A half-year refinement to a well-seasoned vet.
by Eric Peters
"Badge engineering" is the derisive term for the practice of selling the same basic car as multiple models, under different brand names, with only the badge on the fender and maybe some minor trim differences separating one model from the other. Examples include the Chevy Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire, the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable and others like that. They're basically the same cars. Buy one, buy the other - it doesn't make much difference, other than the price difference.
Now, some other automakers take a different and altogether more appealing approach. Volkswagen and Audi, which are intertwined companies, provide an example. The VW Passat sedan, for example, is similar to the Audi A4 - in fact, it's closely related to its Audi cousin. But it's not the same car under a different name. The Passat is built on a stretched version of the A4's platform, or underlying chassis. And though it offers the same basic drivetrain choices: turbocharged 1.8 liter four cylinder engine, 2.8 liter V-6 engine and front-drive or all-wheel-drive, the finished product is a substantially different machine, and not just in terms of how it looks.
In fact, the Passat has some functional attributes that may make it the better car than the A4 - depending on what you're after. In the first place, the VW is bigger and roomier than the Audi. The Passat's wheelbase is 106.4 inches; the Audi's 103 inches, even. The overall length of the VW is 184.1 inches, while the Audi A4 is appreciably shorter at 176.7 inches.
That means the Passat can handle more people more comfortably than the A4 and it has a smoother, "big car" ride. Yet since it shares the same basic engineering and suspension underthings as the Audi, the Passat also retains the tight handling qualities one expects of a German sport sedan.
Really good news
Then there's the really good news: The Passat 1.8 GL's base price, at $21,750, is $3,000 less than the base price of the A4 1.8T.
And still, you get the goodies: turbocharged, five-valve 1.8 liter engine with 170 hp (bumped up from 150 hp last year and in 2001 model leftovers), slick five-speed manual transaxle, standard front and side curtain airbags, traction control, ABS, air conditioning, eight-speaker audio system, power windows and locks, intermittent wipers and electric rear defroster. As such, the Passat is one of the best - if not the best - mid-size import sedan out there.
Now, the Audi A4 does offer the benefits of a more prestigious nameplate - and is frilled a little bit more with various luxury "cues" (as the say in the business). Still - and without impugning the virtue of the altogether excellent A4 1.8T - the Passat comes off really well when you stack the two cars together. Ultimately, what it comes down to is whether you are more into having the extra room (at a lower price) or really want the upmarket cachet and the sporting edge that the lighter, shorter-wheelbase A4 offers as its strong suits.
VW has made some slight changes to the cosmetics of the Passat for the mid-year model change, so the 2001.5 Passat is actually a distinct upgrade from the 2001 model. In addition to the bump in output of the standard 1.8 liter engine, the taillights have been redesigned and incorporate the currently trendy clear-type lenses that have become hip among import customizers and hot-rodders. The redesign is handsome, but some buyers may want to scuttle to dealers and snap up a 2001 Passat while they're still available - if they prefer the look of that car to the revised one.
Major options on the 2001.5 Passat include a recommended cold weather package that includes heated seats and windshield washer nozzles. It's $325 extra - and a godsend on cold, wintry days. You can also upgrade the standard cloth interior to leather for another $1,500 - and choose from one of two luxury groups that include (or not) a sunroof and/or upgrade wheels and tires.
For those who want more power, there's the step-up V-6 engine and available "4Motion" all-wheel-drive - but these are subjects for another review.
2001.5 Volkswagen Passat
Base price range: $21,750-$31,575
Engine: turbocharged 1.8 liter four-cylinder, 170 hp; 2.8 liter V-6, 190 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic; front-wheel drive or 4Motion all-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 106.4 in
Length: 185.2 in
Width: 68.7 in
Height: 57.6 in
Curb Weight: 3043 (1.8-liter model, FWD)
EPA (city/hwy): 24/31 mpg (1.8-liter w/manual trans.); 18/26 mpg (V-6 w/auto)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side airbags, traction control, ABS
Major standard features: Turbocharged five-valve engine, traction control, air conditioning with pollen filter, power windows with "one touch" operation, eight-speaker stereo system w/tape player, intermittent wipers, electric rear defrost, four-wheel disc brakes
Warranty: Two years/24,000 miles
© 2001 The Car Connection