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First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Passat GT V6

Bargain alert: VR6-power for 30-large

Todd LassaWriter

ANN ARBOR, Michigan - "Midsize front-wheel-drive sport sedan" has always been something of an oxymoron, especially among us No Boring Cars types. Nevertheless, a few exceptions prove the rule, including our 2018 All-Star Honda Accord Sport, most Mazda6 models of the past few generations, the Ford Fusion Sport and of course, the Volkswagen Passat. Even the old Toyota Camry SE proved to be above the rolling appliance fray not so many years ago. We once might have called them "poor-man BMWs," though that description has lost some of its meaning more recently.

Now we're in a new era for all cars. Cars, that is—not sport/utilities or crossover/utilities or any of those tallish station wagons that modern families think they need just to survive a daily commute. Even the most rudimentary of FWD midsize sedans handles and drives like a midengine sports car next to SUVs that are 500 to 1,500 pounds heavier and have a center of gravity eight-inches to a foot higher.

Volkswagen of America has caught up with this reality, and is building its new three-row Atlas sport/utility in the same Chattanooga, Tennessee assembly plant as its midsize Passat, a sedan that earned a good deal of auto critic goodwill but never came close to capturing Camry/Accord/Altima sales status. It's just a matter of time before Atlas production usurps Passat production in Chattanooga.

Until then, we have VW's latest attempt at attracting GTI aficionados who need family cars, the Passat GT. And let's say at the outset that this FWD sedan is quite the bargain, a VR6-powered car with "leatherette" interior trim, six-way power driver's seat with lumbar adjustment, moonroof, climate control, heated mirrors, keyless ignition, and 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped in all-season tires (it's still a FWD family sedan, after all) that stickers for $29,995.

Not bad when you consider the last top-trim Toyota Camry V-6 we drove ran for $39,300, and the All-Stars Honda Accord 2.0T Sport was $31,200.

The VW Passat GT's VR6 is rated 280 hp @ 6,200 rpm and 258 lb-ft. @ 2,500 rpm, versus 252 hp @6,500 rpm and 273 lb-ft. @ 1,500-4,000 rpm for the Honda's 2.0-liter turbo four. It must be noted here that the VW's VR6 requires only regular unleaded, but the horsepower and torque numbers listed above were achieved with costlier premium gas. The VR6 Passat also weighs 209 pounds more (manufacturer's curb weight) than the turbo-four Accord. And whereas VW now offers all Passats only with a six-speed DSG automatic, the Honda Accord Sport is available with a six-speed manual, for the dozens of us who still demand three pedals.

Our colleagues at Motor Trend recorded a 6.5-second 0-60 mph time, and a 14.3-second quarter-mile at 98.8 mph recently, for a VW Passat SEL with the VR6 engine.

In addition to the GTI-inspired trim, including the handsome, red-ringed grille and the black-painted top, which VW says it finally has gotten right (the C-pillar sail panels remain the body color), there are subtle GT badges on the grille and rear deck, and on the front fenders and a rear decklid spoiler. Paint color choices are limited to white, black, silver, and platinum gray. There's black trim in place of exterior chrome and a honeycomb lower front fascia.

The black leatherette seats feature Moonrock gray inserts and contrast stitching. It has piano black interior trim, with carbon-fiber-style décor, and aluminum skidplates with the GT badge.

The GT's only unique mechanical features are stiffened springs and retuned dampers, and the chassis is 0.6-inches lower.

The drive starts with the steering, though, which rates as one of the best electronically assisted racks for feel and feedback on a front-wheel-drive car (there is no all-wheel-drive option for the GT). The steering's quickness and precision is average for this segment.

It's also light to the touch, which is a nice combo with that feel, until you floor the throttle from launch. Here, the car has considerable squat, and so the combo drive/steering wheels get light. It's not quite torque-steer; maybe call it torque-wander.

But it's momentary. Overall, the engine-chassis package is fairly rewarding and competent. You won't be wowed by the handling if you're used to a sports car or even a RWD sport sedan, but you'll find no bad surprises carving your way around a fast sweeper. There's a bit of roll and then the car takes a set, though it must be said that the steering is operating above its pay grade—this is where a bit more feedback would build confidence and add a few mph. And a disclaimer is necessary: the drive route was on Southeast Michigan's best drivers' roads between Ann Arbor and Chelsea, which means no mountain, nor canyon, esses. You'll still miss the GTI you traded in when you take the Passat GT on its first family trip.

But it's also a nicely balanced chassis, comfortable, and moderately firm over rough and broken roads. What's more, there's just one suspension setting. Unlike BMW, Mercedes-Benz or, especially, Audi sedans, you're not expected to spend five minutes before you drive off making your own suspension tuning choices.

You will have a choice of "Drive" or "Sport," the latter with the six-speed DSG shifting itself or turning it over to you via the fixed steering wheel paddles. "Drive" will keep you in too high a gear coming out of a slow corner, while auto-shifting "Sport" almost too aggressively downshifts. The paddles are okay, though not as crisp or quick as in a more seriously sporting manumatic.

What it comes down to is this. The 2018 Volkswagen Passat GT is no family car substitute for a GTI or especially, a Golf VR6. This author went to a dentist in the 1980s who drove his family (with two kids) around in a VW Rabbit GTI when they were available only with two doors. But times have changed. Kids expect their own doors and tall, capacious seating now. If you have to trade in that GTI for a midsize FWD sedan, you'll miss that car, but you won't be disappointed with the VW Passat GT (or the Honda Accord Sport). It's a great choice if you're looking for a bargain VR6.

If, on the other hand, you've been—like me—driving too many sport/utilities lately, the '18 VW Passat GT will feel fabulous, like a driver's car that fits you like a glove.


2018 Volkswagen Passat GT Specifications

PRICE $29,995
ENGINE 3.6L DOHC 24-valve V-6/280 hp @ 6,200 rpm/258 lb-ft. @ 2,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 19/28 mpg (city/highway)
L x W x H 191.9 x 72.2 x 57.9 in
WHEELBASE 110.4 in
WEIGHT 3,571 lb
0-60 MPH 6.5 sec
TOP SPEED 130 mph