4 years of pure aggravation.

    Presently own a SaarLouis built Ford Focus and its a similar ownership experince to the Golfs.

    “VW and Ford only get such good write up from all the backhanders and advertising they give the motoring press ect ect blah blah”.

    Yeah Dream on they get a good reputation because they are FACT

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