Volkswagen, a careful manufacturer of very capable vehicles, continues its steady plod toward perfecting the Passat. It may be a warm January in Wolfsburg before it happens. When the Passat arrived three years ago, it was Veedub's biggest and roomiest car ever. Nicely styled. Good handler. Sensibly priced. It also had blood in its eye for Accord, Camry and Taurus. Unfortunately, there was no muscle in its four-cylinder engine. The automatic transmission was a confused, tremulous mess. So were sales. Last year, Passat was made beefier by an optional V-6 engine and improved transmission. Now it had looks and acceptable power. But the ride was still marbles on a washboard. This year, the Passat GLX has grown by another increment and evolved into a station wagon with a milder suspension. Sharp profile, V-6 power, a bun-friendly ride and broader purpose. Still, significant deficiencies remain. Blame oversights on a marketing stubbornness common to all European auto makers. They rate the United States and California among their largest national and area markets. Yet they chronically resist local preferences and cultural idiosyncrasies of these hands that feed. Which probably explains why Germany stayed with flammable hydrogen decades after America switched to inert helium for buoyancy. Then the Hindenburg made its final approach to Lakehurst, N. J. But back to transportation by Passat and its less volatile vagaries. The base price of the the GLX station wagon is $21,560. That buys the big engine, a thinking automatic transmission, the assurance of three-circuit anti-lock brakes to dampen skids, and the insurance of traction control to prevent wheel-spin. But no air bags, only infuriating mechanical belts. And this as America's highway heebie-jeebies are so paramount that driver-side air pillows are standard equipment on Saturn, Honda Civic, Toyota Tercel and other $9,000 wheeled sneakers. Other irritations: * In most parts of Europe, the sun shines only for soccer matches and half a dozen World War II anniversaries. So dark gray digitals on tan backgrounds inside a hooded instrument cluster present clear, crisp messages about gear positions, miles traveled and gallons to go. But in the Brighter New World--particularly when visual definition is distorted by California's screaming sunshine and obligatory Serengeti sun glasses--dashboard LED readouts in dull colors are inclined to fade to blobs. * Over there: Highways are for rapid, relentless motoring. Coffee is companion only to good conversation in cafes and caffs, bistros and cantinas. Over here: Constant coffee--black for maximum jolt--is the only way to survive the drive from downtown to the El Toro Y. But what is customary over there continues to regulate what is imported over here. So Passat GLX sedans and wagons aren't even equipped with cup holders. Small points, yes. Yet significant shortfalls in a merciless arena where sales often teeter more on human conveniences than sophisticated mechanicals. Otherwise, the Passat GLX wagon is prime strudel. Its shape is purposeful without being blocky, its edges gently chamfered without setting a streamlined look that would be totally out of context for a working wagon. A rounded slope to the rear door, and low-profile black roof rails are further subtleties that allow the vehicle its business without shouting about it. In other words, the Passat offers the access and roominess of a suburban hauler while retaining the softer lines of a sports sedan. The antenna is roof mounted, raked and to the rear. The front is sans grille but with a VW emblem the size of a soup plate. Both are typical Volkswagen touches. And a set of six-spoke, 15-inch BBS alloy wheels will inform anyone that this is a performance vehicle first, a pet-a d people-carrier second. That impression is emphasized by slender door pillars and a much narrower build than, say, Accord and Taurus. The interior is virtually unchanged from previous years, which means many conveniences upon thoughtful ergonomics. Such as a dashboard ledge fuzzy to the touch and non-skid for cellular phones and the aforementioned Serengetis. The shifter is stubby and performance-oriented. So is the leather steering wheel, which is smaller than most. That allows swifter, easier maneuvering by feeding the wheel through both hands without ever losing the optimum 10- and 2-o'clock position. Leather upholstery is available, front and back, as a $795option. But a power sunroof, alarm system, air conditioning, height-adjustable front seats, cruise control and central locking are standard. Power seats are not. Adjustments are by obtrusive levers, stirrups and knobs the size of dinner rolls. There is no central locking from inside the vehicle, another safety miscue in these days of car and purse jackings. Although Volkswagen advertises the GLX as a five-seat wagon, that fifth person risks terminal squishing on a rear bench less than 4 1/2 feet across. However, there is ample head and knee room--more than Acura Legend, BMW's 5 series or even Infiniti Q45. The wagon's cargo bay is carpeted, comes with storage bins in each quarter-panel, a corrugated luggage tonneau--and more rear room than wagons from BMW or Honda. Passat's best points are made while under way. The new transmission and V-6 engine combine ideally for 0-60 m.p.h. acceleration times just over 9 seconds. The top speed is almost 130 m.p.h. That is quicker and faster than any wagon on the road. Another partnership--this of larger wheels and tires and a refined suspension--has taken much of the thrum and thump out of the ride. It's still crisp, but now there's a better balance, a higher level of comfort with no noticeable loss of road feel. Although the steering casters rather heavily, the turn-in is precise and the car tracks where pointed without a quiver. Credit that again to the modified front suspension, larger tires and firmer driver control through a smaller steering wheel. Passat has a distinct Volvo feel. That means heft and ride just stolid enough for a sense of security, but with a talent for using mid- and upper-range momentum for fun motoring. Volkswagen obviously is intent on making its Passat perfect. There are plans, says spokesman Larry Brown, to equip the next generation with driver- and passenger-side air bags. Discussions are even stirring about cup holders. It wasn't much of an issue when engineers and designers were based in Germany. But last year, Volkswagen opened a design studio in Simi Valley and imported several German designers. "All of a sudden, living around the area, spending an hour or two in the car every day, they're thinking about a cup of coffee," Brown says. "Now the Germans want cup holders." 1993 Volkswagen Passat GLX The Good Vastly improved engine and suspension. Silhouette shows attention to form before function. Priced right with high value appointments. Nimble car of solid heft. The Bad No air bags. Poor LED displays. Still designed more for Bremen than Boston. The Ugly Yuk; mechanical seat belts. Cost Base, $21,560 As tested, $23,500. Includes leather upholstery, automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, traction control, air conditioning, power sunroof and alarm. Engine 2.8 liters, 12-valve, double overhead cam V-6 developing172 horsepower. Type Front drive, five-seat station wagon. Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 9.3 seconds, with automatic. Top speed, track tested, 130 m.p.h. EPA fuel consumption, city and highway, 1 and 24 m.p.g. Curb weight 3,197 pounds.
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