Despite all its crimson lust and Italian allure, a Ferrari is just another chunk of metal when surrounded and pounded by crush-hour traffic on the Santa Ana Freeway. It snorts, glowers, chugs, clogs its plugs and froths like a racehorse hooked to a
hay cart. A Ford Explorer may be a better choice for pushing and shoving to get downtown; but it's too big, likes to lumber, and you'll burn 4 gallons of gas between Highland and the four-level. Mazda Miatas get about three long journeys to the
gallon and fit tiny holes in traffic, but they don't meet the high-occupancy demands of some carpool lanes, sit low enough to meet exhaust pipes at nose level and have yet to win an argument with a pickup. Toyota Camrys and GM Saturns are able and
affordable commuter cars, but they are total sleep inducers on weekends. Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and Audis, of course, make for grand drive-time companions--should you have the income of Pete Sampras or be senior partner in an offshore trading company.
So just what is out there for Jennie and Wes Covina, typical Los Angeles traffic slaves with two kids, weekend jobs at Circuit City, six unsold scripts and a pair of student loans outstanding since the Vietnam War? There's the 1999 Volkswagen Passat
GLS. And by optimum size, occupant comfort and conveniences, value for the dollar and the agility level of a jack rabbit, the Passat GLS is Highway 1's clear choice as the ideal commuter carriage--and probably the easiest way through uneasy traffic
since Harley met Davidson. * Here's a car that's a comfortable mid-size with four doors for painless car-pooling. It's small enough to squeeze into tight spaces, but has a ton of room for four middle managers and one small intern. The trunk is a
storage container that easily swallows four briefcases, four laptops, four umbrellas and four bags of clubs should there be enough light for nine holes on the way home. The engine is a turbocharged 1.8-liter four-banger borrowed from the Audi A4 and
the newest New Beetle. It delivers 150 horsepower, more than enough to propel the Passat smartly up freeway ramps to slip deftly into traffic that, at rare times (at least twice since 1994), can be an unyielding wall of metal moving at 78 mph. Do not try
this at home or in a Chevy Metro. At a precise cost of $24,215--which covers destination charges and $2,490 in options, including a sliding glass sunroof, 15-inch alloy wheels and a Tiptronic five-speed automatic/manual transmission--the GLS is a few
dollars dearer than the competition but still a high-value vehicle priced well within the parameters of affordability. * Since its introduction 10 years ago, the Passat has earned a good reputation for quality, safety, reliability and
durability. Insurance is light, and gas consumption of 21 miles per gallon in the city, 31 mpg on the highway, is close to Honda Accord and Toyota Camry and several pints superior to Ford Taurus. GLS is a car designed to ke
ep all occupants comfortable, happy and at peace with the boredom of grinding 90-minute commutes and outside din. Air-conditioning could freeze a side of beef, and cold air is ducted into the glove box to keep your mocha frappuccino chilled.
Mini-spotlights are mounted above the vanity mirrors to bring new softness to doing your makeup while crawling the Hollywood Freeway. And there's an eight-speaker sound system for losing one's SigAlert ennui by enjoying Elmore Leonard on tape or Berlitz
Farsi. Away from commuting issues, the Passat, first reviewed here two years ago, continues to impress as a very sensible vehicle. It is one of the few mid-sizers to offer side air bags, a full-size spare tire, power windows that are one touch up and
down, a lined trunk with auxiliary power outlet, safety doors that automatically unlock to allow rescue should you have a run-in with unyielding objects--and all as standard equipment. No surprise, then, that the Passat dethroned the C amry in A
pril as Consumer Reports' pick as the nation's best family sedan. For those on the outside looking in, the Passat is a most attractive car showing slow curves and pleasant, natural arches clearly shared with the A4 and A6 from companion company Audi.
It is distinctive, sets its owners somewhat apart from the pack and denies the bland uniformity offered by most Asian car builders. It certainly tells the world that you know what you're buying, and what you've bought is pretty nifty. For those
on the inside looking out, the fabric-lined interior is comfortable without being particularly fussy. The car is 1 inch wider and 3 inches longer than before, so there are acres of elbow-, leg-, shoulder- and headroom--essentials that seem to hint that
this car was actually built to ease the ghouls and remove the beasties from Los Angeles' nightmare commutes. This is a quality interior made splendid by thoughtful touches such as silicone-dampened grab handles that don't smack back into place and
slap fingertips. Also heating-cooling vents that fold flat like Venetian blinds and a rubber-lined cubby with a lip so that your Ray-Bans don't go slip sliding away. * The engine is spirited, shows no lag in its turbocharged reflexes and has
enough early-to-interim acceleration to sprint for holes opening up in traffic. Nimble steering and a wonderfully obedient suspension assist the process. And should that hole squish shut, or lane changes become impossible, the Passat's anti-lock disc
brakes with traction controls--both standard equipment--bring everything back into balance. But how boring, a family four-door tuned for nothing but commuting purposes. Therein another Passat trump. On weekends, on wriggling two-laners far from the
unpredictable ebbs and flows of freeway traffic, this car is a challenger among coupes and sportier road rascals. The Tiptronic transmission--a sequential shifter that allows manual gear selection and engine settings to balance the car's pace and
poise--is the secret to fun and competitive motoring. Plus the Passat's commanding brakes and suspension setup. Sadly, this people's car is noticeably flawed. And in a sedan chosen to be a conduit of daily drudgery, the error might even be a
deal breaker. It all depends on how you, the commuter, feel about a two-in-one, dashboard-retractable cup holder that is flimsy, flexes to the point of slopping coffee on your Florsheims and can't clutch a small Dixie cup with any degree of firmness. It's
not much better in back, where cup holders for rear-seat passengers wouldn't hold a pair of standard Thirst Busters. Or you can look on the bright side. A Ferrari doesn't even have cup holders. 1999 Volkswagen Passat GLS Cost Base,
$21,200: includes front and side air bags, cruise control, power steering, five-speed manual transmission, power windows and doors, anti-lock disc brakes, tilt and telescope steering wheel, theft alarm, air conditi
oning, two power outlets, traction control, rear reading lights, trip information computer and remote locking. As tested, $24,215: adds destination charges, glass sunroof, 15-inch alloy wheels, Tiptronic five-speed automatic/manual transmission.
Engine Turbocharged 1.8-liter, 20-valve inline-4 developing 150 horsepower. Type Front-engine, front-drive, four-door mid-size family sedan. Performance 0 to 60 mph, as tested: 8.6 seconds, with Tiptronic. Top speed, electronically governed: 125
mph. Fuel consumption, 21 miles per gallon city, 31 mpg highway. Curb Weight 3,120 pounds. The Good: Polished, practical, affordable, ideal commuter car with a penchant for frolicking hard on weekends. Mechanically and visually borrows the
best from Audi stablemates. Roomy trunk with long list of expensive features as standard equipment to gladden the hearts and ease the passages of commuters. Turbocharged performance. And te ll friends your car com
es from the people who build Rolls-Royce and Bentley. The Bad: Priced a little above Camry and Accord. The Ugly: Cup holders with wet-noodle rigidity.