Slipping a 190-horse V6 engine into Volkswagen’s mid-size Passat creates a four-door sedan that feels like an Audi A4 in disguise.
That’s not surprising, by the way, since the two cars share many under-skin components, and because Audi is the luxury division of Volkswagen.
The Passat is all-new for 1998, and a fine job it is. It sparkles with distinctive German styling, tight panel gaps, a spacious interior and athletic handling. The base engine in the GLS, a turbocharged, 1.8-liter 4-cylinder with 150 horsepower, is genuinely robust, especially when mated to the 5-speed manual transmission. Prices start at $20,750.
Last spring at the New York International Auto Show Volkswagen upped the ante by announcing the availability of a 190-horsepower V6 as well as the GLX, a top-line luxury model.
After having spent three months with a Passat GLS earlier this year, I was eager to sample the GLX. For $26,250 it comes with the V6, power sunroof, traction control, anti-lock brakes, side airbags, power locks with remote, trip computer, alarm system, fog lamps, split-folding rear seat and heated windshield nozzles. Leather upholstery, heated seats and real wood trim add a distinctly up-scale tone. The automatic climate control system is slick and the AM/FM stereo cassette system has good sound quality, although I was surprised that a CD player was not included.
If you want a GLS with the V6, it begins at $23,190.
The instrument panel’s texture is appealing because it looks expensive. Large, analog gauges, which glow iridescent blue at night, are attractively designed and simple to read. I liked the unusual blue lighting, although I suspect not everyone will.
At the bottom center of the dash is a pull-out cupholder that just isn’t big enough to hold the wide variety of cups and mugs that American drivers use.
Nice touches include a small storage box inside the adjustable center armrest and the soft-touch material that surrounds the door pulls.
The seats are pretty firm, which is typical of German cars, and the only change I would like to see is greater side support.
There is good legroom in the back seat, which also folds down to create a flat load floor like a station wagon.
A station wagon Passat, with the 4-cylinder engine, is available starting at $21,300.
Aside from the additional creature comforts, the biggest change is the 2.8-liter, 90-degree V6 also used in Audi’s A4 and A6. It has dual-overhead camshafts, 5 valves per cylinder, variable valve timing and aluminum cylinder heads. It sits longitudinally, for better weight distribution, and drives the front wheels. Acceleration is strong and seamless, with nearly imperceptible shifts from the automatic transmission. In normal driving this engine is quiet and smooth, but give it the whip and it sounds a bit coarse at maximum rpm.
Fuel mileage is rated at 18 city and 29 highway.
A 5-speed manual is standard, b ut our test car was equipped with the optional Tiptronic 5-speed automatic. The Tiptronic, a registered trademark of Porsche, is one of my favorite transmissions because it offers the best of both a manual and an automatic. If you want to shift manually, slide the gear lever to the right. There, in manual mode, you shift up by tapping the lever forward, and down by pulling it backward. When you stop, it automatically shifts back to first gear, and if you floor the throttle it automatically up shifts when it reaches maximum speed in each gear. Nifty, and well worth the $1,075.
Because of the body’s slippery shape you hear very little wind noise at highway velocities, and that heightens the overall feeling of luxury.
With the GLX, Volkswagen broadens the Passat’s appeal and provides a luxury model to compete with entry-level luxury cars from many of its competitors. The only question is, will it steal buyers from the Audi A4?
The base price of our test GLX w $26,250. Equipped with the Tiptronic automatic transmission, its sticker price was $27,825, including freight.
The basic warranty is for two years or 24,000 miles, although the powertrain is warranted for 10 years or 100,000 miles. Scheduled maintenance for two years is performed at no charge.
Vehicles for The Star’s week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.
Point: The roomy Passat is one of the slicker sedans on the market, a different answer to the question of what constitutes a good mid-size sedan. The V6 gives it lots of power, and its long list of standard equipment puts it on par with many entry-level luxury cars.
Counterpoint: If I could modify one thing, it would be the seats. My personal preference would be for greater side and under-thigh support.
ENGINE: 2.8-liter, V6
WHEELBASE: 106.4 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 3,380 lbs.
BASE PRICE: $26,250
PRICE AS DRIVEN: $27,825
MPG RATING: 18 city, 29 hwy.