by Ray Thursby
Base Price $21,700
As Tested $25,165
We all know about German sport sedans. They are speedy beasts, qualified to occupy the fast lane on those few stretches of German Autobahn where unlimited speeds are still possible. They deal with corners gracefully, can stop on the proverbial pfennig and are spacious and comfortable inside. Traditionally, they are built by Mercedes-Benz, BMW or Audi.
Volkswagen would like to offer you those same attributes. They come in slightly scaled-down form in the Volkswagen Passat. The Passat may offer a little less speed and a minimal decrease in amenities, but these seem small sacrifices when accompanied by its significant drop in price.
The Passat set new standards for its class when it was introduced as a completely redesigned car last year. The reason is simple: Most of the hardware that really matters was borrowed from the superb Audi A4, the leading entry in a slightly more expensive category.
Overall, the Passat is an attractive alternative to the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry or Nissan Maxima.
VW stylists turned a neat trick with the Passat: It's efficient without looking utilitarian. It's distinctive without being bizarre. The Passat has a smooth, clean shape with attractive details. One of these features is the semicircular arc described by the roofline. Along with thin pillars, this New Beetle-esque shape guarantees good visibility and generous headroom. Another attractive element is the rounded nose with flush-mounted headlights, which helps lower the Passat's coefficient of drag to an impressive 0.27, the lowest in its class. Aerodynamic efficiency reduces wind noise and improves fuel economy, particularly at higher speeds.
Viewed from the front or the sides, the Passat should age well. The rear view is a little more generic with a large, squared-off trunk lid flanked by large taillights. It is, however, an efficient design that makes every bit of the Passat's 15 cubic feet of cargo space usable.
A second body style, a four-door station wagon, is now available. Efficiency rules here, as the sedan's arching roofline has been supplanted by a normal, and somewhat boxy, wagon design. Load-carrying space is increased, and for many customers extra efficiency is worth the lessening of visual drama.
Five models make up the current Passat lineup. The $21,700 GLS comes with a four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual gearbox; a four-speed automatic is a $1,075 option. The $24,300 GLS comes with a V6 and an automatic. There's also a V6-powered GLX that comes with a sports suspension and a 5-speed Tiptronic semi-automatic. Wagons are available with either engine.
All models are equipped with front-wheel drive for 1999; an all-wheel-drive system will be available for 2000.
The GLS comes with a high level of standard equipment. GLS buyers can order the Tiptronic as an option -- and that's the way ours came. Our GLS also came with the optional sunroof, leather upholstery and CD changer. The GLS can be optioned up to the level of the GLX, but ordering the GLX saves about $2000 over that plan.
The Inside Story
The Passat cabin offers style, comfort and efficiency. The dashboard is contemporary in appearance, with rounded shapes and a distinctive instrument pod that houses the speedometer, tachometer, water temperature and fuel gauges. A multifunction trip computer supplies outside temperature, time, speed, distance and fuel consumption data. Minor controls are well-located, though the rearview mirror adjustment buttons are placed on the upper door panel and seem a bit awkward.
In European fashion, the top of the dashboard, the steering wheel and the upper inside door panels are formed of attractively grained dark plastic that contrasts well with the upholstery color. The front seats are noteworthy for their comfort and support. Fore-and-aft adjustments operate smoothly, employing ball bearings on the mounts; height and lumbar support adjustments are standard. A split folding rear seatback increases cargo-carrying space considerably.
Dual front airbags, seatbelt tensioners that deploy instantly during a collision are standard. A second airbag located in each front seat offers added protection in a side impact.
There's plenty of passenger space in the Passat -- enough for four people to feel well cared for. A fifth person will be almost as comfortable, at least for short drives. There's plenty of headroom in the front seat even for hat wearers, but rear passengers taller than six feet may find their heads rubbing the headliner -- the only downside to that elegant arched roof.
Ride & Drive
The Passat is a superb driver's car. The chassis was tuned to offer an excellent blend of ride comfort and responsiveness. There's little body roll during cornering. Precise, low-effort steering makes aiming the car easy. This car is not intended to be driven as hard as an Audi A4, and the all-season tires scream loudly when pushed to their limits. Handling is markedly better than that of competing Japanese models and the ride is a bit firmer. Wind and engine noise are well muted.
Our Passat GLS offered quick acceleration. That's because this is no ordinary 4-cylinder engine: the 1.8-liter double overhead cam engine has been turbocharged and uses five valves per cylinder. It generates a healthy 150 horsepower. More important, it delivers 155 foot-pounds of torque at just 1750 rpm that continues past 4600 rpm. That allows the Passat to pull briskly away from intersections and accelerate athletically up hills. It also gives it lots of power for driving around town. In short, the turbocharged 4-cylinder engine delivers the performance of most V6 engines with better fuel economy.
If that's not enough, you can order the Passat with a V6 that delivers 190 horsepower. With five valves per cylinder, variable intake valve timing and a variable geometry composite intake manifold, this engine produces an impressive 206 foot-pounds of torque at just 3,200 rpm. It's a smooth engine that provides progressive pulling power at all engine speeds.
Buyers who choose the optional automatic transmission instead of the excellent five-speed manual will be in for a treat. The five-speed automatic can be left alone to change gears automatically. In this mode, it's a smart transmission that uses adaptive electronics to control shifting based on whether the driver is being gentle or is seeking maximum acceleration performance.
Those seeking greater control can shift the transmission into the Tiptronic mode, a design licensed from Porsche. Sliding the shift lever into a separate area to the right of the normal shift gate permits manual shifting. A forward push on the lever causes upward gear changes, with a light pull back for downshifts. To protect the engine, it won't downshift when speeds are too high, and it won't start from rest in fifth gear if you forgot to downshift while waiting for the light to change. The Tiptronic is a fine dual-purpose transmission, sporting or unobtrusive as the driver wishes. It provides some entertainment value in heavy traffic and is useful for holding the transmission in a particular gear when driving on twisty roads.
We drove our GLS on a 1500-mile trip from Southern California to Lake Tahoe. Long freeway stretches highlighted the smooth ride, comfortable seats and low noise levels. Mountain passes allowed us to make maximum use of the Passat's exceptional handling. It proved to be stable and secure in wet, snowy conditions.
The Volkswagen Passat is beautifully assembled. It performs and handles like a sports car, but rides like a small luxury sedan. It's roomy, comprehensively equipped and economical.
The Passat GLS offers an outstanding value when compared with other cars in its class. None of them, after all, can claim to be top-flight German performance sedans. For us, that alone is enough to put the Volkswagen Passat at the head of the shopping list.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.