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After promising the availability of all-wheel drive this year, Volkswagen, in a last-minute product change, has cancelled the Synchro all-wheel-drive option on all Passats for 1999 and will not be offering the GLS wagon with a V6 engine.
The first-generation Passat never sold well in the United States. Weak original engine choices, ineffective early marketing efforts, and a muddled brand identity that defeated sales across the board all contributed to this car's seemingly invisible presence in the market. Of course, the plain-vanilla styling of the original car didn't let the Passat stand out for much recognition other than the lack of a grille on the nose.
Volkswagen managed to increase brand awareness, quality and sales during the original model's last few years. As a result, the first-generation Passat received a good bit of attention from consumers during its final months of availability. But it was getting stale quickly, so Volkswagen released a brand new one last year for Americans to ponder.
Two trim levels are available this year: the high-end GLX sedan and the entry-level GLS, which can be had in sedan or wagon bodywork. While the GLS sedan can be ordered with an optional V6 engine, the GLS V6 wagon, which was originally offered to support the extra weight of the defunct Synchro option, has been cancelled. The base GLS, which costs little more than a well-equipped Chevy Lumina, is powered by a zippy 1.8-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine. Not long ago, we drove a couple of sedans equipped this way, and the cars zoomed to 60 mph quickly when mated to a five-speed manual transmission. Some turbo lag was evident at low rpms, but otherwise, the engine was perfectly capable of hauling 3,100 pounds of Passat. Equipped with a Tiptronic automanual transmission, however, the Passat GLS lacked verve around town.
Opt for a full-boat GLX and you're buying the top-of-the-line Passat with all the trimmings, at about the same cost as a well-equipped Toyota Camry XLE V6. Due to the cancellation of Synchro, however, the front-wheel drive GLX will not be available until the spring of '99.
VW's Synchro all-wheel drive system, now named 4motion, will not be available on any Passat until the 2000 model year, but consumers may see the cars hitting dealer showrooms as early as the summer of 1999.
A runaway success in Europe, the new Passat deserves acclaim. Based on a stretched Audi A4 platform and using plenty of Audi parts in its construction, the new Passat looks, feels, smells and drives like a more substantial car than its price tag would lead you to expect.
Passat's contemporary styling will wear well into the new century. In fact, we find the Passat's design more pleasing than the similarly sized but more expensive and somewhat avant-garde Audi A6. Our test Passats drove nicely, were solidly constructed and had great sound systems. The suspension rolled too much in turns, but otherwise, the car was perfectly suited to both canyon running and grocery shopping with the kids.
Volkswagen wants to double Passat sales in the U.S. After a week with the GLS five-speed, we doubt they'll have trouble. In fact, a GLS wagon with a sunroof, the all-weather package and an attractive set of aftermarket alloy wheels would be our pick of the litter. So equipped, it would compete with a well-equipped Ford Taurus SE. In 2000, when it comes with all-wheel drive, it will compete with the Subaru Legacy Outback wagon, but with better looks and that coveted German handling. For now, all-wheel drive contenders will be shopping Subaru instead, but the Passat is still a great choice for those who don't need to worry about blizzards or boulders.
Laura's old car was costing her a small fortune every month for gas and repairs. She didn't even want to drive her kids to the park any more. But buying a new Kia Soul changed all that.