Gstaad, Switzerland - Does Volkswagen need a $38,000 sedan? Do VW and Audi need competing eight-cylinder luxury cars? Does the world need a W-8 engine?
We'd have answered no to all three, but VW chairman Ferdinand Pich says yes. He wants to move VW upmarket and boost the brand's prominence relative to Audi. He's also the one who called for the W series of engines, which includes the W-12 in the Audi A8 flagship sedan.
The result of Pich's thinking is the VW Passat W8, a beautifully appointed sedan or wagon that competes with luxury heavyweights from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, and Audi, rather than with traditional VW rivals such as Toyota and Honda. The W8, on sale here early in 2002, is much cheaper than comparable V-8 luxury cars but still costs an awful lot more than VW buyers are used to paying. True, the W8 comes fully loaded, with everything from 4Motion all-wheel drive and stability control to buttery leather upholstery that feels and smells sublime, and the car's interior finish is so good that it looks perfectly at home at this price point.
Of course, the main difference between the W8 and lesser Passats is under the hood. The engine here is, essentially, two fifteen-degree VR4s (the cylinder bores are staggered, rather than opposed) mounted at 72 degrees to each other and sharing a common crankcase. The W-8 has a single overhead camshaft per VR4 cylinder bank and also has twin balance shafts to smooth out the inherent contradictions of the layout. Displacing 4.0 liters, the W-8 makes a healthy 275 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. The design's main advantages are its packaging (length and width are about equal) and the fact that it shares components and machining operations with VW's narrow-angle VR5 and VR6 engines.
Passat W8s bound for the United States will use VW's five-speed Tiptronic manu-matic gearbox, but a six-speed manual could come here later as part of a sport package. The powertrain is very smooth and refined, although the engine has a peculiar two-stage power delivery: nothing below 2500 revs, then maximum torque just 250 rpm later. The W8 Tiptronic will reach 62 mph in 7.8 seconds (the stick-shift model takes only 6.5 seconds), with the top speed governed to 130 mph in the States, versus 155 mph in Europe. The Passat W8 steers beautifully, rides plushly, and stops better than the mushy brake pedal would lead you to believe, but the handling lacks ultimate sharpness and poise: It's safe and predictable but hardly a great entertainer.
The W8 is an awfully nice car, and it's exclusive, with a planned production of 10,000 per year, half for America. But we believe Pich's thinking is a bit awry. This engine would make far more sense in an Audi A6 than in a Passat.