The Morning Call and's view

Volkswagen’s latest ad campaign’s tag line is “drivers wanted.” In the caseof the Volkswagen Passat, it’s more like buyers wanted.

A relative of the Audi A4 (the cars share basic architecture and drivetrain), this is a class of car that Volkswagen has tried to peddle with littlesuccess. (Does anyone remember the Dasher?)

But for those who wouldn’t be caught dead in an American car or ananonymous Asian blob sedan, the VW represents a unique alternative.

Start with its nationality. Just try to find a roomy, well-equipped,mid-sized German car for just over $22K. Unless it’s a VW, it doesn’t exist.

Next comes the variety. Available as a front-wheel-drive sedan or wagon, itcomes in two trim levels, four-cylinder GLS and six-cylinder GLX. With only115 ponies to motivate more than 3,100 pounds, the GLS is only for those wholike life in the slow lane.

For the rest of us, there’s the GLX. Equipped with the lively VR-6 engine(2.8-liter V6, 172 horsepower, 173 pound-feet of torque) there are great gustsof power above 20 mph or so. Power is very linear. With a gruff growl and lotsof vibration when cold, there’s little doubt that you’re driving a machine.This is a sensation that makes a VW unique. Rather than isolating you, it putsyou in contact with what you’re driving. But opt for the five-speed to extractthe most power. Manually shifting the automatic transmission improved itsperformance; it seemed reluctant to offer a downshift.

If you skip a workout session at the gym, you’ll never miss it. Thepower-assisted rack-and-pinion steering requires much effort at parking lotspeeds.

The ride is firm. Those who are used to Lexus levels of ride comfort willfind it punishing. Those willing to trade off pillow-soft comfort for goodhandling will appreciate the modest amount of body lean and excellent roadfeel. The downside is abrupt reactions from the suspension when hitting theseams in the road.

The seats, covered in a smelly black leather, offered good support. Theinterior offers a decent amount of room for four adults. Since the testvehicle was a wagon, it also offered copious amounts of cargo space. So asgood as the basic car is, there were some oddities that separate it from theautomotive mainstream in terms of interior design.

The cargo cover is made of a hard plastic and seemed cantankerous toremove. The front power window switches are on the driver’s door. The rearswitches are on the dash. The radio had a lot of tiny buttons, and providedsound of average quality. The seat belt chime doesn’t bong, it yodels in aFamily von Trapp manner. There’s no glove compartment. The cupholders,obviously an afterthought, are tacked onto the passenger’s side footwell.

Put this together with a none-too-insulated driving experience and you cansee why only about 15,000 of these were sold this year. The good side is, youwon’t see yourself coming and going as you might with other wagons.

But a new Passat is coming this spring. With curves outside, this car ismore mainstream in its exterior.

With the word unique being increasingly hard to use when talking aboutsedans and wagons, its refreshing to see a car that fits the bill.

Volkswagen Passat GLX WagonStandard: 2.8-liter V-6, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, traction control,power-assisted steering, 15-inch alloy wheels with all-season radial tires,dual airbags, front fog lamps, CFC-free air-conditioning with pollen filter,cruise control, power locks, power windows, power mirrors with defogger, frontbucket seats with console, split folding rear seat, tilt wheel, roof rails,cargo cover, rear window wiper-washer, AM/FM cassette sound system,multi-function trip computer.Options: All Weather Package (heated seats, heated windshield washernozzles), power glass sunroof, four-speed automatic transmission, leatherupholstery.Base price: $22,320As tested: $25,600EPA rating: 18 mpg city, 25 mpg highway

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