B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
Volkswagens are kids cars, right? I mean, the only time you see them in real numbers is when youre in close proximity to a college campus or shopping mall. This certainly isnt anything new. When Volkswagens first appeared on American shores they were cheap to buy, inexpensive to operate, and amazingly easy to fix. In other words, Volkswagens were perfect for cash-strapped young people who were looking for a cheap set of new wheels. Things havent changed much since my parents bought their first Beetle in the late sixties. Today, Volkswagen Jettas, Golfs, and Cabrios are as ubiquitous on college campuses as cheap beer is at a frat party.
While a company like Oldsmobile would kill to have such a toehold in the younger generations market, we feel certain that Volkswagen would be willing to trade some of its hippness with the kids in order to sell more high profit cars to their parents. The $199.00 per month lease on the Jetta GL that is advertised in the paper every Sunday is a great deal for the young man or woman starting out in the world, but sells at a pretty slim margin in terms of company profits.
Which brings us to the Volkswagen Passat. The Passat is not going to convince your grandparents that Volkswagens are grownup cars. Its expressive sheetmetal and seemingly diminutive size would be too out of place when parked between the Buick LeSabres and Lincoln Town Cars that are the norm with the retirement village set. It may, however, convince your parents to drop by a Volkswagen dealership. Set to compete directly with middle-American staples like the Ford Taurus, Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry, the Passat has the added benefit of a distinctive appearance, large interior, and a basketful of powertrain choices.
For those not in the know, the Passat is the first new Volkswagen to appear since the Cabrio was introduced in 1995. Based on the hugely successful Audi A4, the Passat gets a stretched version of that compacts chassis just like its sister car, the Audi A6. The Passat also gets the Audis engine choices plus one. This means that the Passat can be equipped with an economical but lively 1.8-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, a powerful 30-valve V-6 engine, or Greenpeace-approved 4-cylinder TDI that gives this midsize car gas mileage that rivals the diminutive Chevrolet Metro.
While not as arrestingly pretty as the A4 or A6 that Audi peddles, the Volkswagen Passat is a definite looker when compared to most cars being sold for between $20,000 and $30,000. The best-selling Toyota Camry and Honda Accord look dull when parked next to the Passat. Speaking of competitors, Ford should go talk to the folks at VW the next time they decide that they want to make an edgy car curvy. When comparing the previous Passat to the current model, the most obvious styling difference is the replacement of straight lines with subtle curves. The emphasis on subtle curves cannot be overstated. If Ford had followed a similar approach when they replaced their straight-laced Taurus in 1996 with a model that had more swoops and dips than a ski run at Winter Park they might not be losing their sales title this year to the Toyota Camry.
The benefit of the Passats new exterior is a wider, more comfortable interior. The driving position in the Passat is quite good, made so by a manually adjustable seat that has a seat height adjustment lever in addition to the typical fore/aft and reclining adjusters common to most cars. The Passat also has a tilting and telescoping steering wheel that allows drivers of any size to properly position the steering wheel. Rear passengers may miss the limo-like legroom the previous Passat offered, but this 6-footer was still able to find adequate room for his size 11 loafers. All of the seats in the Passat are comfortable and supportive, good for travelling long distances without inducing fatigue. The Passat has a low belt-line and lots of window glass that contributes to the cars feeling of airy openness.
Interior materials on our tester were solid but nothing to write home about. This is perhaps the largest tangible distinction the Passat has when compared to its Audi cousins. Whereas the leather and wood in the cockpit of the Audi A4 makes passengers feel like they are riding in a much more expensive car then they actually are, the cloth and plastic cockpit of the Passat feels like, well, any mid-sized family car on the market. Ergonomics in the Passat are good, however, and this car has the benefit of usable cupholders for front seat passengers; the Audis are only equipped to handle 12 oz. cans.
Despite its attractiveness and versatility, we think that the best reason to buy this German sedan is because of the way it drives. Nimble, peppy, and fun are not how we usually describe family cars, but the Passat fills out those descriptions perfectly. The Passat is nimble because it is built on the wonderful A4 platform that re-wrote the book on how front-wheel drive cars can be expected to handle. It changes direction quickly, tracks evenly through a turn, and exhibits minimal body roll when tossed into a corner. Its highway ride is exceptional too; offering none of the harshness over broken pavement and expansion joints that often characterizes sporty cars. The Passat we drove was equipped with a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that was quite peppy. Serving up healthy portions of low-end grunt, this 1.8-liter unit does a great job convincing drivers that it has more than 150 ponies under the hood when hooked to a 5-speed manual transmission. The added benefit of this cars engine is its penny-pinching nature at the fuel pump, offering the frugality of a 4-banger with the power of a V-6. The Passat is also fun like a favorite uncle, suggesting that drivers ditch their work and head to the beach or a winding country road, a perfect antidote to the budget meeting-malaise that afflicts so many of us working stiffs.
Those thinking about purchasing a Passat equipped with the technological marvel that is the Porsche-built Tiptronic transmission may want to reconsider the notion. A separate test model so equipped turned out to be a bit of a dud. Although the Tiptronic system may be a nice alternative for Boxster owners who dont always want to shift their own gears; it is not a good alternative for the Passat. Why? Maybe because the Tiptronic system doesnt allow fast enough gear changes to take advantage of the Passats somewhat peaky horsepower and torque curves. Whatever the case, we gave up trying to shift the Tiptronic-equipped Passat after a few frustrating days, and decided that if we purchased one of these excellent little sedans from VW that it would have to be a traditional 5-speed model.
Over the next few years, Volkswagen will be introducing plenty of cars that will titillate and tantalize us. Not far on the horizon are new models like the New Beetle, Jetta, Golf, EuroVan, and an as of yet unnamed V-12 powered monster that is supposed to compete with the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. While these offer plenty of food for thought, they are not what most people in America buy. Most of us cant afford a V-12 sedan, and most of us need something more than a retro-funky lifestyle car for getting through the average week. This leaves the Passat to serve the masses, which is nearly invisible in a market chock full of excellent mid-size cars. Despite its near invisibility on sales charts, this is the car you should consider if your taste in roads runs toward the twisty and your family has outgrown a Ford Contour SVT. Its fun, its practical, its distinctive, and its cheap. It also comes with a 10-year warranty for those worried about VWs formerly spotty reliability. Go ahead; take one for a drive. You may never look back.
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