Andrew Walker, Contributor
Volkswagen wants us to think of the new, sixth-generation Passat as a "marvel of German engineering." That's a debate best left to the engineers. All I know is the 2006 Volkswagen Passat 3.6 is marvelous to drive.
Appropriately, that drive was in Germany, and much of it was spent on the autobahn, an infallible seat-of-the-pants test venue. It measures acceleration, braking, steering and driver comfort like no other public highway. In the wrong car, it can be a very scary place. In the new VW Passat? Piece of Black Forest cake.
After just a few miles of unrestricted autobahn between Wolfsburg and Hannover, the Passat 3.6 showed its mettle as a solid, powerful sport sedan in the best European tradition. And it reaffirmed my contention that the finest cars in the world are engineered just an on-ramp away from the challenges of the world's fastest public roads.
Completely new, from the umbrella holder in the driver door on out, this larger, stronger Passat was built to reflect all the best "traditional VW qualities": a decent value, a fun-to-drive demeanor, and plenty of good old German engineering. It appears to be all of that, but hopefully the 2006 Passat also will avoid being caught in those recent, less agreeable aspects of VW ownership, poor reliability and lackluster dealer service.
The lineup for the U.S. is comprised of a turbocharged four-cylinder base version and a second model powered by a new V6.
At launch this summer, the 2006 Passat is available with front-wheel drive and VW's new 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbo, which is replacing the acclaimed 1.8T in VW and Audi engine bays. It's a terrific engine with lots of torque (207 pound-feet), and mates nicely to a six-speed manual transmission in Value Edition and 2.0T models. A six-speed Tiptronic is optional.
In the fourth quarter of 2005, the 2.0T will be joined by the Passat 3.6, powered by a newly developed narrow-angle V6 with an output of 280 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque. It will also be front-wheel drive, and a six-speed Tiptronic will be the only transmission choice.
In the spring of 2006 there will be a wagon version, and the 3.6 will spawn an all-wheel-drive Passat 4Motion toward midyear.
A Return to Value
The MSRP of a base 2006 Passat is $22,950, not including the $615 destination charge. To put its value into perspective, consider that in 1998 the Passat, a far inferior car to the new one, began at $21,300. In today's market, the average price of a midsize sedan is around $25,000. A well-equipped 2.0 with the six-speed Tiptronic still starts at under $25 grand, and when stuffed full of every conceivable option runs to around $32,000.
Entry price for the 3.6 is $29,950. Fully loaded, the cost can run close to $40,000, but that's still a bargain when compared to similarly sized models from VW's German cousins in Stuttgart, Ingolstadt and Munich.
Every Volkswagen Passat comes with an impressive list of standard equipment, including A/C, an eight-speaker CD/MP3/stereo, electronic parking brake, tire-pressure monitoring system, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, rear passenger vents for A/C and heat, 60/40 folding rear seats with pass-through, power outside mirrors, power windows and door locks, anti-theft alarm, cruise control, multifunction trip computer, three auxiliary power outlets, and leatherette seating surfaces.
Passenger safety is covered by a sophisticated mix of active and passive elements: six airbags, crash-active headrests, four-wheel discs with ABS and BrakeAssist, Electronic Stabilization Program, Anti-Slip Program, and Electronic Differential Lock. Additional safety elements include pedals that retract away from the driver in a crash and Daytime Running Lights. Rear side thorax airbags are an option.
More Room, More Style
Although the 3.6s we drove were preproduction cars and heavy rains fell, we were still able to get a sense of the car's improved handling. We noticed the tightness of the platform, a benefit of the new Passat's 56-percent stiffer body structure (best torsional rigidity in class, says VW). Other factors that contributed to the sporty drive are a wider track (by 1.5 inches) and a new suspension, which includes a slick four-link setup at the rear.
The Passat is now larger in every exterior dimension. Overall length and width were both increased by almost 3 inches. The upsizing allows a more spacious cabin, especially for rear passengers, who get 2.4 inches more legroom. Even with a 6-foot-6 person in the driver seat and my 6-foot frame in the seat behind him there was no problem.
Although the trunk is slightly smaller than in the previous Passat, its usable space is now better, as the new rear suspension is more compact and doesn't intrude on the luggage space.
Settling into the new Passat's cockpit is like climbing into a mini Phaeton. The atmosphere is immediately upscale and inviting. From the seating to the sightlines, the Passat gives a feeling of confident control. Materials and fit and finish are class-leading.
Starting the Volkswagen Passat is now done with a "key" that's simply pushed into a slot on the dashboard. This reduces potential leg injuries suffered during a crash from a steering column-mounted ignition switch, and it eliminates one of the most highly stressed components of the vehicle. It's very cool-looking, too. Also gone missing is the emergency brake lever, replaced by a button-operated electronic parking brake.
Blastin' the 'Bahn
A surprisingly deep rumble, sounding much more V8 than V6, rolled out from behind the 3.6 when I first shoved the key in the slot. I shot a surprised look at VW's technical crew and received the smug looks of those who knew my reaction was coming. Impressive. And once the throttle is fully applied, the 3.6-liter is not at all shy about announcing its full potential.
The six-speed Tiptronic gearbox seems particularly effective for delivering the V6's 280 hp. No stumbles, no wavering, just a steady pulse of power followed by a silken snick to the next gear. Feedback from the powertrain, steering and brakes is standard VW; that is, it's nigh perfect.
The Passat tracks straight and true, even at 135 mph, aided by the new electromechanical steering. The new steering system adjusts its assist based on vehicle speed and steering wheel angle, stiffening up on the straights and providing more assist for turns. It also helps stabilize the car in crosswinds without driver intervention.
Suspension calibration in the 3.6 is decidedly weighted toward sporty driving. Body roll is muted, and the squat and dive which plagued the previous generation of the Passat is completely absent.
The test cars were equipped with the optional 18-inch wheels and tires, which magnified a slight chop from the suspension when the road got a little rough, but over smooth pavement the only upset in the quiet cabin was some wind noise through the preproduction door seals.
The Right Stuff
Sporty and comfortable, with a pleasantly freshened look, the new Volkswagen Passat has everything it takes to attract a wider group of buyers than in the past. It's now up to VW's dealers to make the ownership experience fully enjoyable.
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