Volkswagen Passat History

Volkswagen Passat History

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Back in the early '70s Volkswagen was floundering. After more than three decades in production, the Beetle was simply being outclassed by the competition and there was no way to tweak the design to keep up. Meanwhile, newer air-cooled/rear-engine cars like the awkward 411 and 412 that were intended to supplant and supplement the Beetle were nothing less than abject failures. VW needed to do something different and the first something it did differently was the Passat. It was the first front-drive Volkswagen sold in North America.

Fortunately for VW, it had Audi around; and it could steal from that company with impunity.

The Passat's (and VW's) fortunes would ebb and flow through the decades, but eventually the always-German-made car would become a mainstay of Volkswagen's success in America. "Eventually," however, took 24 years.

First-Generation: The Dasher (1974-1981)

For no apparent reason, VW decided to sell the car known as the Passat in the rest of the world as the Dasher in North America. But except for the name change and the few safety, bumper and emissions modifications necessary to sell the car in this market, the Dasher was barely different than the Passat — the most obvious difference being the Dasher's single round headlamps in place of the elongated hexagonal units used in Europe. And the Passat was little more than an Audi 80 with a Volkswagen grille.

Sold as the Audi Fox in the U.S. (it went on sale here for the 1973 model year), the 80 was a simple car with a longitudinally mounted 1.5-liter, water-cooled, SOHC four under its hood making 75 horsepower. Built around a unibody structure, it incorporated a MacPherson strut front suspension and a beam axle on coil springs in the back. The only transmissions offered were either a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic.

The Fox/80, initially available as either a two- or four-door notchback sedan, was cleanly styled (by Giorgetto Giugiaro, no less) and quite a success for Audi in its own right. So to create the 1974 Dasher/Passat, Volkswagen didn't mess with the basic Fox formula. The greatest change was the adoption of a fastback five-door hatchback body style — even though much of the sheet metal from the doors forward was common. There was also a wagon model that, at least initially, wasn't shared with Audi. A three-door was also available in Europe, but wasn't sent to America during that first-year model year.

"Although the Fox and Dasher are dissimilar in name and styling," wrote Road & Track in its story reporting a survey of owners of the two vehicles, "it is still rather hard to consider them different automobiles. Body and interior details aside, the Foxes and Dashers surveyed here are mechanically almost identical, sharing the same basic FWD package and mechanical package and mechanical parts."

Larger than the Golf/Rabbit that VW would introduce a year later, the Dasher was still generally smaller than a 2005 Honda Civic sedan, with a 97.2-inch wheelbase and 172.8 inches of overall length. It was also roomy for the time and as cleanly styled inside as it was outside.

In a weird comparison with the midengine Fiat X1/9 two-seater, Road & Track found much to admire in the first Dasher. "The Dasher's engine is part of the fun," it wrote. "Driven hard, it sounds virile and — as we said — provides lots of performance. It's also extremely economical for such a performer, and in this sort of driving the Dasher or Fox owner should get at least 25 mpg." The publication also had kind words for the car's handling noting that it didn't suffer the common front-drive malady of severe understeer at the limit.

But Road & Track also found things to criticize, like the rackety nature of the engine and otherwise capable brakes it said "rank among the noisiest we've ever experienced." It also noted that the car was "by the way, much roomier and better-riding than the [Chevrolet] Vega despite being shorter, narrower and 450 pounds lighter." Of course history would prove that being better than the Vega wasn't much of an accomplishment, but it indicates how impressive the Dasher was for its time. However at a $4,110 base price, the cheapest Dasher was just $64 shy of being twice as expensive as the cheapest Vega.

While the original Dasher didn't set the sales chart aflame with its success, it sold better than any other Beetle alternative VW had devised previously. So with that in mind, all the carmaker did to the vehicle for 1975 was bump the engine's displacement from 1.5 to 1.6 liters and offer the three-door hatchback. But that displacement increase came alongside a set of more stringent emissions controls and total output actually dropped to just 70 hp.

Changes to the Dasher's exterior appearance were slight in both the 1976 and 1977 model years as VW concentrated on building and selling the amazingly hot Golf/Rabbit around the world. But both years benefited greatly by the fitment of Bosch fuel injection which boosted output to 78 hp and promoted much better drivability across the operating range. Still, the Dasher didn't exactly live up to its name — Road & Track timed a four-speed '77 Dasher two-door groaning to 60 mph in 13.2 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 19 seconds at a breathless 72 mph.

A redesigned front end with four round headlights heralded the arrival of the 1978 Dasher and the interior was updated, but other changes were scant. However, in 1979 both a five-speed manual transmission and diesel power finally came to the Dasher line. With the same 1.5-liter diesel four then used in the Rabbit under its hood, the diesel Dasher was underwhelming on the test track.

Road & Track tested a diesel Dasher five-door sedan and found it to be quite a slug. "Raise the hood and you immediately know this Dasher's a diesel," wrote R&T in its test. "You can actually see the engine because there's not the usual myriad of wiring and plumbing that come with today's detoxed gasoline power plants…. With a rather anemic 48 hp, the Dasher's diesel engine doesn't measure up to the task of propelling a 2,530-pound (test weight) automobile with anything approaching aplomb. The car's 0-to-60-mph time of 19.4 seconds and its 22-second quarter-mile make the 2,110-pound Rabbit diesel's 15.8- and 20.4-second times seem almost lightning quick." Still, with America gripped by the fuel crises of the '70s, the diesel sold well.

If you could find any difference between the 1980 Dasher and the previous year's, you were probably staring at its serial number. And despite being slower than a snail with a muscle cramp, the Dasher diesel became the only Dasher for 1981.

It was time for the original Passat — the Dasher — to dash off of Volkswagen's lineup. And so it did.

Second Generation: The Quantum (1982-1988)

Quantum Leap, Quantum Mechanics, Quantum Physics…all those and more were used to headline stories about VW's successor to the Dasher which was called the Santana in much of the rest of the world. The Passat name was temporarily dead — sort of like Mr. Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a movie that, coincidentally (or not), also came out in 1982.

But despite such science and science fiction puns and connections, the new Quantum three-door coupe, four-door sedan and five-door station wagon were greeted unenthusiastically by the editors at Car and Driver. "After a couple thousand miles with VW's latest creation," they reported after praising landmark VWs like the Rabbit and Scirocco, "we'd venture that it will leave no such mark on the course of automotive history. The Quantum, which replaces the aged Dasher line, doesn't herald the beginning of a new era — or the end of an old one for that matter. Technologically speaking it breaks no fresh ground. Don't look now, but the new VW seems to be aimed at exactly the same target as all of our own domestically built letter cars — the [GM] J-car, the [Chrysler] K-cars and the [GM again] X-cars. It stands smack in the middle of this burgeoning group of new-wave front-drive family sedans, which also includes the Nissan Stanza, Audi 4000, Renault 18i and Honda Accord."

In fact the Quantum really did split all the differences possible in dimensions. At 178.1 inches long overall it was 4.5 inches longer than the '82 Honda Accord sedan and 4.1 inches shorter than the '82 Oldsmobile Omega sedan (a GM X-Car). And its 100.4-inch wheelbase was 3.9 inches longer than the Accord's and 4.5 inches briefer than that well-forgotten Olds'. But the car with which the Quantum had the most in common was the Audi 4000 that, naturally, was the successor to the Fox.

So the Quantum still had a longitudinally positioned engine and that engine still came from the Audi/VW SOHC four family and now displaced 1.7 liters — a slightly larger rerun of the gas engine in the '80 Dasher that, despite the benefit of more advanced engine management technology, now only produced 74 hp. Why? Who knows? And no diesel was offered. Buyers could choose either a five-speed manual or a three-speed automatic transmission.

The suspension was still a set of MacPherson struts in front, while the rear end was now held up by a set of independent trailing arms and accompanying coil springs. While the three-door Quantum and station wagon (more or less) carried forward established Dasher body styles, the five-door was replaced by a new four-door notchback that could only have been boxier if it had four equilateral sides and 90-degree angles at its corners. Unwieldy as the Quantums looked, their upright design produced an exceptionally roomy interior and it's never bad to offer more space.

So the Quantum wasn't pretty. Big deal. That it was far less than quick? That was a bigger problem. Car and Driver's first Quantum, a 2,440-pound three-door coupe equipped with the five-speed, crept to 60 mph in 14.1 seconds and ran the quarter-mile in a lazy 19.3 seconds with a 68-mph trap speed. The magazine also measured its top speed at just 91 mph.

There's one word to describe the market's response to the Quantum: disinterest. So Volkswagen took action for 1983 with the introduction of a turbocharged diesel engine option.

Basically the familiar VW 1.6-liter diesel four with the addition of a turbocharger, the turbodiesel in the Quantum was rated at an uninspiring 68 hp. So if a potential buyer was intimidated by the gas-fired, four-cylinder Quantum, VW now had them covered with something even slower. Road & Track measured a five-speed, turbodiesel Quantum sedan traipsing from zero to 60 mph in 14.3 seconds and finishing the quarter-mile in 19.7 seconds at 69 mph.

At midyear, however, VW decided to do something for those seeking an inkling of performance with the introduction of the Quantum GL5 sedan and wagon equipped with the same five-cylinder engine offered in the Audi 5000. Unfortunately, though, the coupe had to soldier forward with only the anemic four under its hood.Displacing 2.1 liters, the fuel-injected, SOHC, 10-valve five was a derivative of VW's four-cylinder engines and was rated at 100 hp. That may not sound like much power (mostly because, well, it isn't), but back then it was the most powerful engine VW had ever installed in a production car sold in the United States. But the Quantum still wasn't quick in GL5 form and Road & Track's test had it sleepwalking from zero to 60 mph in 12.6 seconds and running the quarter-mile in 18.8 seconds at 73 mph. That's pretty slow, even by 1983 standards.

With sales of the three-door Quantum coupe weak, VW excised that model from its 1984 lineup. The rest of the Quantum lineup was carried over pretty much unchanged.

The five-cylinder engine expanded to 2.2 liters for 1985 with a bump in output to 110 hp. However, the wagon was now available only with the four-cylinder engine and the sedan only with the five.

Since no one much wanted a Quantum wagon with a four-cylinder engine, that body style was dropped altogether from the 1986 lineup. So the five-cylinder sedan became the only Quantum offered in North America. But at midyear an all-wheel-drive version was available wearing the name Syncro — a simple rebranding of Audi's "quattro" all-wheel-drive system.

The wagon was back for 1987 and now equipped with the five-cylinder engine and available with the Syncro system.

There were no significant changes to the Quantum lineup for 1988 though the engine was slightly retuned so as to produce 115 hp. Yet, that wasn't enough to make the world want the car.

The Quantum just sort of winked out after the '88 model year — unloved and unmissed. It was time for the Passat to return…after a suitably dignified period of mourning.

Third Generation: Passat Returns (1990-1997)

The Passat name finally came to America with the 1990 model year and the introduction of this all-new sedan and wagon. Unlike the Dasher and Quantum, this new Passat didn't share its basic engineering with any Audi model. In fact it was more like a scaled-up Golf with the engine sitting transversely under a short nose and a suspension similar to VW's smaller front-drive offerings.

With this third generation, VW claimed to have achieved the highest ratio of interior-to-exterior space in its class. "Volkswagen supplies all kinds of statistics to prove the point," wrote Car and Driver on its first encounter with the car, "but all you have to do is climb into the back. With the front seat positioned for a 6-foot-plus driver, the passenger behind him has room to spare — enough to cross his legs. There is even room for the rear seats to recline a few degrees."

To achieve such impressive roominess the Passat rode on a 103.3-inch wheelbase (2.9 inches longer than the superseded Quantum's), stretched out 180 inches overall (1.9 inches longer than the Quantum) and used a modern-looking body with extremely flat sides, a grille-less nose, and an upright greenhouse to maximize shoulder, hip and headroom. Of course the basic structure was once again a unibody with a MacPherson strut front suspension and an independent trailing arm system in the rear. Disc brakes were used both fore and aft with ABS optional.

The standard power plant for the new Passat was a 2.0-liter version of the DOHC, 16-valve four-cylinder engine then offered in the Golf GTI. Rated at 134 hp it was the most powerful engine ever offered in this class of VW…but it wouldn't be for long. To make the most of that power a newly designed pair of transmissions, one five-speed manual and one four-speed automatic, were employed.

While generally impressed with the new '90 Passat's interior roominess and handling, Road & Track did levy some criticisms in its first test. "The Passat is something of an anomaly to us," it wrote. "We waited for its U.S. introduction with some excitement. After all, the GTI and the Jetta GLI are sport sedans that provide enthusiastic driving pleasure. The Passat has wonderful volumes of room for occupant comfort and high-quality interior appointments for the most part. The feel of the steering and handling is distinctly European, as is the ride, and all combine to make the Passat a pleasure to drive at midrange speeds (45 to 70 mph). But the engine's rough characteristics are undeniably obtrusive.

"What can we learn from this? The Passat occupies pretty much its own made-in-Europe sedan niche above its Golf/Jetta siblings and beneath the likes of Audi, BMW, Saab, Peugeot and the rest."

For the record, R&T's test had the new Passat accelerating to 60 mph in 10.9 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 17.8 seconds at 78.5 mph. That's a competitive performance against similar cars in its class and easily quicker than any previous Dasher, Passat or Quantum.

There were only a few light updates to the 1991 Passat, as it was selling significantly better than the Quantum ever did. But there was some powerful news on the way for the next year.

That news was the availability of VW's narrow-angle "VR6" 2.8-liter V6 in a new 1992 Passat GLX model. Producing 178 hp under its SOHC, 12-valve cylinder head, the VR6 transformed the Passat into a serious sport sedan. Motor Trend would measure the basically unchanged 1993 VR6 Passat GLX ripping from zero to 60 in just 7.9 seconds. That's solid performance even by 21st-century standards.

So effective was the VR6 that all 1994 Passats now had the engine aboard. Other changes were slight otherwise, with GLX becoming the sole trim level offered in both the sedan and wagon.

A new nose that included a traditional, trapezoidal radiator grille was the most notable revision to the 1995 Passat. New bumpers and revised trim resulted in a growth of overall length to 181.3 inches while an updated interior squeezed out a few more millimeters of passenger space.

In a comparison test of six-cylinder-powered midsize sedans, Road & Track found the '95 Passat offered some unique attractions and distractions. "In some ways," it reported, "the Volkswagen Passat is the antithesis of the Camry. Its ride isn't particularly smooth; its cabin isn't particularly quiet; its automatic transmission detracts from the performance of the engine; it has a few interior creaks and, last, it considers the driver a vital part of the equation.

"This last point is why the Passat, in our book, gets the nod over the Camry. Put another way, this German sedan is meant to be driven, not merely guided from place to place. Though hampered a bit by a gearbox that's indecisive and reluctant to downshift, the 2.8-liter narrow-angle VR6 — the only engine in the group with a larger bore than stroke — still dishes out a satisfying dose of acceleration — from midrange up to the 6,500-rpm redline." Even with that indecisive and reluctant gearbox, the '95 Passat made it to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds and ran the quarter-mile in 17.2 seconds.

Four-cylinder power returned to the Passat range for 1996 with the introduction of a new GLS sedan powered by VW's familiar 115-hp, 2.0-liter, SOHC four. That was enough to boost sales to 19,850 units in America, up from just 14,010 the previous model year.

VW's excellent and modern 1.9-liter TDI turbodiesel engine was added to the Passat options list for 1997 in both sedans and wagons while the gasoline-fueled four was once again banished from the line. Making 90 hp the TDI engine wasn't exactly muscle-bound, but it was better than any previous VW diesel in this size class and the 149 pound-feet of peak torque came at just 1,900 rpm, ensuring decent around-town manners. And best of all, the Passat TDI was rated by the EPA at 47 mpg on the freeway and 38 mpg in the city.

After eight model years this Passat was a tired model, but still attractive. It's the next Passat, however, that was the biggest hit of them all.

Fourth Generation: The Popular Passat (1998-2005)

Dang near a quarter century after the first Passat made it over to America as the Dasher, it finally became a certified hit with the introduction of the all-new 1998 model. And it became that hit by following almost exactly the same formula as the first generation — by stealing from Audi.

"Based on the hugely successful Audi A4," reported on its first test of the new midsize VW, "the Passat gets a stretched version of that compact's chassis just like its sister car, the Audi A6. The Passat also gets the Audi's engine choices plus one. This means that the Passat can be equipped with an economical but lively 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, a powerful 30-valve V6 engine, or a Greenpeace-approved four-cylinder TDI that gives this midsize car gas mileage that rivals the diminutive Chevrolet Metro."

Though our writer raved about the way the new Passat looked, how much it held and the nearly perfect interior, that wasn't what impressed us most. Rather, it was the way it drove. "Nimble, peppy and fun are not how we usually describe family cars," we enthused, "but the Passat fills out those descriptions perfectly. The Passat is nimble because it is built on the wonderful A4 platform that rewrote the book on how front-wheel-drive cars can be expected to handle. It changes direction quickly, tracks evenly through a turn, and exhibits minimal body roll when tossed into a corner. Its highway ride is exceptional, too; offering none of the harshness over broken pavement and expansion joints that often characterize sporty cars."

While the fourth-generation Passat is still front-drive, it is engineered quite unlike any previous edition. The engine is (as it was on the original Dasher) mounted longitudinally in the chassis, but the front suspension is now a multilink arrangement that offers significantly better geometry than the simple MacPherson struts used previously. The rear suspension is a set of trailing arms sprung with a torsion bar.

At 184.1 inches long on a 106.4-inch wheelbase, the '98 Passat sedan and wagon were easily the largest cars Volkswagen had built up to that time. But that large size didn't translate into an oversize power plant. In fact the base four-cylinder engine's size actually dropped to just 1.8 liters, albeit with five valves per cylinder and a turbocharger that resulted in a solid 150-hp output with outstanding low-end torque production. The same 2.8-liter, 90-degree, 30-valve V6 offered in the Audi A4 was optional on the Passat GLX sedan and its 190 hp made for an easygoing everyday driver. Both a five-speed manual and five-speed automatic transmission were offered.'s first test had the new Passat GLS powered by the 1.8-liter turbo four zipping to 60 mph in just 8.2 seconds. Our test of a Passat GLS wagon (also powered by the four) made it to 60 in just 8.6 seconds despite being burdened with the automatic transmission.

The '98 Passat was an immediate and massive hit for VW as buyers quickly recognized that its roomy and stylish interior, sophisticated chassis and handsome overall appearance made it one of the best family cars on the market. VW sold a big 39,272 Passats during the '98 model year and that was only the beginning.

VW was supposed to introduce an all-wheel-drive Passat and offer the V6 in the wagon for 1999, but both were delayed so the status quo was maintained. U.S. sales grew to 68,151 Passats this model year and that, when combined with the 83,434 copies of the freshly introduced New Beetle, headed a significant renaissance in VW sales in North America.

The V6 wagon appeared for 2000 and Tiptronic manual operation of the automatic transmission was a new option, but otherwise the 2000 Passat was almost indistinguishable from the previous year. And that was good enough to earn a victory in that year's' nine-way comparison test of family sedans. "To say that the Volkswagen Passat impressed us would be a gross understatement," we concluded. "In nearly every category, the Passat finished in the win, place or show position.

"Yeah, we were suckers for the crisp-edged styling, communicative handling and incredible fit and finish. In our performance trials, the Passat never fell below third in any category. Adding to our enthusiasm was the fact that the Passat comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission, which would have cut $1,075 from the price tag of our automatic-equipped test car.

"Price didn't seem to affect the Passat in our standings. As most expensive of the test at $29,295, our Passat GLX was last in terms of price point and value, but the VW proved that it was worth every penny…and more."

The praise just got more effusive after that. For the record, our V6-equipped Passat GLX with the Tiptronic automatic made it to 60 mph in just 7.7 seconds and gobbled the quarter-mile in 16 seconds at 88.9 mph. All-wheel drive finally also made it to this generation Passat with the introduction of the 4Motion system (the Audi quattro system with a different name) for this model year and we drove a wagon so equipped. And VW sold another 84,521 Passats that year.

There were no significant changes to the 2001 Passat and VW's success with the car continued unabated. However at midyear a "2001.5" update of the car brought a revised and reinforced nose, elegant chrome exterior trim, an updated interior and 20 more horsepower (for a total of 170) to the four-cylinder turbo engine. Our encounters with the revised Passat were overwhelmingly positive even as we noted a creeping increase in the car's price.

How far upmarket the Passat had moved becomes apparent with the introduction of the 2002 models and the availability of VW's innovative W8 engine teamed up with the 4Motion system and the five-speed automatic transmission. Essentially two narrow-angle V4s joined 72 degrees apart at a common crankcase, the W8 displaces 4.0 liters and is rated at 270 hp. We were, once again, impressed. "The W8 is also as smooth as Ricardo Montalban is with the ladies thanks to engineering advancements," we reported. "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." Of course immediately after this First Drive,'s editorial policy was modified to forbid the mention of Ricardo Montalban ever again.

But there was a major problem with the W8: the price. "At $37,900 for the sedan and $38,700 for the wagon," we warned, "the Passat treads on the toes of some pretty spectacular cars." The buying public apparently agrees and the W8 has never sold in large numbers.

Amazingly though, and in its fifth year of production, the Passat was strong enough to win our 2002 Premium Family Sedan Test. That's an impressive run for a car in such a keenly competitive market segment.

A new base "GL" model was added to the Passat range for 2003 and the W8 could now be had with a six-speed manual transmission, but most everything else about the sedan and wagon carried over unchanged.

The diesel was back in the 2004 Passat with the introduction of the 2.0-liter, TDI turbo four. A thoroughly modern diesel, the TDI is rated at 134 hp and delivers acceptable, if not scintillating, performance in the Passat. "While the diesel engine is noticeably louder than its gasoline-burning brethren outside the car," Dan Kahn wrote in our First Drive of the Passat TDI, "the heightened noise level is hardly detectable inside with the windows rolled up. This may in fact be testament to VW's advanced sound-deadening technology. The engine vibrates the entire car a little more than we would like at idle, as you can pick up slight engine shake through the steering wheel and shifter when sitting at a stoplight. Everything smoothes out as the engine speed climbs, however, and at highway speeds the added noise and vibration is hardly detectible." Throw in EPA mileage ratings of 27 in the city and 38 on the highway, and the Passat TDI is sure to appeal to the miserly who need a roomy car.

The 2005 Passat was a carryover and that's no bad thing. But after eight years with this breakthrough car, can the next Passat maintain VW's momentum?

Fifth Generation: The Next-Generation Passat (2006-Beyond)

As this is written the next Passat is still a few months away from going on sale in North America. But VW has already leaked photos and some specifications.

No longer the largest car in VW's lineup, maybe it's no surprise that the next Passat looks like a scaled-down version of VW's new flagship, the Phaeton. And it's no surprise that, as usual, the Passat grows a bit with this new generation — it's about 2 inches longer overall than the outgoing Passat, slightly more than 2 inches wider, and rides on a wheelbase about a quarter-inch longer.

The suspension's general design of multilinks up front and trailing arms in back doesn't change much for this generation. But the engines are once again transversely mounted in the nose, indicating that this car isn't directly based on an Audi platform. VW claims more of the car's length can now be dedicated to passenger and luggage accommodations.

In the Passat's engine bay, innovation starts with the use of new direct-injection gasoline engines for all but the base four. A new direct-injection 3.2-liter V6 making 247 hp will sit at the top of the range.

If VW maintains its normal vehicle development schedule, expect the newest Passat here before the end of 2005 with both four- and six-cylinder gasoline engines sending power to the front wheels. Then expect the range to expand through the years…who knows what 2010 or 2011 could bring?

Hi there! This archived History article is a snapshot from a previous era. If you enjoyed reading it, please see our full model overview, which has up-to-date information and links to the latest model years.


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