The all-new 2006 Volkswagen Passat boasts powerful new engines, generous standard content and a beguiling interior mix of high-tech and haute couture. It looks poised to play a strong role in Volkswagen's surge back to prominence in the world's most important car market.
Volkswagen is rolling out a full line of four-door sedans over the 2006 model year, ranging from the 2.0-liter Value Edition with nice leatherette upholstery to the more-powerful 2.0T to the V6-powered 3.6L. All-wheel drive is available. And wagon versions of the various models will roll out during the model year. All Passats come standard with the latest in safety features and electronics.
Longer and wider than last year's model, the 2006 Passat offers more interior space, particularly for rear-seat passengers. A six-foot passenger can sit comfortably behind a six-foot driver. And while the previous model was among the safest cars in America, the structure of the new Passat is substantially stronger.
The new Passat offers sportier handling than last year's model. The steering is very precise with steering effort that automatically adjusts to the situation. The new 3.6-liter narrow-angle V6 growls when pressed and delivers robust torque, allowing the Passat to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 6.6 seconds. The six-speed automatic is smooth and responsive and the brakes are excellent.
Volkswagen Passat ($22,950); 2.0T ($23,900); 3.6L ($29,950); 4Motion ($31,900)
Not just larger, the new Passat is considerably stronger than the previous car, registering a 57-percent increase in static torsional rigidity despite a body structure almost 25 pounds lighter. This was achieved in the production process through the increased use of laser welds and development of a new, high-strength heat-molded steel. The previous Passat was among the safest cars in America, ranking behind only the Mercedes-Benz E-Class in lowest death rate, and this new one should be even better at protecting occupants in a crash.
The new Passat has the presence given off by all beautifully crafted cars and is a stunning example of Volkswagen's goal of melding the aesthetic and the technical. This happy result is from a corporate culture that hasn't always understood that styling is as important as a machine's inner workings; that attitude is gone. And this aesthetic will go deeper than chrome trim or jewel-like headlamps. For instance, note the absence of weld marks in the hood, trunk or door openings of the new Passat, the kind of detail that marks the Passat as the way forward for VW, as one top VW executive put it.
In keeping with current trends, VW stylists sought a dynamic stance and just enough extraneous shapes and creases to make the car interesting from various angles. Its look is an evolution of the Passat's often copied lines, as there was little reason to break completely with tradition. There's a reason that styling studios around the world study Volkswagens, apparently far more closely than the American car buyer.
As with other current VWs, the nose is aggressive. The medallion-shaped grille's ascending angles are continued in the vee-shaped contours of the hood, while a large VW badge dominates the slatted grille face. Composite headlamps frame the nose like a pair of eyes, staring intently down the road, and large intakes along the bottom of the nose reaffirm the car's performance intentions.
In profile, the car's substantial overhangs signal a heftiness associated with large, luxurious automobiles. The wheels and tires, especially the optional 18s, fit well within the wheelwells and underscore the Passat's look of a well-grounded automobile. The sweep of the roof is of the modern, sporty sort, its coupe-like contours delineated by chrome trim surrounding the side glass. Chrome is also used in a trim strip to tie together the front and rear fender arches and the sharply cut tail, which is defined by round, horizontal taillamp clusters that echo the shape of the front lights.
The Passat's larger dimensions and space gained from the new transversely mounted engine were used well in the interior, particularly in the additional 2.4 inches of rear-seat legroom, a weak aspect of the previous Passat. Also criticized in the outgoing model was a dearth of storage space and other interior amenities. Volkswagen has responded with more storage bins than we can enumerate, a sunglasses holder, sunshades for the side windows and backlight. Ambient lighting has been enhanced. And there's even an umbrella holder in the driver's door, complete with a drainage system so a wet umbrella can be stowed without harm. No need to buy a Rolls Royce to get that feature.
Equally well thought out is the cockpit's overall design, which continues VW's tradition of quality materials, sensible gauge layout, and an ergonomic correctness about the driver's relationship with the controls. The seating position is commanding, the seats themselves a good combination of comfort and control, especially laterally and in thigh support. Standard 10-way adjustability (12-way available on the 3.6L) and a fully adjustable steering wheel ensure a good fit for all body types. Even our six-and-half foot tall co-driver in Germany could find the right position for his lanky frame. More impressively, I put my six-foot frame behind him and, due to all the extra rear legroom, had no problem sitting comfortably.
The car we drove was about as fully kitted out as a Passat can get, optioned with Package #2 Luxury plus the stand-alone options of 18-inch wheels and tires, and the DVD satellite navigation system with glovebox-mounted six-disc CD changer. The wood trim and leather upholstery made the car feel like a junior VW Phaeton, minus, of course, a sticker with a couple more tens of thousands of dollars on the bottom line.
The new dashboard design is broken into upper and lower layers, avoiding the monolithic, crowded look of many control centers. The upper panel, housing the air outlets and deep cowl shading the gauges, is in dark contrast to the lighter panel that contains various functions, including the button for the new electronic parking brake, rotary controls for the headlamps and, to the right of the steering wheel, the engine start/stop slot.
The central console flows rearward from the dash, the navigation screen, climate controls and shift lever nestled within a handsome expanse of wood. Flanking the shifter are buttons for ESP deactivation, an Auto Hold function to keep the car from rolling backward on hills, and Park Assist. Two large cupholders fit between the seats just forward of the folding armrest.
The Passat's interior ambience is best defined as understated luxury. Despite the cockpit's many creature comforts and electronic controls, there's a simplicity about the design and functionality that helps the driver fulfill his assigned task without confusion or calamity.
With an approving growl of support to the driver's right foot, the new narrow-angle V6 delivers a robust flow of power, taking the relatively heavy car to 60 mph from a stop in 6.6 seconds. Despite being almost a full liter larger than the 2.8-liter it replaces, the 3.6-liter engine is about 18 pounds lighter and, despite offering 90 more horsepower and 58 pound-feet of additional torque, it's just as economical to operate. Credit newly instituted FSI technology (where fuel is added directly into the combustion chamber) and a variable intake manifold for much of the increased efficiency. The 3.6L has good torque down low, but it also revs freely, happily climbing toward the 6200-rpm power peak without expressing harsh disapproval of the driver's insistent go-pedal.
The six-speed automatic with Tiptronic feels well suited to the 3.6's powerband. A highly robust unit, it's designed to handle much more power than the 3.6 can deliver. Takeoff is exceptionally smooth, and it upshifts without a glitch when left to its own devices. Gear control is equally fluid when shifts are chosen through the manual side of the Tiptronic box.
Providing a stable platform for the powertrain is a beautifully balanced chassis, optimized by a multi-link rear suspension that delivers a new level of handling control. The front MacPherson strut-type suspension has been refined to the point that the conflicting duties of the front tires, to both pull and steer the car, are fully reconciled, and the car tracks straight and true.
A sport-tuned suspension is also available, offering a lower ride height (by 15 mm), stiffer springs and shocks, but even the standard settings are far more sporty than were found in the previous generation. Body roll, brake dive and acceleration squat, all undesirable traits of former VW suspensions, have been eliminated, and torque steer is all but nonexistent.
One aspect of previous models that was desirable was brought forward in the braking system. The four-wheel discs (ventilated in front) provide crucially direct feedback, and the ABS threshold is set high enough to allow a good measure of late braking for the sporty driver. Overall brake feel is superb, and the car stops from high speeds with little drama (as we found out on the autobahn when an old plastic Communist-era car pulled into our lane going about 75 mph more slowly), aided by standard Brake Assist.
Steering around the moving chicane directed our attention to the improved electromechanical rack-and-pinion steering, which up until then we had totally ignored simply because it was working so well. It adjusts assist based on steering wheel angle and vehicle speed. It also corrects for side winds as well as minimizes column vibration. We can attest to its precision while making rapid lane changes at high speed.
Several standard electronic handling aids are there to aid the driver in distress, but they do little to mute the pleasure of driving the new Passat, which is core to the VW ideal. If it weren't nimble around corners, easy to park, and stable on the straights, it wouldn't be a Volkswagen.
Each element that defines an automobile's dynamic character was refined or entirely renewed for the 2006 Volkswagen Passat, and all to the car's vast improvement. Add in the more spacious, more finely crafted passenger space and the modest investment, and all this goodness starts looking like a class leader. The question is, can Volkswagen's maligned dealer network become better at supporting this excellent new sedan? And, maybe more to the point, can this new sedan become the first of a more reliable generation of Volkswagens?
New Car Test Drive correspondent Greg N. Brown filed this report from Hamburg, Germany.