The Detroit News's view

As Volkswagen owners who’ve just relinquished our off-lease $20,000 Beetle, the concept of a $40,000 “luxury” VW is difficult to swallow.

Nevertheless, the German automaker’s new Passat W-8 sedan is targeting older, more affluent buyers who gravitate toward more traditional European luxury brands such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar.

VW is banking on the appeal of such upscale features as all-wheel drive, automatic climate control and the brand’s first eight-cylinder engine to lure well-heeled consumers to the Passat W-8, which starts at just under $38,000 — $16,000 more than the base four-cylinder Passat.

However, our test model was bedeviled by a serious bug that suggests that this uber-Volkswagen may not be quite ready for the country club set.

She: We took the Passat W-8 up to Mackinac Island in northern Michigan in mid-September for a three-day break, figuring we’d be going in style, even though your idea of romance is having lunch at that rest stop just north of Flint. Good thing we ate the hard-boiled eggs and ham sandwiches right away. Everything might have spoiled because the air conditioning went out. Vacation was starting to feel like that dopey movie “Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss,” where the cottage is filled with bugs and it rains all day. In other words, luxury was not the first word that came to mind.

He: I was thinking more of words like “miserable” and “sweltering.” Thank goodness we finally figured out that by turning the car off, then restarting it, we could usually coax the fancy Climatronic system into working again. I say “again” because the system quit working several times during the two weeks we tested the Passat W-8. This does not bode well for VW, which is planning to use the Climatronic in several other expensive new models, including the $40,000 Touareg utility vehicle and $60,000 Phaeton luxury sedan.

She: But you have to admit that this pricey Passat sure looked good as we left it in the hands of the valet at the boat dock and watched it fade from view as we took the ferry over to the island. I like the idea of an expensive car that is understated and subtle.

He: You want understated and subtle? Why not buy a standard Passat, which comes with a turbocharged, twin-cam, 20-valve 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 170 horsepower and is a blast to drive? Frankly, I have less trouble with the notion of a $40,000 Volkswagen than I do with a $40,000 Passat. Imagine if Ford put all-wheel drive and a V-8 engine in the Taurus, then charged customers $38,000. Or Chevy tried to do the same with the Impala. You still wind up with an overly expensive, middle-of-the-road car.

She: I wouldn’t call the Passat middle-of-the-road, Mister Let’s-Skip-the-Chicken-Dinner-in-Frankenmuth-and-Eat-at-the-Rest-Stop. First of all, Volkswagen has vastly improved the warranty over what we had on our 2000 Beetle. You now get four years or 50,000 miles bumper to bumper and five years o r 60,000 miles on powertrain.

He: Still not as good as what Hyundai and Kia offer on their base subcompacts.

She: And Ford and Chevy could take a lesson from VW’s interior designers. This is a superbly designed cabin that’s beautifully laid out and easy to use — when everything’s working, that is. And VW lavished many standard safety features on the Passat. Just about everything you could think of, including antilock brakes, traction and stability control, and side air bags and air curtains.

He: My point is that you can get the nice cabin, the longer warranty and all those standard safety features on the base $22,000 Passat. What you’re paying extra for on the W-8 model is questionable. You get the W-8 engine itself — sort of a more complicated V-8 — that makes 270 horsepower and 273 pounds-feet of torque, plus all-wheel drive and a Tiptronic-style five-speed automatic. Be prepared, of course, to surrender six miles a gallon in fuel economy.

She: I like this Passat because it’s a breath of fresh air next to more run-of-the-mill Hondas and Toyotas. Although I’m a bit confused as to how it competes with VW’s sister brand Audi.

He: Let me draw you a picture. For $38,000, you can buy a lovely Audi A6, which is practically a head-to-head competitor. Or, for that matter, a BMW 525i, a Lexus IS300, a Volvo S80 or a Mercedes-Benz C320. There are lots of choices out there in the near-luxury segment, from some very well-known and well-established premium brands. So why spend your money on a brand that’s long been associated with small, economy cars and value? Particularly when this Passat W-8 doesn’t look like that great a value.

She: I can see that spending three days on car-less Mackinac Island did nothing to improve your mood. Talk about hard-boiled eggs.

2002 Volkswagen Passat W-8

Anita’s rating: (Above average)

Paul’s rating: (Acceptable)

Likes: Outstanding standard safety features, including anti-lock brakes, traction, and stability control as well as side air bags and air curtains. Prodigious torque. First eight-cylinder model with a VW badge. Beautifully laid out interior. Understated styling perfect for fans of “stealth wealth.” Better warranty (Anita).

Dislikes: Luxury pretender falls short of the mark (Paul). Not enough visual distinction between the $37,000 W-8 model and the base $22,000 Passat. Automatic air conditioning quit working in 85-degree weather. Driveline components make crunching sound when turning at low speed. Slight throttle lag when accelerating. Small trunk doesn’t hold much luggage. Not much rear-seat room. Understated styling may disappoint some shopping in this price range (Paul).

Type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: Base, $37,900; as tested, $38,450 (inc. $550 destination charge)

Engine: 4.0-liter W-8; 270-hp; 273 lb-ft torque

EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway

12-month insurance cost, estimated by AAA Michigan: $1,345 (Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)

Where built: Germany

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