A new kind of Volkswagen.
Some people are fanatical about Volkswagens. They cherish their ancient Beetles while awaiting a People`s Car revival later this year, buy Golfs and Jettas when they need new cars, bemoan the loss of the practical, roomy vans that were once a company mainstay. Vocal as they can be, however, VW enthusiasts are not a numerous bunch.
There`s another, larger group whose members wouldn`t recognize a current VW if it slid down their chimneys wrapped in a neat bow. The latter are the potential customers the company is targeting with a complete reworking of its midsize Passat sedan.
In its quest to generate sales, VW has taken two major steps. The first, and most obvious, is a move away from the anonymous styling characteristic of past Passats. Of equal or greater importance is the use of components shared with corporate sibling Audi.
Volkswagen`s own hardware is plenty good, so this borrowing of powertrains and chassis platforms might seem unnecessary to aficionados. And critics may question whether this cross-pollination could lead to a loss of brand identity, making this Volkswagen too much like an Audi.
So we have two questions to ponder on an initial test drive: Is the latest Passat good enough to attract the attention of a wider range of buyers who might otherwise opt for, among others, a Honda Accord, Toyota Camry or Nissan Maxima? And, given the origins of its major elements, will it keep faithful Volkswagen fans happy?
The 1998 Passat presents a fresh face to the world, one that sets it apart from the competition. It doesn`t look like any Volkswagen we`ve seen, but some of the new design elements seen here are an indication of upcoming VW products, particularly the New Beetle.
In general, the Passat is smooth, a clean shape with some attractive details. One of these features is the semicircular arc described by the roofline. This shape, along with thin pillars, guarantees good visibility and generous front headroom.
Another new design feature 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. This aerodynamic efficiency reduces wind noise and improves fuel economy, particularly at higher speeds.
Viewed from the front or the sides, the Passat has a distinctive appearance that should age well. The rear view is a little less impressive. As is true of most sedans, there`s a large, squared-off trunk lid flanked by large taillights. It`s an efficient design -- every bit of the Passat`s 15 cubic feet of cargo space is usable -- but the look borders on generic.
Initially, only one model will be available. Within the year, the GLS tested here will be joined by a GLX with fancier trimmings and a V6, along with a TDI model powered by a fuel-efficient and remarkably smooth turbodiesel engine. A station wagon is expected to join the current 4-door sedan body style later this year.
A full-time all-wheel drive system will also be available later this year. This variation of Audi`s quattro system -- called Syncro at VW -- will add a modest $1660 to the price, and should be considered essential by buyers who drive in slippery conditions.
The GLS carries a significant list of standard features, with few dress-up options available or necessary. With the exception of a handsome set of optional alloy wheels, our test car carried the full complement of this short list of options.
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 gauge and fuel level indicator. A multifunction trip computer supplies 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 to operate.
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, too, are noteworthy.
Fore-and-aft adjustments operate smoothly, employing ball bearings on the mounts. The seats are supportive. The height can be adjusted and lumbar support reduces back fatigue. A split/folding rear seatback increases cargo-carrying space considerably.
Safety concerns are seen to by dual front airbags, supplemented by seatbelt tensioners that deploy instantly during a collision. 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 room in the front seat for hat wearers, but rear-seat passengers taller than six feet may find their heads rubbing the headliner.
Consider the Passat a superb driver`s car. The chassis, shared with the Audi A4 -- a superb car for driving pleasure -- has been tuned to offer an excellent blend of ride comfort and responsiveness. There`s little body roll during cornering and precise, low-effort steering makes aiming the car easy. The all-season tires scream loudly when pushed to their limits, however. The ride is slightly firmer than that of competing Japanese models, but the Passat`s handling qualities are markedly better. Wind and engine noise are well muted.
Acceleration is very good, especially when the power source--a smallish four-cylinder engine--is considered. But this is no ordinary four-cylinder engine: It has been turbocharged and has five valves per cylinder (two intake and three exhaust), which help produce a healthy 150 horsepower and plenty of torque for pulling briskly away from intersections or driving around town. This engine delivers the performance of most V6 engines with better fuel economy.
Buyers who choose the optional automatic transmission will be in for a treat. The five-speed automatic can be left alone 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 by 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. Safety measures have been built in to protect the inattentive. The unit won`t downshift when speeds are too high, or start from rest in fifth gear if the driver forgot to downshift when coming to a halt. The Tiptronic is a fine dual-purpose transmission, sporting or unobtrusive as the driver wishes.
Quality has seldom been an issue with Volkswagen products, and it isn`t here. The Passat is beautifully assembled from materials as good as, or better than, class norms. The only potential stumbling block to its success is the window sticker, but closer inspection reveals base prices aren`t the whole story: At a glance, the Volkswagen Passat seems more expensive than some of its rivals, but their advantage quickly vanishes when comparisons are made between similarly equipped examples.
Well built, fun to drive, economical, comfortable and carrying a long list of standard safety and convenience features, the stylish new Passat is highly recommended.
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