1990 Volkswagen Passat

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Los Angeles Times

Fahrvergnugen. Pronounce it: Far-fur-gernoogan.

It is not the first whisper of Hungarian courtship, nor some high-fiber cereal endorsed by Scandinavian naturalists.

It is the central tease of Volkswagen's current advertising campaign, and a watchword for the company's promised drive back to those earlier days when it built cars with the bang of value and fun for the motoring buck.

Fahr. In German, "traveling . . . driving." Vergnugen. To "amuse, delight and satisfy." And now there's Passat. Pa-sart. The first Volkswagen to be anointed by fahrvergnugen.

Passat (from passatwind, or "trade wind") also translates to sophisticated, economical, capacious, gentle, comfortable, poised . . . just about all ideals demanded by those looking for a family car worth its weight in Berlitz tapes.

But note the job description. This replacement for Volkswagen's Quantum, is, indeed, a full family car. Despite performance styling (including a rear deck spoiler), bucket front seats, a multivalve engine and a tailpipe with a yawn like the 2nd Street tunnel, the Passat GL definitely is built more for suburbia than trolling Ventura Boulevard.

It has four doors and seats for five. Acceleration times--especially for the automatic version--will not be much help in chasing down bank robbers. The Passat is positioned perfectly in the mind by considering its obvious competition in price, performance and purpose: Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, the Mazda 626 and the Chevrolet Lumina.

In this large and hugely profitable category (Honda's Accord recently became the best-selling car in America), the Passat GL seems likely to succeed by duplicating just about every advantage of all other vehicles in its category--and then adding a few accessories and several acts of thoughtfulness:

* The Passat, for example, provides more rear leg room than the Ford Taurus with full head and knee clearance for tall passengers, even with the driver's seat racked to the rear. That should be asset enough--but Volkswagen edges further ahead by making both rear seats adjustable.

* The Chevrolet Lumina is 53.6 inches high, which is headroom suitable for the average tent--but the Passat is three inches taller.

* Fuel consumption is about that of the Toyota Camry--but the Passat's tank is almost three gallons larger allowing a cruise range close to 400 miles.

Available as a four-door notchback and a five-door wagon, the Passat also is more value for money than a winning scratch-off.

Its basic price of $14,770 includes air conditioning, height-adjustable steering wheel, motorized shoulder belts and those adjustable rear seats. Even with a full inventory of options--including automatic transmission, power sun roof, anti-lock braking system, cruise control, leather seats, power windows and mirrors, central locking and a six-speaker (all with individual amplifiers) sound system--the cost wil l still only get to $18,000 and pfennigs.

The magic of Passat, however, is a matter of size and feel. It has the pricing and heft of a small car. Yet its dimensions--from the capacity of a cabin larger than that of the luxury Infiniti Q45 to its length of 15 feet--are those of a large, comfortable automobile.

It also doesn't hurt that in this category, ruled by Japanese manufacturers, here is one choice wearing the cachet of a German car with their known loyalty to quality design, taut performance and thorough construction.

The Passat also arrives in Los Angeles showrooms this month with a heritage of two years of successful sales in Europe, capped by last year's selection by "Auto Zeitung" as the best family car in its price category.

Visually, this is a very attractive car. The flanks are rounded without being bulbous. Corners and edges are softened without destroying the look of energy and movement. Air is drawn into the engine box by a discr et chin flange so there is no grille to slice up the car's front end.

And with the suggestion of slippery aerodynamics from the aerofoil, and raked, trademark rear roof line antenna, it is a sometimes a surprise to look behind the Passat's center post and see those additional doors for kids and visiting in-laws.

Firm. Purposeful to the point of slight severity. That's the interior of the Passat with seats offering all variations of steering positions between straight arm and crooked elbow.

The elliptical dash and instrumentation are a straight lift from Volkswagen's sportier Corrado and that brings familiarity and minimal fumbles for control stalks and ancillary switches set exactly where they should be.

But when it comes to planning a second-generation Passat, Volkswagen should add a little fahrvergnugen to the design and positioning of the power-window controls.

They are set flat in the door panel, and, apparently, were developed by Louis Braille. To operate, the left hand must be twisted sideways, which means the bottom finger now searches for the top switch and . . . well, you get the point.

In the handling department, the Passat is spirited but unflappable. Steering response is instant obedience. There's excellent grab from the car's fat and premium rubber, and with only 134 horsepower driving the front wheels, torque steer is no problem in any configuration or power setting.

Automatic transmission is smooth enough. Once the car is off and rolling, mid- to high-range acceleration (despite a busy and buzzy engine at these speeds) is relatively effortless.

The four-speed automatic also comes with economy and sport modes. Despite the length and aural discomfort of shifts in sport program, that's where we kept the button for increased pep throughout the week's drive.

But beware if contemplating the manual 5-speed. Initial pace is a second or so quicker. Shifting, however, is slow verging on clumsy thanks to Volkswagen's stubbornness in sticking with cable linkage.

Some may also argue choice of engine for the Passat.

It is four cylinders and two liters producing 134 horsepower pushing a car that weighs 1 1/2 tons. The numbers are awfully close to the competition. But Volkswagen's engine just doesn't seem to develop their poke.

Installation of a V6 would be the obvious answer and there is indeed one in the Wolfsburg works. When it emerges, it could find no more deserving home than the 1991 Passat.

But whether precisely powered or a little underpowered, the Passat remains a fine car selling for a very manageable $15,000.

Eine ganze Menge. Whatta deal.

1990 Volkswagen Passat GL

The Good Outstanding value. Small-car economy and handling, big-car roominess. European performance styling. Teutonic thoroughness of design and construction.

The Bad Sluggish low end performanc e. Positioning of window controls. Grabby, rough gearshift.

The Ugly Still looking.

Cost Base $14,770. As tested $18,335 (options included anti-lock brakes, forged alloy wheels, power sunroof, six-speaker AM-FM cassette, metallic paint, power locks, windows and mirrors).

Engine Four-cylinder,16-valve, two-liter, overhead cam engine developing 134 horsepower.

Type Front-wheel drive, four-door family sedan.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h. (as tested with 5-speed) 9.8 seconds. Top speed (as reported by Road & Track magazine) 125 m.p.h. Fuel economy (measured city-highway average) 26.5 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 2,985 pounds.

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