The Morning Call and's view

I’ll admit right up front that I was never a big fan of the VW Passat. The handling might have been good, but the styling left much to be desired, having all the charm of a sanded-off brick.

The interior wasn’t a whole lot better — it had all the charm of a coal bin.

Thankfully, VW has watched the success of such cars as the Taurus, Accord and Camry and realized that it wasn’t impossible to sell a family sedan in mass quantities. It all came down to styling, something that VW hasn’t always taken very seriously.

The new Passat is just plain beautiful to behold, with a look akin to that of the new Audi A4, but just a bit bigger.

It’s no accident either, since the VW shares many of its parts with its more expensive cousin.

The styling features a large arched greenhouse that flows with a post-modern flair into the trunk. The stance of the car is aggressive, and the greenhouse accents the wheel placement. It’s not only fresh, it stands out in a sea of safe, sanitized blobmobiles that pass for family car styling. Even the trunk is unique, with a flat vertical backside that’s severe and European in feel.

Inside, the designers were just as creative, with enough sensual touches to soften the usually severe interior.

The transmission surround is chromed, a flashy touch amid an otherwise sophisticated interior. The test car featured a dash with a black upper half and beige lower half. The seats were outfitted in optional leather. It even comes with wood trim in upper-level models.

So this Passat looks better than any other car with that name, but how does it drive? Like a fine European sports sedan that costs twice as much.

This is where the Audi A4 genes pay big dividends. The ride is firm and communicative, yet not jarring. The suspension soaks up bumps smoothly. The downside is that the car leans a bit more than the A4, but the ride is also a little less tooth-rattling. Steering and braking are quick — the steering is especially good. It’s more sports car than family car. You’ll never be bored by it.

Pitching it into a corner will not fray your nerves, and it has a slot car-like feel that allows any driver to maneuver with cabbie-like skill.

Power comes courtesy of a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with five valves per cylinder. It produces 150 horsepower and 155 foot-pounds of torque. It’s turbo-charged with an intercooler and feels very healthy, indeed. Hooked to either a five-speed manual, or five-speed automatic that is truly remarkable. The automatic has a program that monitors driving conditions and selects from more than 200 pre-programmed shift patterns. So, unlike most automatics that change gears too often, this one stays in gear when you need it to. It also has Porsche’s Tiptronic feature, which allows you to shift gears manually without fussing with a clutch. If your spouse can’t drive a manual but you can, this is a good compromise. But you won’ t need it, since the automatic shifts so well.

There’s little turbo lag, except when it’s cold, and there is good power throughout the rev range.

Inside are comfy accommodations or four — five if you bribe someone. The cabin is quite spacious and airy. Leg room is good front and rear, and the seats are exceptionally comfortable and supportive. The driver’s seat has a lot of adjustments, although the seat back angle is hard to change. Especially nice is a steering wheel that tilts and telescopes.

Some of the switch gear is oddly placed. Most of it is just fine, but try to find the gasoline filler door release (it’s hidden under the center armrest). To adjust the intermittent wiper speed, you must first turn the wipers off. And the trip computer toggle switch toggles between different functions and is located at the end of the wiper stalk. The CD player is trunk-mounted, but it’s located behind a door marked first aid. The climate controls are mounted above th stereo, a reverse of the ideal. But, for the most part, this interior was well-built and well-trimmed.

There’s some wind noise around the mirrors and occasional road noise. The engine’s lack of size is evident only at idle, but I’ll forgive any amount of vibration for its excellent mileage, 26 mpg on an even mix of city and highway driving. The car takes premium fuel only.

The trunk is larger than last year’s at 15 cubic feet. The hinges fold into the water gutters, not into the trunk. This means more usable space for cargo and your favorite suitcase won’t get nailed.

Safety on this vehicle is quite good. The Insurance Institute For Highway Safety rates the new Passat as one of the best mid-sized cars needing the fewest repairs after being crash-tested. The tilt-telescoping steering wheel will help position the air bags farther away from the driver. Front- and side-mounted air bags up front are standard, as are traction control and anti-lock brakes.

But what makes this car so terrific is that it does so many things well. From its large interior to its large soul, this is a four-door sedan to feel passionate about. And, at a base price of $20,750, it’s a bargain in the world of European sports sedans.

Check it out.

1998 Volkswagen Passat GLS Standard: 1.8-liter turbocharged intercooled four-cylinder engine, anti-lock brakes, traction control, power rack and pinion steering, front and side airbags, fog lamps, air conditioning, dust and pollen filter, cruise control, power locks, power windows, power mirrors with defogger, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, front and rear cup holders, AM/FM-cassette sound system with eight speakers, multi-function trip computer, anti-theft system, split folding rear seat, intermittent wipers. Options: power sunroof, CD changer, Tiptronic five-speed transmission, leather interior trim. Base price: $20,750 As tested: $24,555 EPA rating: 21 mpg city, 31 mpg highway Test mileage: 26 mpg.

Latest news

All-New 2023 Toyota Sequoia On Its Way: Here’s What We Want
What’s New With Diesel Trucks and SUVs in 2022?
Ford Bronco: Which Should You Buy, 2021 or 2022?