Wolfsburg, Germany - Len Hunt, the ebullient head of Volkswagen in North America, says that the new Passat is the first car to show the company's future direction in the United States. "VW is affordable German engineering, fun to drive, and distinctive European styling," he says.
With VW's sales tanking in the first six months of the year, the Passat and the Jetta have to succeed. The new Jetta is a good car, but it suffers from bland styling and was introduced with its least appealing powertrain-a mistake that VW won't repeat, says Hunt, now that Wolfgang Bernhard is VW's product supremo.
VW already has introduced the Passat in 2.0T form with a base price of $23,565, while the 3.6L goes on sale this month at $30,565. We went to Germany to drive the 3.6, which uses a VR6 engine that has a narrow 10.6-degree included angle and cylinder banks staggered relative to each other. The engine makes 280 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque, which would put the front tires under duress without the standard stability control system. The VR6 is mated to a six-speed manu-matic transmission, driving either the front or all four wheels.
The new Passat is an imposing car that's bigger inside and out than the outgoing version. It's three inches longer and three inches wider and has 2.4 inches additional rear legroom. It isn't quite as beautifully wrought inside as the old car, because there is hard plastic evidence of cost-cutting measures. Still, the fit and finish are in line with the best Japanese makers and more attractively designed to boot.
The 3.6L V6 comes well equipped, with front, side, and side curtain air bags, stability control, and active front headrests as standard. A luxury package adds leather, dual-zone climate control, and heated front seats; a sport package offers sport seats, steering-wheel shift buttons, and a lowered and stiffened suspension. Stand-alone options include a navigation system.
On the road, the engine sounds great and produces enough power for a claimed 0-to-60-mph time of 6.6 seconds. The car feels much more coherent than the old one, with a very stiff structure, excellent steering, and fully house-trained front-wheel-drive manners. On the optional eighteen-inch wheels and tires, the ride is stiff over expansion joints, but the trade-off is well-controlled body motions.
The Passat 3.6L V6 is really fine, although it's admirable rather than exciting to drive. And while a well-equipped car undercuts an Audi A6 3.2, it is quite pricey compared with sportier Japanese cars such as the Acura TL and the Infiniti G35. Then again, the V-6 model is expected to account for just 25 percent of Passat sales, and on this evidence, it looks more like a bargain luxury car than an expensive family sedan.