It's been a while. A long while, in fact. How long since the "people's car" company has offered an all-wheel-drive system on one of its passenger cars? More than a decade. Twelve years to be exact. And VW's back in the groove again with its 4Motion system now available on Passat sedans and wagons.
When we heard the good news, we had to get in the groove ourselves and get our editorial judge-o-meter looking at VW's new 4Motion system. Upon receiving this pretty Passat GLX 4Motion Wagon we wondered could we come up with some snow in the middle of August to really test the mettle of the all-wheel-drive system? Probably not. But we tried with a weekend trip to Lake Tahoe where there wasn't any snow to be found but we did happen to stumble upon a cool wooden boat show that was taking place on Tahoe's breathtaking north shore.
Snow or no snow, the 4Motion GLX, with its 30-valve, 2.8-liter V6, is one fine-drivin' machine. Refined to the point of matching a 3 Series BMW and more than a couple of Japanese-branded models in terms of NVH suppression, the Passat belies the fact that it's badged with the same nameplate as the pedal car-like Beetles that were being sold here in the '50s and '60s.
On the highway, the Passat gobbles up the pavement like a champ. On one coma-inducing stretch of Interstate 5 in California's San Joaquin Valley, we knocked off a 160-mile stint at 80-85 mph and stepped out of the car after the two-hour ride with considerably less fatigue than originally anticipated. If only the backseat was as comfortable as the ones up front. Backseat drivers reported a park bench-like feel with too-firm cushions and a lack of thigh support making it feel like they were sitting on, well, a park bench.
Less-than-ideal rear seating aside, the 4Motion system is worth a closer look. It works by continuously distributing power to all four wheels at all times and all speeds. An automatically locking Torsen center differential distributes engine power to the front and rear axles. Under normal driving conditions, the drive ratio is divvied up evenly to the front and rear wheels. On low-grip surfaces, the wheels with the higher level of traction receive more of the power with a ratio of up to 67 percent and 33 percent. The allocation of this ratio can go either way depending on which pair of wheels is getting the most traction.
In addition to this front/rear bias, the 4Motion system can also divide power side to side by way of an Electronic Differential Locking (EDL) system. It detects and limits individual wheelspin and redistributes the torque to the side that needs it the most. The result of this front-to-rear and side-to-side power distribution is that the 4Motion's lateral capabilities make it possible for one wheel to propel the car if three have lost traction.
While that's not a likely scenario, the ability of this car to really shine in rainy or snowy conditions is quite obvious. Being in California in the high summer didn't really give us a chance to try the system where it would be so effective, but the rest of the car is quite effective, all-wheel drive or not.
The Passat's middling test numbers don't paint a proper performance picture. In other words, while this machine didn't burn up the test track in a barrage of scorching numbers, it's much more fun to drive than these figures would have you believe. Weighing a hefty 3500-plus pounds, the Passat made it up to 60 mph in 8.7 seconds and completed the quarter-mile in 16.7 seconds at 84.7 mph. Braking seemed as if it could be a bit better. But the wagon used a still respectable 133 feet to stop from 60 mph and circled the skidpad with .79 g of lateral grip.
Where the fun-to-drive factor is really exemplified is in the slalom where we were able to scoot the car through the cones at a swift 62.9 mph. Our road test editor had glowing praise for the Passat after flinging it through at that lofty speed. "The chassis and steering response are amazing. Weighting is perfect and transitioning feels very 'German,' which is to say nimble in every aspect," he noted.
Other editors also had lots of nice things to say about this refined VW driving (and hauling it has more than 70 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat folded) machine. Executive editor Karl Brauer had strong general praise for the Passat GLX. "Volkswagen and Audi, much like BMW but to a slightly lesser extent, have the enviable knack of putting together cars that are just plain cool. Before I even got into the Passat Wagon, I saw this brilliant silver paint and clean body shape. Then I get in and feel the machined, high-quality door latches and hear a very solid 'thunk' as the door shuts. Then there's the highly adjustable and comfortable driver's seat with memory, excellent interior materials and a soothing purple glow in the gauge cluster. It's not common for carmakers to have this ability to make cars that just 'exude coolness' and few American car companies can do it. Volkswagen can."
More than one editor also noticed the wagon's outstanding outward visibility, which makes merging onto highways and changing lanes a painless endeavor. With glass all around, there are hardly any blind spots to contend with.
More kind words were not surprising as the Passat is truly satisfying to drive. Road test editor Dan Gardner noted that, "Driving this car is quite the enlightening experience since I had just recently driven a BMW 323iT. As far as I'm concerned, this car is equal to or superior to the Bimmer wagon in every respect, with the exception of the exterior appearance. Here, the BMW looks more sporty and youthful. Inside, the VW is equally pleasing with high-quality materials and an elegant look. The seating position is great as is the view over the hood. You also get a sportshift mode just like the BMW and responsive steering and brakes to boot."
Gardner heaped on more accolades for the Passat. "Driving around I marveled as I turned on the lights, which, in turn, lit up the interior with a bluish electroluminescent glow. Indeed, everything about the cabin leaves one with a distinct sensation of class and sportiness. Driving this car was simply a treat with its nimble chassis and 4Motion system, which is perfect for those living in all-season climates. There's no doubt in my mind that if I needed a wagon, I'd buy the Passat over the BMW and pocket the money I'd save."
You'd think with all this outright raving about the Passat that it was the perfect car, but as we all know, such an animal doesn't exist. For starters, this car is downright expensive, as it'll eat up 35 grand mighty quick by the time you're done dinkin' around with tax, license and all that other nickel-and-dime stuff. And do we have a story on the fuel gauge's accuracy, or lack thereof, but more on that later.
Our gripes about this VW are mentionable but certainly not a deal breaker as some of them are couched in praise anyway. For example, Brauer found the "seat bottom won't tilt and the power button on the side of the seat only moves the seat up and down. Despite this, I still was able to find to comfortable position to sit in."
Brauer felt the Passat's steering was rather heavy. But in this case the heft actually translated into better road feel. He didn't mind the steering effort since there's good road feel that goes with it but wondered if some people might find it tiresome and be turned off by it.
Brauer also noticed a lack of some features common to cars in this price range, specifically a lack of steering wheel radio controls, while Gardner wasn't crazy about the transmission's operation under heavier throttle conditions. "My only real complaint is the transmission is stubborn to downshift when you floor it." Gardner has also noticed this tendency in some Audis.
Those complaints pale in comparison to our problem concerning the fuel gauge on the way to Lake Tahoe. Going for a fuel economy run, we were admittedly trying to stretch things a bit by seeing if we could go 400 miles on one tank. At the 380-mile mark, after getting about 21 mpg, the gauge read about an eighth of a tank in the red zone but clearly not on "E." On Interstate 80 between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, we figured we would make it with no problem, especially according to the gauge. At this point our reasonable calculation was to have about 25-35 miles left before running out. When the refuel reminder light came on, we further surmised to have at least 20-25 miles left, allowing us to easily make the 400-mile-per-tank barrier.
Not so. Within five minutes of the light coming on, and after six additional miles of travel, we were stranded! The Passat ran out of gas with the gauge still showing just under an eighth of a tank. It was only by a stroke of pure luck that we coasted up an off ramp and found a gas station with a gas can about 100 yards away from where our drained Passat came to rest.
That was the end of that. From there on out, we refueled each time the car traveled about 325 miles. Furthermore, the gauge was horribly inaccurate on full as well. After driving as far as 110 miles (on the next tank we looked at the gauge like a hawk) the gauge still hadn't moved off full. Over the course of the next 150-200 miles, the gauge made the full sweep. So in effect, the gauge in our test car told us how much gas was in the car only about half the time.
Our dead-fish gas gauge notwithstanding, the Passat is clearly a fine piece of automotive machinery and serves well as VW's flagship model. While it's not cheap, you can bet that the wagon derivative of our Family Sedan Comparison Test winner is a frontrunner in station-wagon form, too.
Attractive gauges. Redline is tagged at 6,500 rpm, but limiter comes on at 6,800 rpm. Shift in "D" mode comes right at 6,500 rpm. 2,200 rpm brake torque raises the whole car off the ground as the vehicle torques noticeably. No wheelspin with the 4Motion setup. Good view over the hood. Double depress accelerator pedal with far too much resistance. VW needs to loosen up the springing. Sportshift shifts for you whether you like it or not. Like some Audis we've tested, it won't hold second gear in Sportshift mode but strangely WILL with the gear lever in the "2" mode.
Good pedal feel with good straight line stability. Lots of body recoil as you come to a complete stop. Lots of ABS noise, but not terribly unrefined. Good amount of pulse through pedal. Pedal effort is almost perfect. Lots of skidding as ABS tries to catch up after initial stabbing of brakes.
Lots of body roll and tire howl. Takes a steady set with little corrections of steering required. Fairly easy to control with the throttle. Progressive between over and understeer. The car is sprung a bit soft, but it's very predictable. Soft valvetrain clatter after runs.
Perfect seating position. Chassis and steering response are amazing, wagon or no wagon. Rim feel is great. It's thick with good ergonomic molding for fingers. Weighting is perfect. Transitioning feels very "German," which is to say nimble in every aspect. All runs were done in third gear.
System Score: 7.75
Components. From what we can tell, this system appears to be identical to the one we listened to several months ago in our Family Sedan Comparison Test. That system won the competition (as did the car), and we find no reason to shout the praises of it any less this time around. In fact, the larger internal dimensions of the Passat wagon aid the sound system somewhat, producing a great space for dynamic sound.
This Monsoon system consists of drivers in the front and rear doors. There are no speakers in the rear luggage area of the wagon. The front door speakers include a 6-inch woofer coupled with tweeters in a specially built enclosure between the side mirrors and the dash. The rear drivers appear identical to the front ones, with a 6-inch woofer in the lower-front portion of the door coupled with a nicely positioned dome tweeter in the upper front area. Exceptionally well done. Electronics include an AM/FM/cassette radio with a built-in single-play CD. The whole front control panel, including the radio, is done up in bright neon blue and red lighting at night, and it's pretty spacey to look at until you get used to it. The head unit has sensible controls, is very user-friendly, and is at a perfect elevation in the dash. However, one editor didn't like the head unit ergonomics while driving the car at night and dealing with heavy traffic at the same time. He also noticed that the cupholders block the system.
Performance. What can I say? It sounds great. The tweeters produce a great soundstage in both front and rear seating positions. Some people will find the system a little lacking in bass, but this is very much in tune with the European bloodlines of this car. Turn it up and it's still capable of good bass, with the added benefit that you don't get that flabby sound so many American systems produce. The bass is tight, accurate, and surprisingly deep considering the small size of the speakers. In short, the speakers are well tuned to their enclosures (the doors). A very fine-sounding system.
Best Feature: Overall sonic balance.
Worst Feature: A little thin in the bass department.
Conclusion. A great car with a great stereo. What more could you want?