Used 2003 Volkswagen Passat Review

This is our favorite midsize car -- in both sedan and wagon form. Don't make your vehicle choice without driving one.

what's new

For 2003, a base GL sedan and wagon are available. Think of the GL as a GLS 1.8T for buyers who don't require any extras like alloy wheels, leather upholstery, seat heaters or a sunroof. Meanwhile, alloy wheels and sunroof are now standard on GLS models. The 4Motion all-wheel-drive system will not be offered on GLS V6 models, forcing interested buyers to cross the 30-grand line; however, VW has made stability control (ESP) optional on all Passats (except the W8, which has this standard). Also this year, you'll be able to get W8 sedans and wagons with a six-speed manual transmission and a sport package that includes a firmer suspension and the requisite 17-inch wheels. Lastly, the standard stereo head unit gets backlighting for the buttons.

vehicle overview

Introduction: Ever since the mid-1997 incarnation of the current generation -- followed by significant updates in mid-2001 -- the Volkswagen Passat has proven to be our favorite midsize family car. Apparently consumers agree with our assessment. Sales of Passats have increased more than six-fold since 1997. The car appeals to those who seek something a little different from the mainstream and are willing to pay a little more for the Passat's style and European engineering.

Last year, we saw the first production application of VW's "W" family of engines, as the long-awaited Passat W8 sedan and wagon arrived in the U.S., replete with the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system. With an MSRP around $38K, the entry-luxury W8 is out of reach for the typical family car buyer, but look at it this way: Where else can you find a German car with eight cylinders for this price? Still, there are many good six-cylinder competitors in this price bracket, so it's a good idea to shop around.

The Passat family is now spread out across the 20 to 40K price range; whether you seek a cloth-lined sedan with a manual transmission or a leather-lined wagon with all-wheel drive, you'll be getting an entertaining midsize car with comfortable, upscale cabin accommodations, a lengthy list of safety features and tight construction.

Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options: VW offers the Passat sedan and wagon in four trim levels -- GL, GLS, GLX and W8. The GL comes with four-wheel antilock disc brakes, traction control, cruise control, side and head curtain airbags, a driver-seat height adjuster, a CD player, power windows and locks, keyless entry, 15-inch steel wheels, a fullsize spare and power heated mirrors. Options include stability control (ESP) with brake assist, a premium sound system and a dealer-installed CD changer.

The GLS adds a sunroof and alloy wheels; it has the options available as the GL does, as well as seat heaters and leather upholstery. All of the above are standard on the GLX, except for ESP and the CD changer, which remain optional. Additionally, GLX models come with power seats, rain-sensing wipers, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and 16-inch wheels. Note that GLX models are available in front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (4Motion). If you spring for the W8, 4Motion and ESP come standard, as do vented disc brakes all around, xenon headlamps and an upgraded trip computer. A sport package (a firmer suspension and 17-inch wheels) is optional on the W8 only.

Powertrains and Performance: Of the three engine choices, our favorite is the 1.8-liter turbocharged inline four that delivers 170 horsepower. It's standard on the GL and is one of two choices for the GLS. The other choice is a 190-hp 2.8-liter V6. While no longer among the fastest six-cylinders in the midsize class, this V6 is buttery smooth; it's standard on the GLX. Both engines come with either a five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic. Available on GLX models with automatic transmissions is the 4Motion AWD system. Under normal traction conditions, the system splits power 50/50 between the front and rear; it can redistribute power up to a 67/33 ratio either way to combat slippage. The W8 sedan and wagon are powered by a compact 4.0-liter eight-cylinder engine (called "W8" because of its staggered cylinders) that develops 270 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. 4Motion is standard, and, for 2003, both the automatic and a six-speed manual will be offered.

Safety: The Passat earned five stars for both of NHTSA's frontal impact crash tests and four stars in the side-impact categories. The IIHS gave it a "good" rating for the offset crash test. All models come with front side airbags and head curtain airbags for the front and rear. Stability control is standard on the W8 and optional on other models. Interior Design and Special Features: Even at the GL trim level, the Passat's cabin is comfortable and upscale in feel. Wagons provide 39 cubic feet of luggage space; fold down the 60/40 rear seat and you'll have 56.5 cubic feet (54.6 for 4Motion models). Driving Impressions: With a well-balanced suspension and perfectly weighted steering, the Passat is one of the most entertaining midsize cars around. Some drivers might find body roll a bit excessive around turns, but the trade-off for excellent ride quality is worthwhile.

edmunds expert review process

This review was written by a member of Edmunds' editorial team of expert car reviewers. Our team drives every car you can buy. We put the vehicles through rigorous testing, evaluating how they drive and comparing them in detail to their competitors.

We're also regular people like you, so we pay attention to all the different ways people use their cars every day. We want to know if there's enough room for our families and our weekend gear and whether or not our favorite drink fits in the cupholder. Our editors want to help you make the best decision on a car that fits your life.