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2006 Volkswagen Passat

Charlie Mageephotographers

WOLFSBURG, GERMANY The sixth-generation Passat is the first all-new Volkswagen product masterminded by Bernd Pischetsrieder, and, unlike the dowdy new Jetta, the Passat is not bad-looking. The sheetmetal has been stretched by nearly three inches in width and more than two inches in length. The cabin, however, is some five inches longer, thanks in part to a switch to transverse-mounted engines.

The sideways-sitting engine is your tip-off that the new Passat is divorced from the Audi A4/A6 platform, instead tapping the Golf/Jetta component matrix. It also necessitated new engines, since the current 2.8-liter V-6 and the already discontinued (and now officially dead) W-8 no longer fit. We drove the 138-hp TDI, one of three new diesels, none of which is headed here. Instead, America will get a 197-hp, 2.0-liter FSI four-cylinder turbo (from the new GTI) and a 280-hp, 3.6-liter VR6. The V-6 comes with a six-speed automatic only, while the four will be offered with the automatic or a six-speed stick. Initially, both engines will drive the front wheels; early next year, optional 4Motion-and the wagon-will arrive.

The new Passat's cabin is not only larger, but it also rivals the Phaeton in terms of combining practical architecture with flawless execution. The driver environment is one of affordable luxury: materials are as nice to the touch as they are to the eye, standard equipment is comprehensive, and the colors and surfaces are tastefully blended. In this car, the feel-good factor doesn't depend on acres of leather and wood-even the standard cloth seats and the no-cost aluminum accents appear much more special than in last year's car. But for those with an urge to splurge, leather with Alcantara is a new option.

The new Passat comes with the right mix of must-haves and nice-to-haves. The ignition and the parking brake are electronic, and standard safety gear includes six air bags, active front head restraints, ABS, brake assist, stability control, and traction control. Extra money buys a nav system, a Bluetooth phone, adaptive cruise control, a heated windshield, and swiveling bi-xenon headlamps. Also worth mentioning are three new brake-related innovations: a hill holder, an auto-stop mode (so you can take your foot off the pedal while waiting for the light to turn green), and an intermittent wipe function that swipes the discs dry in the rain.

Dynamically, the new Passat tries to be a baby Phaeton-sumptuous, luxurious, spacious, and comfortable. There is an out-of-this-world cocoonlike feel to this VW. It is very well insulated and quiet, an effortless wafter rather than an ambitious carver. But despite the reengineered lightweight suspension (it shed 29 pounds), the new Passat shines only on glass-smooth pavement. While it soaks up long-amplitude bumps with aplomb, the brittle low-speed ride and the angry response to sharp-edged potholes are nothing to brag about. Even on standard tires (run-flats are optional), the ride is irritated by random small arguments between the springs and the dampers. Adding to the confusion is a certain amount of lateral and longitudinal waywardness. The ho-hum directional stability at high speed is another negative.

The electrohydraulic rack-and-pinion steering feels stiff and meaty, a further reminder of the Passat's big-car ambitions. The calibration is spot-on, but the sensations that arrive at your palms are relatively two-dimensional-until you start feeding ample torque to the front wheels, that is. Despite ESP, we experienced plentiful torque steer and wheel spin; we can only assume that the chips fitted to our example were not up to snuff.

The four disc brakes, meanwhile, decelerate the car adequately, but the spongy pedal travels a fair distance toward the firewall before answering your call. There is also a certain amount of passivity to the other controls. The clutch is light but not particularly progressive, the shift lever feels like the master link in a network of rubber bones, and the throttle goes a long way to achieve relatively little.

If our preproduction test car was anything to judge by, the new Passat has been refined too much in order to distance it from the Golf. Phaeton owners may love it, but GTI aficionados will be disappointed.

SPECSPrice: $24,000 (base, est. )Engine: Turbo 2.0L I-4, 197 hp, 207 lb-ftDrive: Front-wheel