For a very long time, the Passat sat on the sidelines of the American family-sedan playing field. It was seemingly content, in mid-1990s fourth-generation guise, to dangle its optional, gutsy VR6 engine in front of Volkswagen devotees and to snag a few four-cylinder buyers who got lost on the way to the Honda showroom. The mid-size-sedan segment belonged to the Honda Accord, the Toyota Camry, and the Ford Taurus, while the Passat was little more than a charming anachronism from Wolfsburg, all but invisible.
But then, in the fall of 1997, Volkswagen unveiled the fifth-generation Passat, and a star was born. Based on the highly regarded Audi A4, this Passat's elegantly understated exterior launched many an imitator and still looks good today. Its cabin reeked of quality and made BMW and Mercedes-Benz owners feel inferior. The Passat wasn't exactly a sport sedan, but it drove creamily and predictably and, in general, came off as a bargain luxury car, like a first-growth bordeaux for the price of a supermarket cabernet. With the endorsement of not only the enthusiast media but also mainstream voices such as Consumer Reports, the Passat quickly became the darling of the young, the hip, the discerning. For eight model years, the Passat--as sedan and wagon, with front- or all-wheel drive and powered by turbo four-cylinder, diesel, six-, and even, briefly, eight-cylinder engines--helped VW of America get its mojo back.
And that brings us to the sixth-generation Passat, which debuted in fall 2005 for the 2006 model year. This time around, the Passat is based not on Audi architecture but on the same global platform that underpins VW's latest Jetta, Rabbit, and GTI. As a consequence, the Passat's engines are now transversely, rather than longitudinally, mounted. This allowed VW to carve out more interior space, especially in the rear seat, where there's an additional 2.4 inches of legroom. The new Passat's standard 2.0-liter, direct-injection turbocharged four has more horsepower and torque than the old Passat's optional 2.8-liter V-6. So, for our Four Seasons test, we chose a 2.0T model over one of the pricier V-6 trims, kept options to a minimum, and ended up with a modestly priced car just shy of $25,000.
Some of us, however, desired a little less modesty and a bit more luxury: "It's a shame that a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and leather upholstery are offered only in a package that can't be paired with the manual transmission," sniffed road test coordinator Marc Noordeloos. "A sunroof is not available with a manual, either." And managing editor Amy Skogstrom noted that she "would have liked it if all of the adjustments for the driver's seat were powered."
"No premium stereo?" asked assistant editor Sam Smith. "Nope," answered copy editor Rusty Blackwell. "The equipment is rather meager."
Really, now, it wasn't that grim. Our car had all manner of air bags, stability control, ABS, air-conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise control, aluminum wheels (our car came only with sixteen-inch wheels, which we quickly replaced with a set of seventeen-inchers), and thick rubber floor mats that were as handsome as they were practical. Yes, the seats were black leatherette, not leather, but they had VW's fantastic heaters. Many of us wished for better seat adjustments and concurred with Smith's assertion that "it's a little irritating that you cannot adjust the seat-bottom angle without raising or lowering the entire seat itself." Good seats are supposed to be a given in a Volkswagen.
In addition to being spacious, the Passat's cabin is pleasingly designed, although the plastics seem to have taken a baby step backward in quality, and some considered the silver-colored, crosshatch-patterned trim a bit chintzy. It seemed especially so after we cracked a piece of it while sloppily installing an aftermarket Harman/Kardon iPod adapter. Overall, the cabin doesn't seem quite as special as the old Passat's.
Yet there are still many signs of the attention to detail expected from VW, as noted by contributor Ronald Ahrens after a drive from Ann Arbor to Grand Junction, Colorado. "I'm impressed by the quality of the carpet lining the huge trunk, and I also like how the lid swings up on its own," he enthused. "I really appreciated the weighted action of the doors; they won't swing back closed in the wind or on a hill."
Unfortunately, Ahrens's take on the Passat's driving experience mirrored that of virtually everyone else: "This is not a driver's car. The abiding dynamic characteristic is torque steer."
"The Passat drives nicely," elaborated Noordeloos, "and it's smooth, quiet, and much faster than you would expect. But it's not sporty. Its damping is similar to base Audis; it makes for a comfortable ride, but the car doesn't like quick bumps, and it wallows and complains when pushed."
Everyone admired the 2.0-liter direct-injection turbocharged four--"once rolling, it's as strong as any V-6 in this class," said technical editor Don Sherman--and the six-speed manual was highly regarded by most, thanks to its "light, precise shifts and short throw," as described by creative director Richard Eccleston. The Auto Hold feature, VW's version of a hill-holder, also was widely praised. The powertrain, alas, was not perfect. "A significant annoyance," said Sherman, "is the throttle damper. Lift abruptly off the gas, and the throttle stays open for a second or three. You want to slow down, but the car doesn't." Many other testers echoed his complaints.
We weren't bowled over by the fuel economy, either. We averaged 26 mpg, and it was rare to crest 30 mpg on a tank, even in freeway driving. Web producer Stuart Fowle achieved 27 mpg on a 4800-mile trek to Las Vegas by way of Houston, well short of the 32-mpg EPA highway figure.
The ignition interface and the push-button electronic parking brake also received mixed reviews. To start the Passat, the driver must insert the key--a handsome little black-and-chrome wedge--into a slot in the dash and then push on it just so. It might sound easy, but it was often like trying to shove a pill down a dog's throat.
As for the parking brake? "Bad, bad, bad," opined copy editor Adrienne Newell, whose sisters both drive fifth-generation Passat wagons. "It's inconvenient, slow, and silly." Others disagreed. The advantage, of course, is that it frees up space in the center console for a couple of big cupholders. Clearly, VW knows what's important to American drivers.
But what's also important to Passat buyers is the feeling that they're members of an elite club. To own the last Passat was to announce that you were a little smarter, a little edgier, and a little more interesting than the guys in the Camrys and the Accords. This new Passat--a very good and, in our case, a very reliable family sedan--has lost some of that hard-to-define intrinsic value. Ahrens spoke for most of us when he said, "Ambivalence is the best I can report about the Passat." Indeed. "This car still bores me," admitted production editor Jennifer Misaros ten months into our test, "and it's hard to understand why."
President Jean Jennings delivered her less equivocal verdict: "I share others' lack of emotion and passion. The old Passat felt like `new luxury.' It was special, beautifully trimmed, and overly loaded. This one would be lauded if it were a Ford family sedan, but it's a sad drop from the Passat's glory days."