Erin Mahoney, Contributor
In Germany, Passats are the ubiquitous family sedan, Western Europe's most popular midsize car. Not so in the United States. Despite rave reviews from reputable automotive critics (check out our 2000 Family Sedan Comparison Test, for example) and increasing recognition here in the U.S., the VW brand still bestows a certain individualism on the driver, a funky panache that can't quite be communicated with certain more upscale Bavarian marques. Nonetheless, the Passat is the best-selling German car in its class in the U.S., and VW wants to ensure its burgeoning fortunes in the States by improving upon an already successful formula.
In keeping with its endearingly eccentric way of doing things, Volkswagen has introduced the redesigned Passat as a 2001.5 model. While some of us eagerly await a more dramatic redesign with the introduction of VW's famed W-configuration eight-cylinder engine sometime in the next few years, we were suitably impressed with the tweaked Passat the company has offered to hold us over in the meantime.
For now, the new Passat continues to offer only two engine choices in the U.S.: the turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder and the 2.8-liter V6. While the V6 remains unchanged (making 190 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 206 foot-pounds of torque at 3,200 rpm), the 1.8T receives well-deserved boosts in both horsepower and torque. Up 20 from 150 to 170 horsepower, the 1.8T now makes 166 (up 11) foot-pounds of torque from 1,950 to 5,000 rpm, a divinely flat torque curve that provides ample pulling power throughout the rev band.
The 2001.5 Passat boasts increased dynamic torsional rigidity or flex resistance. The more structurally rigid body enhances safety by providing better crash resistance and at the same time makes for responsive handling and tight-fitting exterior body panels. The result is a better-handling vehicle with a solid, high-quality appearance.
We were fortunate enough to spend some quality time with both of the new Passat engines at Volkswagen's press introduction. Our test vehicles were a GLS 1.8T equipped with a manual transmission and a decked-out GLX V6 wagon equipped with VW's 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system. 4MOTION isn't available with the 1.8T four-cylinder engine or with a standard transmission, but only as an option on the GLS or GLX V6 equipped with an auto tranny. While we found distinct and notable differences between our two testers, they both proved thoroughly enjoyable to drive (albeit in different respects).
We got into the GLX 4MOTION wagon first. With its no-fuss automatic transmission and the security of all-wheel drive, the wagon provided a sedate and serene ride. The leather interior accented in wood and chrome demonstrated the pleasingly upscale fit and finish typical of VW products. While the added weight and grip of the 4MOTION system kept the vehicle glued to the road, it by no means taxed the pull of the 190-horsepower V6. We did notice that the engine revved unnaturally high between upshifts when we hit the pedal hard, but was reasonably quiet and transmitted nary an unwelcome jolt to the cabin.
We were less impressed by the GLX 4MOTION's braking ability. A noticeable amount of dead pedal travel was initially unnerving, and the heavy all-wheel-drive system made its presence known when we had to come to a sudden stop. And whereas road noise was beautifully quelled in our wagon tester, we were disappointed by surprisingly excessive wind noise from the roof. We fiddled with the sunroof and mused over whether the roof rack could be the culprit. But when we noticed the same problem in the 1.8T sedan sans roof rack, we realized that the noise seemed to come from the top of the windshield, where we detected a slight air leak. We assume this is a snafu limited to pre-production models.
Our GLX wagon tester had the solid, heavy feel and predictable handling of a luxury vehicle. The 1.8T sedan, on the other hand, had a decidedly more playful and nimble personality. Certainly, its youthful exuberance can be attributed in part to its manual transmission and lighter weight compared to the 4MOTION wagon, but equally responsible is the newfound verve of the four-cylinder engine. The 1.8T's increase in horsepower and torque certainly pay off our GLS tester was an absolute blast to drive. While we still found it necessary to keep the revs high in order to coax maximum performance from the engine, turbo lag was only readily apparent in first gear. And even though pedal feel was reminiscent of the V6 4MOTION we had just driven, braking action was decidedly more confidence-inspiring in the lighter sedan.
Steering in both the GLX 4MOTION wagon and the 1.8T sedan provides pleasing heft and communicates just the right amount of road feel, and the steering wheel rim is likewise substantial and grippy. Passat's four-link suspension did a stellar job of soaking up road irregularities without sacrificing communicative ride quality. While it shrugs off rough roads and minor potholes without complaint, Passat can also take on curvy roads with alacrity and keep body roll to a minimum. The accelerative squat and brake dive that we've observed in our long-term '99 Passat 1.8T were all but absent in the redesigned model.
A few cosmetic tweaks distinguish the 2001.5 Passat from its predecessor, and the new look is undeniably Audi-like. A sharply raked grille with a more pronounced VW logo, a plethora of chrome accents and newly shaped head- and taillights give Passat an upmarket appeal while retaining its essential character.
Inside, the already attractive Passat sees only minor revisions. Gauges are now trimmed in brushed aluminum, and the revised center console sports brand-new, size-adjustable cupholders (say goodbye to those flimsy plastic rings that popped out of the center stack) and a small, compartmentalized storage area beneath the center armrest. The backseat even gets its own fold-down center armrest with two cupholders and a shallow storage well. Steering wheel buttons for cruise control and stereo are a newly standard feature with GLX trim (optional on GLS), as is VW's new Homelink system, a driver's visor-mounted transmitter that can be set to control garage doors, indoor and outdoor lighting, and some home security systems. Newly standard on all Passats is Volkswagen's Side Curtain Protection system, with airbags that cover the windows during a severe side-impact collision.
Fortunately for the consumer, the new Passat can be had in all its glory for just a little more than what it had cost previously. The base price of the 2001.5 Passat GLS sedan goes up $300, from $21,450 to $21,750, while the base GLS wagon can be had for $22,550. The top-of-the-line GLX sedan with 4MOTION has gone up $540 to $31,575, and the wagon comes in at $32,375. Still, that ain't chump change. Furthermore, the slowly but surely creeping prices that accompany Passat's upscale styling cues and handling improvements are starting to blur the lines between Volkswagen's bread-and-butter sedan and its upscale cousin, the Audi A4. While the A4 is an excellent sport sedan in its own right, we can't help but wonder if the automaker is shooting itself in the foot with this Passat redesign.
Then again, that's just testament to what a successful redesign it is. We must say, we sure dig that new Passat.
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