I was lucky enough to get behind the wheel of a new Volkswagen Passat last week. And although this was a German-registered left-hooker and I only had a brief go, it was enough to confirm that the new car, just like its predecessors, is likely to be a hit among caravanners as a great tow car. After all, the previous-generation model has won its category at our Tow Car Awards for the past four years, and has an overall victory to its name, too.
The new one feels enormously solid and stable. That impression was aided on the example I drove by its optional 4Motion four-wheel drive, and this top-spec car was also fitted with the all-new twin-turbo diesel engine. This unit is far from cheap, but if you plan to do a lot of towing it is a highly desirable addition to the line-up, and first impressions are that it is both smooth and enormously potent.
The new VW Passat has another trick up its sleeve, however, and it’s one that is specifically designed for people who tow regularly. It’s called Trailer Assist, and it’s the answer to the prayers of those of us who don’t really enjoy manoeuvring with a caravan hitched up. Most of us won’t admit it in public, but reversing a large outfit onto a pitch on your caravan holidays can be pretty stressful – particularly if you have an audience!
We got our hands on a prototype version of this system, albeit fitted to a Volkswagen Golf, at the Düsseldorf Caravan Salon. It’s a fascinating piece of technology, one that the VW engineers assured me was “really very simple” but still seemed fiendishly complicated to me. It works using a combination of Park Assist – VW’s self-parking system that has been around for a while now – and the rear-view camera. The camera calculates the angle of the tow hitch, and from there the software uses some clever mathematics to work out how much steering input is needed, which is then taken care of by the Park Assist system.
You don’t even have to tell it how long your outfit is – it can work it out from the way it responds through a couple of bends. All the driver has to do is tell it how much of a turn you want to make, using a combination of a small control knob on the door and a display in the instrument binnacle, then look after the throttle and brakes.
It takes a few runs to get tuned into the sensitivity of the system – and even more to get used to the sensation of the steering wheel spinning around of its own accord – but when you do, it’s easy to place the van really accurately. Oddly, I particularly appreciated the way it reverses in a straight line, something I just can’t seem to crack when towing.
Whether you like the concept of Trailer Assist or not, it’s refreshing to see an automotive titan such as Volkswagen creating a system that is so targeted towards the needs of the caravanner – and it will be interesting to see if its rivals follow suit.
Reversing a large outfit onto a pitch can be pretty stressful – particularly if you have an audience!