He abhorred planning. To him, travel was adventure found more in spontaneity and happenstance than in itineraries or maps. For the unfettered joy of it, he and Bea would hop in a car with their dog and hit the road -- sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for a few days.
Bea's man made another unplanned departure recently -- this time without her, this time for good. "Heart attack," she said. "He collapsed and died."
She went into mourning.
Bea, her nickname, is a longtime friend. You give friends their space in tragic moments. But you don't leave them alone entirely.
Bea is fond of German automobiles. The arrival of this week's test car, the 2006 Volkswagen Passat 2.0T sedan, gave me an excuse to interrupt her solitude.
She hesitantly accepted my invitation "for a ride."
"To where?" she asked.
The new Passat is three inches longer and wider than its predecessor. It's also a more powerful car. The two-liter, turbocharged, in-line four-cylinder engine in the 2006 Passat 2.0T develops a maximum 200 horsepower -- 30 horsepower better than the 1.8-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine it replaced.
"Seems expensive," said Bea. But it wasn't, at least not in the sense of Audi-expensive, or Mercedes-Benz-expensive. That's because Volkswagen has learned something from its Asian competitors -- the Japanese and, lately, the Koreans.
The Koreans, for example, have a thing about "face." It has to do with protecting people's feelings, their sense of self-respect. In cars, that means giving economy and mid-size family sedans, such as the Passat, much the same panache invested in truly high-end automobiles, without charging a luxury price.
The front-wheel-drive Passat 2.0T, in terms of trim and equipment, such as wheels, ranks one step above the new, base "Value Edition" Passat. It is slotted below the new 280-horsepower, V-6, front-wheel-drive Passat 3.6 and the all-wheel-drive version of that car, the Passat 3.6 4Motion.
Yet, the Passat 2.0T felt and looked rich -- albeit it was a feeling enhanced by options such as a DVD-based onboard navigation system and leather-surface seats.
Bea was enthralled with the navigation device -- its seven-inch display screen and the accuracy with which it tracked our car's position on the road.
"Can it tell you where to go?" she asked.
"Yeah, well, you can ask it for directions," I said. "Where do you want to go?"
"West Virginia," she said. "Have you ever been to Shepherdstown?"
"No," I said. "Have you?"
"No," she said.
We keyed Shepherdstown into the navigation system, choosing a route out of the District to what the system designated as the "Shepherdstown town center." We allowed the system's "voice" to tell us where to go, turn for turn, without any questioning or second-guessing on our part. We traveled many back roads, nearly all filled with glorious twists and turns, all of which the Passat 2.0T handled with aplomb, until we arrived at this little town on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River.
I silently wondered why Bea had wanted to come here, to this place where neither of us had ever been, but then remembered that Bea's man shared my fascination with the Civil War. The Union army chased battered Confederate troops here in 1862, fighting a bloody battle Sept. 19-20 before ending -- unwisely, some military tacticians argue -- the pursuit of the beleaguered, but still not defeated rebel soldiers.
Bea's man had wanted to see this place, but he never made the trip. She was here for him. I said nothing as she tried to hide her tears. Face is face.
- - -
Nuts & Bolts 2006 Volkswagen Passat 2.0T
Concern: The new Passat is a top-notch competitor against everything in the mid-size family sedan class -- the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata and Toyota Camry, among the currently popular contenders. But here's hoping that Volkswagen's service acumen is now as high as the company's product quality. It would be a pity if VW ruined the new Passat's sales with poor treatment of its owners in the repair bays.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Top marks in all three categories. That means excellent handling in tight corners, excellent acceleration in highway lane changes -- in short, about as much fun as you can expect from a four-cylinder family sedan.
Head-turning-quotient: Rich, stately . . . with a hint of wild child evident in its heavily chromed lower grille.
Body style/layout: The 2006 Passat 2.0T is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive, mid-size family sedan with a traditional notchback trunk. The new Passat line also has a new, more powerful all-wheel-drive offering in the Passat 3.6 4Motion. A new Passat wagon will be released in spring 2006.
Engine: The Passat 2.0T is equipped with a turbocharged two-liter, 16-valve in-line four-cylinder engine that develops 200 horsepower at 5,100 revolutions per minute and 207 foot-pounds of torque at 1,800 rpm. The engine can be linked to a standard six-speed manual transmission, or a six-speed automatic that also can be shifted manually.
Capacities: The Passat 2.0T has seating for five people. Maximum luggage capacity is 14.2 cubic feet. Fuel capacity is 18.5 gallons of required premium unleaded gasoline.
Mileage: We averaged 30 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving.
Safety: Rigid body construction; standard side air bags for front passengers; front and rear head bags; four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated front/solid rear designed to quickly shed water for improved wet-road stopping).
Price: Base price on the tested 2006 Passat 2.0T with automatic transmission is $24,975. Dealer's base price is $23,058. Price as tested is $28,415, including $2,825 in options and a $615 destination charge. Dealer's price as tested is $26,254.
Purse-strings note: It's a buy, but you can bargain. Lots of competitors.
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