It's official, and, frankly, it's getting to be a little repetitive. Ever since the mid-1997 incarnation of the current generation, the Volkswagen Passat has time and time again proven to be our favorite midsize family sedan. Not only has it won the top prize in our 2000 Family Sedan Test and 2002 Premium Family Sedan Test, it's been our pick for the Editors' Most Wanted list, in which we vote for the cars that would grace our own garages, for three years running.
Apparently consumers agree with our assessment. Sales of Passats have bourgeoned more than six-fold since 1997. The car has appealed to those who seek something a little different from the mainstream, who are willing to pay a little more for style and European engineering over more ubiquitous domestic or Japanese sedans.
VeeDub consumers have also been historically younger than the average car buyer. In an effort to keep its loyal customers even after they've risen to the next income tax bracket, VW has cranked up the volume on its current flagship by adding an eight-cylinder engine. This will also pave the route for a future top-of-the-line luxury sedan, the Phaeton, as well as a premium SUV, the Touareg. Volkswagen might be the people's car, but the lineup is increasingly becoming for the well-off.
As the Passat's compact engine bay is unable to house a traditional V8, Volkswagen engineered a new W8. "W" refers to Volkswagen's new family of engines. The basic layout of the W8 is two narrow-angle four-valve V4 engines that share a common crankshaft and are configured at an angle of 72 degrees apart from each other. This layout could be described as a V-V arrangement, or a W. Displacing 4.0 liters and producing 270 ponies and 273 pound-feet of torque, the W8 is able to move the sedan from 0 to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. This puts the Passat in a category normally reserved for very fast entry-level sport sedans, such as the Acura TL Type-S and Infiniti G35.
The W8 is also as smooth as Ricardo Montalban is with the ladies thanks to engineering advancements. Get on the gas, and the W8 emits a refined exhaust note and loads of low-end thrust, the latter of which is lacking in 1.8T and V6 Passat engines. Mated to the W8 is a five-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic; coming for the 2003 model year is a close-geared six-speed manual to appeal to driving enthusiasts.
The structural reinforcements that VW engineers dialed into the 2001.5 redesign carry over into the W8. While the ride is certainly more biased toward street comfort than sporting aspirations, the Passat is a willing family sedan (and wagon) to frolic on a serpentine canyon road and can almost keep up with any of its German counterparts. There's a little more body movement when you sling it into a corner than your typical sport sedan has, but it's a tradeoff that pays dividends when you're comfortably cruising in town. Coming later in the year is a sport suspension package with 17-inch wheels, which should complement the Passat's already adept chassis.
Other bonuses that come with the W8 include the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system that distributes power equally to the front and rear axles at all times, a necessity since most front-wheel-drive cars would get jiggy with torque steer if they had 270 horses to rein in. Further, an electronic stability control system makes its way into the second VeeDub passenger car (the New Beetle Turbo S was the first); although, we have no doubt that this useful safety technology will trickle its way down across the line. Darkness is banished via bi-xenon self-adjusting headlamps complete with their own washers.
The only outwardly signs that there are eight cylinders under the hood are badging and dual exhausts neatly tucked on either side of the rear fender. Not so readily visible are rear disc brakes that are vented; non-W8s have solid rear plates. Inside, you'll find the high-quality soft-touch materials that we always rave about; of course, these can be found in base-level Passats as well. Like the GLX trim, the W8 comes with leather trim, lovely wood accents, heated and power front seats, steering wheel-mounted stereo controls, automatic climate control, a sunroof, rain-sensing wipers and a tilt-down passenger-side mirror that facilitates parallel parking. As of yet, there are no plans to install a navigation system but some European versions already house this feature, so we wouldn't be surprised if it becomes an option in the not-too-distant future.
Of course, in this class such little omissions as rear windows that aren't one-touch up-and-down and an outmoded six-disc CD changer that's not only optional but also trunk-mounted are all the more glaring. (If VW wants to play with the big boys, we're going to hold it under the same scrutiny.) Volkswagen states that the Passat is the only family sedan with an eight-cylinder engine. However, we consider $30,000 to be the dividing line between a regular family sedan and an entry-level luxury vehicle. At $37,900 for the sedan and $38,700 for the wagon, the Passat treads on the toes of some pretty spectacular cars.
The Passat starts at $21,000, and that includes such premium features as tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel, side-curtain airbags, height-adjustable headrests for all three rear positions and rear seat vents. It makes perfect sense at this price, but perceived value suffers when the same car lists at almost twice the price. When you pit the Passat against its luxury-laden competition, its luster becomes somewhat dulled. Not many of them have eight-cylinder engines, but many of them don't need one. The Passat's interior also seems rather ordinary when compared to cars such as the Lexus ES 300 or Audi A6.
But hey, this is America, and the U.S. of A. is all about choices. Volkswagen is simply offering one, with humble aspirations of selling 5,000 per annum. It reminds us of the phenomenon in which a frog will freak out if plunged into a pot of boiling water; however, if it's placed in cold water in which the temperature is gradually raised, it won't notice until it's happily in Kermit heaven. And before you know it, you'll be gladly shelling out $100,000 for a VW sports car. Hey, gotta keep it in the family, you know.