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.