Sporty handling and value in an elegant sedan.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price $21,200
As Tested $24,795
The Volkswagen Passat offers some of the attributes of a sports sedan at a much lower price than those from BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz. This car is an attractive alternative to the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry or Nissan Maxima.
Passat is available as a sedan and a wagon. Either is available in GLS and GLX trim levels. There's a choice of two engines, two transmissions and front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.
GLS 1.8T comes with a silky smooth 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Volkswagen's 2.8-liter V6 comes on GLS V6 and GLX models. GLX comes with a sports suspension. The model lineup for sedans and wagons is nearly identical.
All models come standard with a five-speed manual gearbox. The optional automatic is a five-speed transmission with Tiptronic, a feature that allows automatic or clutch-free manual shifting.
For 2000, Volkswagen is offering an all-wheel-drive system called 4MOTION ($1,650). This option is available exclusively on V6-equipped Passat sedans and wagons with Volkswagen's five-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic. All-wheel drive can be ordered in either the standard GLS trim or the high-line GLX.
GLS models come with a high level of standard equipment. GLX is a big step up in equipment level. GLX comes standard with the V6, leather seating surfaces, wood and leatherette interior trim, dual eight-way power heated front seats with driver's seat memory, automatic climate control, Monsoon sound system, alloy wheels with 16-inch tires, power glass sunroof.
Our GLS 1.8T came with optional 15-inch alloy wheels, sunroof, Monsoon Sound System, beige partial leather upholstery and the All Weather Package, which includes seat heaters; bottom line was $24,795.
This is a handsome car. The Passat presents a smooth, clean shape with attractive details. The roofline describes a semicircular arc supported by thin pillars, a design that guarantees good visibility and generous headroom. The rounded nose and flush-mounted headlights help 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 features a large, squared-off trunk lid flanked by large taillights, an efficient design that maximizes the Passat's 15 cubic feet of cargo space.
The four-door wagon replaces the sedan's arching roofline with the boxy shape of a wagon. Load-carrying space is increased, and for many customers extra efficiency is worth the lessening of visual drama. Starting at $22,000, the Passat is a great choice among wagons.
The Passat cabin offers an attractive, comfortable and efficient interior. The front seats are comfortable and supportive. Fore-and-aft adjustments operate smoothly, employing ball bearings on the mounts; height and lumbar support adjustments are standard. The optional seat heaters are adjustable. Visibility is very good, though the view out the rear windscreen is partially blocked when all three of the rear headrests are up.
The leather-covered steering wheel feels good. The dashboard is contemporary in appearance, with rounded shapes and a distinctive instrument pod that houses the speedometer, tachometer, water temperature and fuel gauges. At night, the instruments feature red needle on indigo gauges that minimize glare. A multifunction trip computer supplies outside temperature, time, speed, distance and fuel consumption data. Minor controls are located well, though the rearview mirror adjustment buttons are placed on the upper door panel and seem a bit awkward. Heating and air conditioning 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. A cupholder/armrest replaces the typical center console; the plastic in this area does not offer a high-quality appearance. The throttle and brake pedals are not positioned well for heel-and-toe downshifting. The optional Monsoon Sound System ($295) is one of the best factory stereos I've heard, with crisp highs and snappy bass response; be sure to order it.
Rear seats are quite roomy with space to slide your feet under the front seats. This car carries four people in comfort. A fifth person should be comfortable 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.
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. A short pull engages the parking brake and a warning chime lets the driver know to release it before taking off.
Trunk space is generous and the hinges do not intrude into the trunk. A split folding rear seatback increases cargo-carrying space considerably.
The Volkswagen Passat is more enjoyable to drive than the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. Its 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. Most of the hardware that contributes to handling characteristics is shared with the superb, but more expensive Audi A4. The Passat was not intended to be driven as hard as the Audi A4, and its all-season tires scream loudly when pushed to their limits. However, it felt stuck to the road on a rainy day in Maryland. Handling is markedly better than that of competing Japanese models and the ride is a bit firmer. Ride quality is quite smooth. Wind and engine noise are well muted.
Passat GLS offers quick acceleration. There's a surprising amount of low-rpm power given its 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. This double overhead-cam engine is turbocharged and uses five valves per cylinder. It generates a healthy 150 horsepower and, 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. The 1.8-liter turbocharged 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 206 foot-pounds of torque at just 3,200 rpm. It's a smooth engine that provides progressive pulling power at all engine speeds.
The five-speed manual gearbox is smooth and precise, making it easy to change gears.
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.
New for 2000, is the addition of Anti-Slip Regulation, or ASR, to the Electronic Differential Lock or EDL system. EDL is a low-speed traction control system that detects wheel slippage and applies braking force to that particular wheel. ASR uses sophisticated electronics to control throttle response to maximize traction and minimize slipping. It sounds like alphabet soup, but these two traction control systems work very well, making it easier to control the car when the front tires lose traction. It makes this car easy to drive in rainy conditions. ASR can be turned off by pressing a switch on the dash.
A better way to control slippery conditions is Volkswagen's 4MOTION system that has been added as a Passat option for model year 2000. This full-time all-wheel-drive system continuously distributes power to all four wheels all the time at all speeds. An automatic-locking Torsen center differential distributes engine torque to the front and rear axles. Torque is normally split 50/50 front to rear, but the wheels with the best traction receive more power on low grip surfaces where two-thirds of the torque can be sent to either the front or rear wheels. The 4MOTION system comes with the aforementioned EDL system, which redistributes torque from side to side. This gives the Passat propulsion when only one tire has traction.
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. It's one of the most enjoyable sedans in its class.
Drivers looking for a wagon can do no wrong here. Passat wagons offer elegant styling, great handling and practicality. A Passat wagon equipped with the 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system, V6 engine and Tiptronic would be perfect for heading to the snow country.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.