The name's odd, but the car's great

Time to park the car and reach for the dictionary.

Beetle: "insects having four wings of which the outer pair are modified into stiff elytra that protect the inner pair."

Phaeton: either a "son of Helios who drives his father's sun chariot through the sky but loses control," or a "four-wheeled horse-drawn vehicle," or a "touring car."

Where does Volkswagen get these names?

From its ground-level Beetle ($16,000 ) to its sky-searching Phaeton ($70,000-plus), the manufacturer of the "people's car" is certainly trying to reach a lot of people. It has been wildly successful with the former, not so with the latter. Yet between bug and sky bird there exists a wonderful blend of elegance, economy, and great family sedan: the Passat.

And like VW's entire lineup, Passat offerings comprise a mellifluous current, running from around $21,000 to more than $40,000, but all solidly based on what is, in fact, the same car.

You could have had the W8 model, with its hefty horsepower (picture two V-4 engines mated), or the V-6, with its throaty exuberance. Instead, you picked today's test model, the 2004 Passat GLS 4Motion with a four-cylinder, turbocharged engine. And for this you paid only about the average cost of a car these days: $26,000.

So what did you get? Plenty. How about all-wheel drive. And a 1.8-liter, turbo-charged engine. A five-speed manual transmission (as tested, automatic 5 optional).

Granted, the Passat is getting a bit long in the tooth, having had its last redesign in 1997. Yet it is still cool and fun to drive.

And if you want to feel old, consider that the Passat, whose name came from a loose translation of the phrase "winds of change," has been with us more than 40 years. It was virtually the first VW that was not air-cooled, and did not have its engine in the rear. Around 13 million Passats have been sold.

I have yet to figure out why VW first built the Phaeton. I see fully why the run of Passats has been inexorable.

This is a midsize family sedan with a great interior (redundant when talking VW), fine interior space (if a bit head-cramped for tall folks), and which arrives with wonderful standard safety features. You get ABS, front air bags, front side air bags, front and rear head-protecting side curtain air bags. It comes with fog lamps, an antitheft system, cruise control, power windows, power/heated outside mirrors. Hey, they even throw in the floor mats -- and I've seen $90,000 cars that don't come with those. In addition, it has a power glass sunroof, 15-inch alloy wheels, a CD player, and a trip computer.

It exhibits a very controlled ride on the roads and highways and moves comfortably, if not with a roaring rush, to pass on highways. It climbs hills steadily and surely, even full of family, sits flat in lane changes, and has only a hint of body roll in hard country cornering.

It sits atop a suspension system that has four links up front with coil springs, telescopic shocks, and a stabilizer bar. In the rear it has coils, telescopic shocks, an independent axle with trailing arms, and a stabilizer bar.

Add this to the AWD system called 4Motion, and you have one wicked good New England car.

And consider that AWD is not just a boon in snowy travel. It is also a great asset when the roads are wet.

At a racetrack in Kansas, on a wet day on an undulating, curving road course, I watched an all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Evo kick the butts of Porsches, Vipers, Corvettes, and other race-ready cars because it clung to the track like hot plastic wrap around a jar lid.

Even with reports that the Passat is due for an overhaul -- expected for 2006/07 -- this car is a solid buy today. I wouldn't buy a family sedan without driving a Passat 4Motion as the litmus test for quality, comfort, performance, nd price. 2004 Passat GLS 4Motion
MSRP base price: $25,130/$26,310
Horsepower: 170
Torque: 166 lb.-ft.
Wheelbase: 106.4 inches
Overall length: 185.2 inches
Width: 68.7 inches
Height: 57.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,212 lbs.
Seating: 5 passengers
Fuel economy: 20.1 miles per gallon in Globe testing
Source: Boston Globe