2001.5 Volkswagen new Passat GLS 1.8T Sedan Road Test

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2001 Volkswagen Passat Sedan

(1.8L 4-cyl. Turbo 5-speed Manual)
Sometimes, an object used in daily life is lifted out of its banal status of necessity. It rises from being merely functional and aspires to become an object of desire, without foregoing any of its essential practicality that made it an obligatory object in the first place. Italian designers are particularly apt at imbuing something as lowly as a corkscrew with a cunning twist so that it becomes a work of art. Domestically, Target has appropriated the work of artist Michael Graves to inject style into such humdrum appliances as toasters and teapots that make you want them as much as you need them.

German automaker Volkswagen has done the same with its 2001.5 new Passat. It transcends its status as a family sedan to become an artful vehicle. Sure, we expect expensive luxury sedans and exotic sports cars to evoke a sense of flair and design. But the Passat is to Germany what the Ford Taurus or Toyota Camry is to America, a sensible people-mover with a reasonable price tag. Yet the Passat differs in that it aspires to be more than just another family sedan; it has the appointments and feel of an entry-level luxury sedan while priced below most cars of that class.

It's no accident; VW is poised to take the Passat to the next level of consumption, with fancy options such as a W8 powerplant emitting 275 horsepower, the choice of a navigation system and Alcantara leather available by the end of 2001. Them's fightin' words to the other German manufacturers, and especially to VW's uptown cousin, Audi.

VW has to have lots of guts to take on the creme of its countrymen. We'll reserve judgment until we get our hot little hands on the W8. For now, suffice it to say that the new Passat outclasses all of its competitors. We've felt this way since the second-generation Passat debuted in 1998; now the new Passat is further on the cusp of the precipice, ready to break through the plebeian curtain into the realm of German luxury.

There are 2,315 new parts on the Passat, and the only carryovers are the doors and roof. Visually, Volkswagen has decided to raise the "sparkle" level of the Passat, a move that has aroused choruses of objections from many of our editors, who thought that the pure lines of the Dove Bar-smooth old Passat were perfect as is. The grille is now raked at a more acute angle, and the hood sports a couple of creases that lend character. While the new chrome accents around the grille, side windows and side moldings earned kudos from some, others thought that it tarted up the simplistically elegant lines; it's like Gwyneth Paltrow with a belly button ring. Not necessarily a bad thing, but some may think it detracts from the, um, Gwyneth-ness of Gwyneth.

Veedub prettied-up the interior, too. Brushed aluminum rings the gauges to brighten the instrument cluster, which now includes a trip computer. Chrome interior door handles and aluminum trim accent pieces further class-up the joint. And, of course, we can't forget the funk-a-licious instrument panel that lights up red and violet.

And, showing that they do care about customer feedback, the Volks finally installed some useful cupholders, center-mounted dealies that hold the cup and its contents in place, instead of dainty but utterly useless pop-out plastic pieces that so raised the ire of sweetened fruit beverage-swilling autoweenies. All of these are part of one of the most aesthetically pleasing interiors in this price range, with a dual-toned dash composed of soft-touch plastics that match the rest of the high-quality materials of the cabin. And you bought an Audi A4 because...?

The Passat not only received cosmetic surgery; it has also beefed up its innards. The 1.8T engine receives an infusion of 20 ponies for a grand total of 170) and it's twisting force is up to 166 pound-feet. We already considered the old engine a gem, and we don't consider the new one a huge improvement. In the mid-ranges, the increase was barely discernable, but in the upper revs, a second wind could be detected, and appreciated.

In any case, so sprightly is this powerplant that we questioned the need for a six-cylinder engine. Of course, force-fed powerplants do have their inequities; this one suffered from a smidgeon of turbo lag, which, combined with a high clutch letup, resulted in some gooseflesh moments on hills and parking ramps, especially in downtown San Francisco. Excessive clutch pedal travel is a characteristic of our long-term Passat, as well, so we're assuming that it's a Volkswagen thing. It was easy enough to acclimate after we'd driven for a few miles. Combined with a positive-actuation shifter, it results in that holy grail of the automotive realm, a functional car that's fun to drive.

The 1.8T's 0-to-60-mph launch time of 8.2 seconds is comparable to other midsize sedans with a six-cylinder powerplant, as is its 87.3-mph quarter-mile speed. One of the greatest benefits of a small-displacement four-cylinder engine is that it barely sips fuel; the Passat was no exception, garnering 26 miles to the gallon even with the leaden hooves of the oafish drivers around here.

In order to nudge the Passat into the edgier realm of luxury sedans, the Volks also stiffened the chassis, although, again, the old suspension was already pleasing. Its upgrade is subtle, just to the point at which we questioned whether any massaging actually occurred, but our road test coordinator confirmed its status by pushing it through the cones of our 600-foot slalom course at a speed of 62.8 mph, an improvement of 3 mph over the 2000 Passat we tested last year. Although a fair amount of body roll on mountainous roads does serve to remind the driver that the VW is not marketed as a sport sedan, its chassis and drivetrain possess that magic combination of sheer ability that coaxes the driver to push the car harder.

Again, however, this isn't a sport sedan, and the ride is biased toward comfort. It provides a silken drive, soaking up ruts and bumps as if they were mere granules of sand. Especially impressive is its highway demeanor, remaining rock-steady as we blasted down the Pacific Coast Highway at speed. And it's a serene ride, as well, with road and wind noise nicely quelled. Rattles around the dash area over rough surfaces were the only intrusions in an otherwise peaceful environment.

Steering is just a smidge slow; its turning circle of 37.4 feet is a bit larger than those of its competitors. The assist is nicely weighted, although it lacks acuity that would earn greater adulation and perhaps gain a foothold into the sport sedan realm. No torque steer could be felt in this front-wheel-driver.

Halting the package are well-modulated powerful disc brakes on all four corners that stopped the Passat in a short 123 feet. Impressive, especially since they showed no fade or fatigue after the aforementioned twisty run. These, along with an anti-slip regulation system (ASR) and electronic differential locking (EDL) comprise the traction control system. We'd like to see the installation of a stability control system, but, again, we had to remind ourselves that this is a family sedan and not a luxury car. Many cars in this class don't offer a traction control system even as an option.

Nor do most provide side curtain airbags, another standard feature in the Passat. We have to hand it to VW for its efforts to democratize safety — even the economy-minded Jetta has them as standard equipment. Also currying our editors' favor is the tilt and telescoping steering wheel, which allows the driver to find the perfect driving position.

Our test model was equipped with the leather package; with swell-feeling, tautly stretched cowhide covering the heatable seats; heated windshield washer nozzles; and a multi-function steering wheel. Even though the seats didn't have power controls, their side bolstering, adjustable lumbar support and articulating headrests allowed for a high degree of comfort. It also had a luxury package that includes a sunroof, 15-inch alloy wheels and rear sunshade. Although it's a rather pricey option at $1,550, the sunroof operation is as brilliant as ever, with a rotary dial that whisks away the dank-cabin doldrums with a flick of the wrist.

Further enhancing the cabin was a $325 Monsoon sound system, which includes eight speakers and capability for CD wiring. But check this out — a CD player, even a single one, is available only as a dealer-installed option. What is it with Germans and their antipathy toward standard CD players? It's simply baffling that the land of Wagner and Bach (not to mention Nena) would not rush to embrace this technology. "99 Luftballoons" sounds sooo much better in digital format than on a magnetized strip.

The split-folding rear seats are notable for their utter simplicity and ease of use. No secondary straps to pull here — just jerk on the handle and load up to your heart's content. Rear seaters have an armrest/compartmentalized console, as well as the optional manual rear sunshade. You won't find many complaints coming from the back; even though the Passat sports tidy exterior dimensions, its wheelbase of 106.4 inches is comparable to other family sedans, as evidenced by short front and rear overhangs. This results in a spacious cabin of 95 cubic feet and trunk volume of 15 cubic feet, plenty of room for five adults and their overnight luggage.

Volkswagen offers a 2-year/24,000-mile limited warranty — somewhat lackluster as compared to the industry standard, which usually allows for 3 years or 30,000 miles. However, its 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty is better than most, and it comes with free scheduled maintenance for 2 years or 24,000 miles. For 2002, all VWs will come with a 4-year/50,000-mile warranty.

We already knew that the old Passat was the best midsize family sedan last year when we conducted our nine-car comparison test. Our certified-used long-term car, with almost 40,000 miles on the odo, still manages to please our editors to no end. With a reasonable price tag, high degrees of functionality and drivability as well gobs of style to match, the 2001.5 new Passat not only confirms our assessment, but lengthens the lead.
System Score: 4.5

Components: One of the most maddening things about listening to all these stereos (yeah, yeah, I know, it's a tough gig) is coming across a setup like the one found in this Passat. The reason? I've heard this system in a different configuration, and it sounded great. Unfortunately, the stereo in this car is lacking one very important ingredient — a CD player. Without a CD player, it's almost impossible to test the dynamics of the system. It's also nigh impossible to enjoy the damn thing, since a CD adds so much to the sound quality and sheer entertainment value of any stereo. Therefore, be forewarned: If you're thinking of buying a Passat, do yourself a favor and get the upgraded audio system that includes a CD player. Your friends will thank you, your family will thank you, even your dog will thank you (and you know how good his hearing is).

This Monsoon system consists of two sets of component speakers. Unlike most sedans in this class, there are no speakers in the back deck. The front door speakers include 6.5-inch woofers coupled to tweeters in the lower A pillars. The rear drivers appear identical, with 6.5-inch woofers in the lower-front portion of the doors coupled with tweeters in the upper front area. Electronics include an in-dash cassette radio with nicely appointed features. The radio has a few unique touches, such as a rubberized volume knob that has a wonderful tactile feel and separate AM/FM buttons for quicker station access.

Performance: As mentioned above, with only cassette and FM signal to test the sound quality of this system, it's difficult to tell how good it might sound. I happen to know from experience that the components are of high quality and sound terrific in the right setting — but you can't tell that from listening to this system. It receives very low scores for sound quality.

Best Feature: User-friendly head unit.

Worst Feature: No CD player.

Conclusion: We don't need to belabor the point. Buy this car with the upgraded audio package that includes a CD player, or risk being the scorn of friends, family and pets for as long as you live.

— Scott Memmer Editor-in-Chief Karl Brauer says:
It sounds clichéd, but the new Passat is simply the old Passat with some slight tweaking. A good thing, that, since the old version was probably the best midsize sedan on the market. The new one is even better, but not tremendously so. It's a bit faster, a bit tighter and a bit flashier. I don't really mind the chrome accents, but I don't find them particularly compelling, either.

Inside is where the biggest improvements are found — real, live cupholders! If you've driven a BMW 3 Series, this new drink station, located as it should be between the front seats, will look quite familiar. Compared to the retracting, flimsy shelf on the previous Passat, it's far superior. But what I find distressing is how vital this upgrade will be to most American drivers ... including myself! See, in Europe, they think cupholders are for weenies. And some small part of me still wants to agree with them.

Our test car had an attractive two-tone interior with a black dash and tan seats covered in supple leather. Steering wheel controls were another appreciated option, as were the aluminum rings around the gauges that made me wonder why people buy Audis instead of the "cheaper" Volkswagen version.

So the new Passat is a great car. But so is the old one, and you can probably pick up a leftover 2001 (as opposed to 2001.5 — I just love VWs model year designations!) for less money. Unless you're one of those weenie drivers who demands great cupholders (like me), that might be the way to go.

Associate Editor Erin Riches says:
The 2001.5 Passat is a wonderful update to the 1998-2001 Passat. I could happily live with either, but if I had my choice I would definitely pick the 2001.5.

The main factor, of course, is the increased output of the 1.8T powerplant. Who needs the V6 now? Not me. I had a great time with this 1.8T. The engine still has a delightfully wide powerband, but the 11 extra pound-feet of torque seemed to make for faster launches off the line — which made the manual-equipped test car even easier to drive in city traffic than our '99 long-termer. And while I've always enjoyed working through our long-termer's gears, I found more pleasure doing this in the 2001.5 test car. The flat torque curve carried me all the way to the 170-horsepower pay-off at 5,900 rpm, and the engine was quite amenable to revving. In short, this car is a better value than the 1.8T-equipped Passats of 1998-2001, because it feels much less like a commuter car and more like a fun entry-luxury car. I found myself inclined to drive it harder than its predecessor, more akin to the way I used to drive our long-term 328i. Of course, the clutch and shifter action is just as easy as it was in the old Passat (and the setup felt a lot tighter in the tester, because it's a lot newer than our long-termer).

Although this Passat provided a wonderful highway ride, it seemed ideal for an individual who works during the week but likes to negotiate the back roads on the weekend. I had a lot of fun with this car on curvy Mulholland Highway — the suspension held on extremely well (very little body roll) and provided a pleasant dose of road feel. It didn't feel like a sports car, rather a very physically fit midsize sedan. The steering was well weighted and responsive (if a bit heavy in the parking lot), and I felt quite skillful behind the wheel — I think it would be hard to mess up during everyday driving. The brakes worked quite well, though the pedal felt a little mushy as I pulled up to stoplights.

I'm not as happy with the gauge cluster in the new Passat. You still get the lovely nighttime environment of grape and lava, but the borders around the tachometer and speedometer made them harder for me to read. Otherwise, the interior was pretty much identical to the previous Passat's. I still like the manual seats in this car — they're funky to operate, but they always deliver a perfect driving position for me (along with the steering wheel's wide range of telescoping ability) and they're cheaper than power seats.

I savored my experience with this car, and I would eagerly recommend a Passat 1.8T to anyone who wants a midsize sedan that feels like an entry-luxury sedan.

Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
The new Passat 1.8T drives just like the old Passat 1.8T, but with a hint more power, a slightly more composed structure and a smidge better cabin ergonomics. The overall effect of the improvements to this award-winning Volkswagen is that a great car is closing in on perfect.

Some of my colleagues believe the "Drivers Wanted" marketing hype when it comes to the Passat. The car is fun to drive thanks to its communicative nature, but its soft suspension reminds me more of a Camry than a Maxima. This makes for a well-damped, glass-smooth ride around town, but allows extra dive, squat and roll when driven with gusto. And the tires are biased more toward ride quality than canyon carving.

Still, with stout brakes and responsive steering, the turbocharged Passat was able to maintain its composure with little effort as I sluiced down a grade of switchbacks. It takes a few tries to get the hang of the blown 1.8-liter engine's character, but once the driver is dialed in, it's easy to extract both speed and fuel economy from the Passat. Just be sure to pay extra attention to smooth launches so passengers don't lose their lunches.

Inside, things are much the same as before with the notable exception of the dramatically improved cupholders. Placed in the center console, they can't possibly allow drips on the stereo and climate controls. Also snazzy are the brushed aluminum rings that surround the gauge faces. Otherwise, the cabin is standard-issue Passat: rich materials that impart a sense of luxury combined with occasionally fussy ergonomics and chintzy-feeling switchgear.

Styling is carefully updated, intended to give the Passat a more distinctive, upscale appearance. The changes work, but personally, I prefer the cleaner, less glitzy look of the 1998-2001 model.

Would I recommend a Passat 1.8T to someone searching for a solid family sedan? Without question. I'd even recommend the Passat 1.8T to someone searching for a well-appointed luxury sedan. Or fun-to-drive sport sedan. This VW can do it all, and for chump change. "I love my new 2001.5 Passat. The 1.8T with auto has plenty of acceleration.... I did notice that the gas pedal feels a bit numb at first touch and then takes off. I would have preferred the V6, but $2,570 for the engine and a few bits of wood trim seemed absurd to me. My past cars have all been V6s, but I don't miss the extra horsepower or torque at all. The four is still smoother and quieter than my old '99 Grand Am GT. As for the chrome trim, I park next to my boss' 2001 Passat everyday. Sometimes I think his car with the lack of chrome trim and the plainer grille and taillights looks much better than mine. He feels that mine looks much better than his with the chrome trim and more stylized grille and taillights. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side." — catbert430, "VW Passat," #859 of 1420, April 25, 2001

"It's been a week since I brought my Reflex Silver beauty home. It's the GLS with the four-cylinder turbo/Tiptronic. I opted for the luxury package (sunroof, alloy wheels, sun shade), as I'm in South Florida. It also has the Monsoon speakers and HomeLink. Gray Velour finished up things. (Leather in Florida? I don't think so. Might attract alligators or something.) I just moved here earlier in the year from Minnesota. This is my first VW, although as a twentysomething, my girlfriend had a 1969 Beetle (in 1969). As a former Camry owner (six years leasing a '95 and '98) I got tired of the car. Also there's so many of them! Anyway, this Passat is marvelous. I love the handling and feel of the steering. As someone said, the car feels so 'safe.' Fit and finish are terrific, and the details are what make the difference in my opinion between the Passat and the Camry. Camrys are exceptionally reliable. I hope my Passat is as well. To hedge on that, I purchased an extended warranty. Oh yes, I bought the car rather then leasing. It's fun to drive again!" — pkradd, "VW Passat," #863 of 1420, April 27, 2001

"V6 vs. 1.8T? I asked a similar question about the engines about a 100 posts ago and got a good response. Bottom line, though, is personal choice (I know, that's been said a million times). I didn't buy the Passat in 1999 because I didn't like the 1.8T, and the V6 was just out of my price range. I just bought yesterday...and I got the 1.8T. Mainly because I think with the 20 more horsepower, it put the performance in line with the V6 and the cost difference is huge. I actually didn't get to drive a V6 because I wanted a five-speed and neither dealer I went to over the course of two weeks ever had a V6 with the five-speed." — mulfomi, "VW Passat," #1228 of 1420, June 8, 2001

"1.8T vs. V6: Both are great engines, but rather than horsepower differences, each engine gives the car a different character in my opinion. The 1.8T is a bargain and has surprising power. It feels a bit sportier and can be tuned to put out a good deal more power. It also gets better mileage. However, it is noisier and feels a bit more lethargic from a standing start when the car is equipped with the Tiptronic. I feel the V6 is quieter, smoother and works well with the Tip. It transforms the car into a more luxury-oriented feel as opposed to the 1.8T's sportier feel. Myself, for health reasons as well as local traffic conditions, I had to get the Tiptronic. I preferred the feel of the V6 with the Tip, and my little research on resale values showed that the V6 does retain a good portion of its price premium. Also, perhaps I am a bit of a worrier, but there have been a couple of situations I've been in that made me glad I got the V6 because I worry about the heat with the turbo. Once when I only had 750 miles on my car, I got stuck in a massive traffic jam on the San Mateo Bridge, which took two hours to cross. Sitting, idling in the heat with no way out and moving an inch or two every couple of minutes. Brutal on the car. Also I just returned from a trip back from Southern California driving through the Mohave desert, through the Tehachapi's in 100 degree heat, going 80-90 mph with the A/C on. Anyway, obviously I am happy with my choice, but both are great engines and it's really a personal choice. The only problem is now I've seen the new Audi A4 Avant and am drooling." — spellbound, "VW Passat," #1231 of 1420, June 8, 2001

"I bought my Passat 1.8T auto on June 8. It is a pleasure to drive. I took it in a week later because of a defect in the windshield. It wasn't a scratch, but looked more like someone took a knife and made a slice through the layers of glass if that is possible. The dealer replaced it under warranty, and they were nice about it, too. I notice the 'lag' that occurs when I accelerate from 0 in drive. When I [manually shift] the Tiptronic, ...the lag is not there. It's more fun driving on surface streets using the Tiptronic anyway. Other than that I've had no complaints. This car is sporty yet classy, cool yet sophisticated, stylish yet conservative, slow yet...that's enough. I get so many looks and compliments about my car. I wish I could have afforded the leather, sunroof and wood trim, but then again, when you add all of those options, the Passat ceases to be the bargain I was looking for in the first place...." — passatdriver, "VW Passat," #1390 of 1421, June 28, 2001

Edited by Erin Riches
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