While the New Beetle is the hottest buzz from Volkswagen, there’s another newcomer lurking in their showrooms that deserves its share of attention: the 1998 Passat.

This arch-roofed, round-nosed sedan shares its heritage with the Audi A4 and A6. It will play a huge part in Volkswagen’s U.S. resurgence because it squares off with popular competitors such as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Oldsmobile Intrigue. Its distinctly German look breaks the mold of me-too styling, while its spacious interior is populated with pleasing textures and efficient instrumentation. It has taut roadholding, nicely weighted steering and a solid body structure free of creaks and groans.

The base price of $21,250 includes front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes and electronic traction control. The Beetle may get folks into the showroom, but I suspect many of them will leave behind the wheel of a Passat.

Last fall, my first drive in the Passat was an eye opener, so I asked Volkswagen for an extended test drive. In January, a silver GLS took up residence in our garage, where it stayed for three months.

What I discovered was this:

The 1.8-liter, turbocharged engine is deceptively quick. Normally, a four-cylinder this small in a car this big would have you smashing the throttle just to keep up with traffic. But this engine is unusual. A turbocharger fattens up its low-speed power and five valves per cylinder give it robust lungs so it breathes freely at high rpm. Even though 150 horsepower is not a lot for a car this size, it gets to 60 mph in about eight seconds.

For those who want more zip, an optional 190-horse V6 is just now available. About half of the V6s will come with a five-speed manual, reflecting the fact that Volkswagen buyers want a more sporting driving experience.

I averaged 19.8 mpg in town and 26.6 mpg on the highway during my three months.

The Tiptronic is my choice for a couple of reasons. It lets you shift manually, should that be your desire, although most of the time I left it to do its own thing. In full automatic mode, it responds to your driving style. Push hard on the gas and it holds each gear a bit longer, even letting engine braking slow the car for turns without upshifting. Drive gently and it shifts quickly.

Truth be told, I did not shift it manually much after the first couple of weeks, but I liked knowing I could.

The automatic saps a bit of power from the four-cylinder engine but not enough to be of consequence. Buyers who want a performance edge will love the five-speed manual, but I see the Tiptronic as the best of both worlds. It would be my personal choice.

The interior is comfortably large. Headroom is more than adequate, thanks to the tall roof. With a wheelbase three inches longer than last year, there is generous knee room for rear-seat passengers. The trunk is big and positively voluminous with the seats folded forward.

I liked the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, one-touch up and one-touch down power windows, keyless entry, power mirrors with defoggers and trip computer.

The cloth seat fabric grips your clothes like Velcro, which is not always good for scooting in and out. Leather is a $950 option.

Soft-touch rubber around inside door handles sends the subtle message that you are grabbing hold of a much more expensive car, and the texture used on the top of the dash and door panels looks rich and elegant.

The Passat has a clever four-link front suspension design that eliminates most of the annoying characteristics of front-wheel drive. It was rock steady in turns, with very little body roll.

While the ride is not sports-sedan tight, it is buttoned down sufficiently to produce satisfying handling.

With an industry-leading drag coefficient (cd) of 0.27, one of the lowest for a production car, it knifes through the air with hardly a ruffle, and wind noise is almo non-existent. If you drive by ear, you will constantly be exceeding the speed limit because it is so quiet.

After three months, my only real complaint centers on the cupholder, which slides out of the dash in front of the shift lever. Not only is it too flexible, but it can’t hold any cup larger than a soda can.

Occasionally, the engine’s idling caused a buzz from somewhere up behind the dash.

The Passat is typical of the new products from Volkswagen. It has tight cut lines between body panels, avant garde styling and an engine that has four-cylinder efficiency and V6 power. The fact that it comes to market competitively priced only makes it more appealing.


The base price of our silver GLS was $21,250. Options included the power sunroof, Tiptronic transmission and CD changer. The sticker price was $23,605.


The standard warranty is for two years or 24,000 miles. The powertrain warranty is for 10 years or 100,000 miles. In addition, all scheduled maintenance for the first years or 24,000 miles is free.

Vehicles for The Star’s week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point:The Passat’s strengths are simple: a spacious interior, good fuel economy, lots of standard equipment and eye-catching styling.

Counterpoint: If Volkswagen is going to be a market force again in this country, it needs a greater presence. The Passat should help create this. Now, if only they would fix the cupholders.


ENGINE: 1.8-liter, 4-cyl. turbo


WHEELBASE: 106.4 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,236 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $21,250


MPG RATING: 21 city, 31 hwy.

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