A Smooth Alternative to the SUV
2004 Volkswagen Passat GLS 4Motion Wagon

Our Mini Cooper couldn’t handle the luggage. Nor could our Mercedes-Benz C230, or Toyota Echo. Carting suitcases and valuables here in the open bed of our Chevrolet S10 pickup truck was out of the question. Nothing says “easy mark” in this town like large pieces of tourists’ luggage riding exposed in a pickup’s cargo bay.

We considered using the 2004 Chevrolet SS-R roadster, which actually is a pickup truck with a retractable hard top. It’s an odd piece, reminiscent of the classic Chevrolet pickups of the 1940s and early 1950s. But it has none of their utility.

Instead, the SS-R eschews practicality in favor of a roadster’s romance, charm, and fun. Its hard-covered cargo bay is inadequate for anything except a few overnight bags.

Salvation arrived in the form of the 2004 Volkswagen Passat GLS 4Motion wagon, which, by default, became this week’s test vehicle. The Passat wagon has 39 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats up. That space grows to 54.6 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. The wagon swallowed the two huge vacation suitcases and various tote bags transported here from Northern Virginia to New York for a flight to Vancouver, B.C.

We didn’t have to fold down the Passat’s rear seats to accommodate that luggage. It was remarkable! We had all of that room for all of that stuff in the rear and, had we wished, enough space remaining to seat three more people comfortably.

That made me nosey. At rest stops along the New Jersey Turnpike, I peeked inside of various minivans and sport-utility vehicles on apparent holiday treks. They were easy to spot — with bicycles hanging from their rear hatches and kayaks and water skis attached to their roofs, that sort of thing.

Empirical observation showed that those larger vehicles, many of them substantially bigger, had no more cargo space, carried no more stuff, or were capable of carrying no more people than the Passat GLS 4Motion wagon. Many of the behemoths were equipped with four-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive, as noted by exterior labeling. As its name implies, the Passat GLS 4Motion wagon comes with all-wheel drive, too.

We weren’t going off-road; and judging from the pristine, shiny, unscratched, dent-free exteriors of the behemoths, none of them had been off-road. That means their drivers were relying on the four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive systems of those vehicles in the same way we were depending on the drive system of the Passat GLS 4Motion — to give us extra traction on wet or muddy roads.

But although we didn’t take up as much space on the highway as the gargantuan runners, we seemed to use almost as much gasoline — especially considering that the GLS 4Motion is equipped with a relatively small, in-line four-cylinder, 1.8-liter, 170-horsepower, turbocharged engine.

We averaged 23 miles per gallon with a total onboard weight — driver, front-seat passenger and cargo — of 586 pounds. We ran at an average speed of 65 mph. We thought we should have been doing better than 23 mpg, that we should have been getting close to the 28-mpg highway rating bestowed on the Passat GLS 4Motion wagon by the Environmental Protection Agency. But the wagon’s fuel gauge moved toward empty with alarming speed.

Perhaps it was the all-wheel-drive system, which sends drive power from wheel to wheel on an as-needed basis. That requires the car to do extra work, which means the consumption of more energy. Passenger and cargo weight also add to that burden.

It brought to mind something that many car and truck owners frequently forget: Fuel-economy numbers usually will go down — even in a four-cylinder car or truck, including models equipped with diesel or gas-electric hybrid systems — in response to the amount of work the vehicle is asked to do.

We were asking the Passat GLS Wagon to do a lot — to carry our abundant cargo, transport our bodies, keep us in a 70-degree Fahrenheit cabin environment on a 97-degree day, entertain us via an onboard sound system, keep us safe in a crash of up to 35 mph, and accelerate on demand.

Luckily, we had neither reason nor opportunity to test the wagon’s crash system. We discovered that its braking system (four-wheel anti-lock brakes, ventilated front discs/solid rear discs) could use some improvement. But everything else worked perfectly. Verdict: We added it to our list of candidates to replace our Chevrolet S10 pickup and/or augment our beloved, but not always practical, Mini Cooper.

2004 Volkswagen Passat GLS 4Motion Wagon

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: The brakes were mushy. They need improvement. Also, it would be nice if the four-cylinder Passat GLS 4Motion wagon could get the EPA’s 28 miles per gallon on the highway with a heavy load in the cargo bay.

Head-turning quotient: Conservative but elegant styling. It’s just what the middle class ordered.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent ride, competent highway acceleration and excellent overall handling and maneuverability, even with a heavy load.

Body style/layout/trim lines: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, four-door wagon with rear hatch. There are five different trim levels for the Passat wagon. They include the base GL 1.8T, tested GLS 1.8T 4Motion, GLS V-6, GLX, and the really-ought-to-be-an-Audi $40,275 Passat W8 wagon.

Capacities: The Passat GLS 4Motion wagon has seating for up to five people. Cargo capacity is 39 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 54.6 cubic feet with rear seats down. Fuel capacity is 16.4 gallons of required premium unleaded gasoline.

Mileage: We averaged 23 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving carrying a heavy load.

Engine/transmission: The GLS 4Motion’s 1.8-liter, turbocharged, 20-valve, 170-horsepower engine is linked to a standard five-speed automatic transmission that also can be shifted manually.

Safety: Loaded! Standard side and side-curtain, head-protection air bags. Standard traction control. Optional stability control.

Price: Base price on the tested 2004 Passat GLS 4Motion wagon is $27,205. Estimated dealer’s invoice price on the base model is $25,129. Price as tested is $29,460, including $1,680 in options and a $575 destination charge. Estimated dealer’s invoice price as tested is $26,000.

Purse-strings note: The Passat GLS 4Motion wagon offers good value for the dollar. Bargaining possible. Compare with the Audi A4 and A6 Avant, Mercedes-Benz E Class, Subaru Legacy and the all-wheel-drive version of the Dodge Magnum RT.

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