EXPERT REVIEW

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Volkswagen of America made its mark on the domestic market with its 1995 Passat GLX.

Now, in an effort to increase its presence in the midsized category, the company is introducing a lower-priced four-cylinder version called the Passat GLS.

The sedan carries a base price of under $18,000, which VW says makes it the lowest-priced midsized European sedan sold in the United States. It’s a substantial drop from the cost of a GLX.

“It makes for a much more affordable European sedan,” said Ron Vanags, general manager of Speedway Volkswagen-Mazda. “Volkswagen is back, and the GLS represents a lot of value in a midsized car.”

For the past three model years, Volkswagen has offered its top-of-the-line GLX sedan with the company’s award-winning narrow-V6 engine for just under $21,000. With the GLS version and in-line 4, VW plans to be highly competitive in the midsized arena.

The Passat was almost completely restyled as a GLX, and its specifications are carried over in GLS form. The GLX and the GLS are the same car except for the engine and anti-lock braking, which is standard on the GLX.

As VW’s largest passenger sedan, the Passat offers a spacious, sophisticated interior with 99 cubic feet of space. Overall legroom is a generous 82 inches, which the company says is significantly more than any other vehicle in its class.

GLS styling has that uncluttered look that marks the car as a solidly built Teutonic automobile. Its contours evoke grace, with flowing headlamps that wrap back into the fenders.

Rear lamps are large and easy to see. And the bumpers, side moldings and mirror housings are color-keyed.

The door panels and handles are newly designed, and the instrument panel is improved with easy-to-read gauges. Switches have been arranged to minimize driver distraction.

Ventilation controls are high in the center-console area for easy access. And there’s a plethora of convenience items such as cup holders, front and rear storage pockets and a center-console compartment.

Beyond styling and comfort is some solid engineering, directed in part by German driving characteristics. The Germans don’t exactly spare the horses, so the Passat’s torsional rigidity has been increased 30 percent.

Rough spots on the road have a feel reminiscent of full-sized German cars. And when driven aggressively, a GLS belies its pricing and behaves like a sports car.

The four-cylinder engine is a single-overhead-cam 2.0-liter (121-cubic-inch) motor that produces 115 horsepower and 120 foot-pounds of torque. In the interests of economics, VW obviously wasn’t going to make a special engine for the GLS, so it used the same motor that powers the VW Golf, Jetta and Cabrio.

With 115 horses, the sedan is no drag racer, but then it wasn’t designed that way. The car weighs under 3,100 pounds, and with a standard five-speed manual transmission the family-oriented four-door has decent flexibility.

You can rev the engine to about 6,000 rpm through the gears, and this gives you a 0-60 mph time in the 9 seconds bracket.

For the less enthusiastic, there’s an optional electronically controlled four-speed automatic that’s designed to adapt to the driver’s style. Full throttle gives high-revving shifts when peak performance is required. A conservative style results in economy.

1995 Volkswagen Passat GLS Base price: $17,990Type: Front engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger, mid-size sedan.Engine: 2.0-liters, SOHC in-line 4, 8 valves, fuel injected, 115-horsepower, 122 foot-pounds of torque.Transmission: Five-speed manual.Acceleration: 0-60 mph in 9.8 seconds.Mileage: 21 mpg city/ 29 mpg highway.Wheelbase: 103.3 inches.Length: 181.5 inches.Width: 67.5 inches.Height: 65.5 inches.Curb weight: 3,090 pounds.Options: CD changer, four-speed automatic transmission, ABS braking, power sun roof.

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