Since the Volkswagen Passat bowed in 1997, it has had a dramatic influence on the landscape of the midsize sedan segment.
The Passat elevated the family sedan art form and proved that "stodgy" and "sedan" don't always have to appear in the same sentence. It was lean, lithe and athletic. Even as it matured with new front and rear fascias, a revised interior and a variety of powerplants, its sporty character remained intact.
Competitors cribbed many of its styling cues, but few were able to successfully mimic VW's command of interior design and European handling.
Now, for 2006, there's a completely new Passat, one that is larger, more streamlined and considerably more refined. It has a pronounced wedge profile with sharp character lines on the side of the body. The rounder body doesn't have quite the same energy as the original, but its design is more sophisticated and aerodynamic.
In spite of the sloping, almost coupe like roofline, there is little danger of bumping one's head getting into the rear seat.
The bold grille is the new corporate face of Volkswagen, and it is similar to the one on the Jetta and Golf. One criticism I would offer is that the Passat and Jetta look so much alike that I have a hard time telling them apart on the road.
Volkswagen said the new body has 57 percent greater torsional rigidity.
Prices start at $22,950 for the value-edition sedan, $23,900 for a six-speed manual and $31,900 for the V-6 with 4Motion all-wheel drive. The Passat wagon starts at $25,225. The 3.6-liter V-6 with 4Motion starts at $33,100.
There are two engine choices: a 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbo and a 280-horse 3.6-liter V-6. The 2.0T is an evolution of the 1.8T from the previous model, and it has remarkable power and flexibility for an engine of this size. An intercooler improves performance.
Transmission choices are a six-speed manual or a six-speed Tiptronic. The V-6 is available only with an automatic.
Years ago, turbocharged engines often felt soft at low speeds but hit you with a burst of power at high revs. Volkswagen's design gives its four-cylinder a strong throttle response at low and midrange speeds, more like a small V-6 than a turbocharged four-cylinder. Direct fuel injection also contributes to this engine's crisp throttle response and efficiency. The 2.0T is rated at 23 miles per gallon in the city and 32 on the highway.
I have not driven the 3.6 liter, but Volkswagen says this narrow-angle V-6 romps to 60 miles per hour in 6.6 seconds. That's pretty serious power for a car of this size.
A new four-link rear suspension is separated from the body by a noise-reducing subframe. Aluminum components are used in the McPherson strut front suspension. The test car's ride was fairly soft, but it didn't feel at all loose or wobbly in turns.
Volkswagen and Audi do an excellent job with interior design, and the new Passat's cabin is elegantly crafted. The instrument panel slopes away from the driver to create a feeling of space and visibility. The center stack is delightfully free of tiny buttons and switches, yet all controls are simple to operate and easy to understand. The trunk is quite large as well.
Large, readable gauges are set into deep bezels. At night, the bright blue numerals weren't as easy to read as instrument panels with blue lighting in other cars.
Volkswagen seats have long been good, but the test car's seats were even better than normal, thanks to extra padding on the sides and under thighs. Many manufacturers ignore under-thigh support, but it makes long drives less tiring.
The test car was a basic model with no options, and it was very comfortable. More luxurious models can be equipped quite lavishly, however. The draft-free, dual-zone climate-control system is similar to the one in the Phaeton. Automatic Distance Control is a cruise-control system that maintains a set distance from the car in front.
A Bluetooth cell phone option will enable hands-free talking. Other options are a 600-watt Dynaudio stereo system with 10 speakers, a navigation system and bi-xenon headlights.
The Passat has an electronic parking brake and electronic vehicle stabilization. A neat twist to the vehicle stabilization is its ability to function when towing a trailer. A special system, used on all Passats with a trailer hitch, detects trailer swerving and applies the brakes to help control it.
VW also offers a Passat wagon. I have not driven one, but it looks terrific and offers almost as much cargo space as an SUV. It would be easier to drive and be more efficient than an SUV, as well.
The base price of the test car was $23,900. There were no options. Destination charges brought the sticker price to $24,530.
Four years or 50,000 miles. The powertrain has a five-year, 60,000-mile warranty.
Engine: 2.0-liter, 200-hp 4-cyl.
Wheelbase: 106.7 inches
Curb weight: 3,305 lbs.
Base price: $23,900
As driven: $24,530
Mpg rating: 23 city, 32 hwy.
At A Glance
The redesigned Passat brings a sporty personality to the midsize segment. The base 200-horsepower engine has plenty of power, and the six-speed manual gearbox shifts very smoothly. The cabin is handsome and spacious.
Counterpoint: The styling looks a bit more generic than the previous model and is easily confused with VW's Jetta.