Passat benefits from precise steering, with effort that automatically adjusts to the situation. Its optional six-speed automatic transmission is smooth and responsive, and its brakes are excellent.
The base engine is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 200 horsepower that should satisfy most needs, while returning 23/32 mpg according to EPA City/Highway estimates when equipped with the standard six-speed manual transmission. The optional 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 Passat boasts mid-size sedan practicality. It offers plenty of interior room, particularly for back-seat riders, so a six-foot passenger can sit behind a six-foot driver. It boasts generous standard content and a beguiling mix of high-tech and haute couture. And while the previous model was among the safest cars in America, the structure of the latest Passat is substantially improved.
Buyers can choose a sedan or station wagon. The Passat Wagon offers 35.8 cubic feet of cargo capacity, and returns an EPA-estimated 18/26 mpg City/Highway even though it is equipped with all-wheel drive.
The current-generation Passat was introduced for the 2006 model year and is longer, wider, and more mature than the previous-generation. The Passat Wagon followed for 2007. For 2008, there are no mechanical changes and no styling changes, aside from new wheels and colors. There have been revisions to the lineup for 2008, however: Base models are better equipped for 2008, base wagons can be ordered with manual transmission. For 2008, all V6 wagons come with all-wheel drive. The 2008 Passat lineup is divided into more trim levels with fewer options and packages than previously.
Volkswagen Passat 2.0T ($23,990), automatic ($25,065); 2.0T Wagon ($25,200), automatic ($26,275); Komfort sedan ($27,900); Komfort Wagon ($29,100); Lux sedan ($30,100); Lux Wagon ($31,300); VR6 sedan ($36,050), 4Motion ($38,000); VR6 Wagon 4Motion ($39,200)
The nose is aggressive, with VW's signature medallion-shaped grille, vee-shaped contours on the hood, and a large VW badge. Composite headlamps frame the nose like a pair of eyes, staring intently down the road, and large intakes along the bottom of the bumper reaffirm the Passat's performance intentions.
In profile, the Passat's substantial overhangs signal a heftiness associated with large, luxurious automobiles. The wheels and tires, especially the VR6 model's 18-inch wheels, 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 tail lamp clusters that echo the shape of the front lights.
The seating position is commanding, the seats themselves a good combination of comfort and control, with especially good lateral and under-thigh support. Standard 12-way adjustability on the driver's side, combined with a fully adjustable steering wheel, ensure a good fit for all body types.
The Passat offers good rear-seat legroom. We found a six-foot passenger could sit comfortably by a six-and-half-foot driver.
Leather upholstery and wood trim make the Lux model feel like a far more expensive German car, minus tens of thousands of dollars on the bottom line. Each of the other models, 2.0T, Komfort, and VR6, features its own unique metallic trim instead of wood.
The 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 drivers fulfill their assigned task without confusion or calamity. Ambient lighting helps with interior illumination at night. An umbrella holder in the driver's door, complete with a drainage system so a wet umbrella can be stowed without harm, makes us feel like we're in a Rolls-Royce.
The dashboard design is broken into upper and lower layers, avoiding the monolithic, crowded look of many contemporary control centers. The upper panel houses the air outlets and a deep cowl shading the gauges; the lower handles various accessory functions, including the button for the electronic parking brake, a rotary control for the headlamps and, to the right of the steering wheel, the engine start/stop slot.
Instead of fitting a key into a column-mounted ignition switch, the entire key fob is pushed into a dash-mounted slot. To stop the car and eject the fob, simply push it again. What might seem a gimmick is in reality a boon to safety and reliability: A dangling keychain can prematurely wear an expensive ignition switch or cause leg injury during a crash. However, we found VW's space-age ignition switch hung up sometimes when we tried to exit the car in a hurry, and was hard to pull out, which was annoying.
The center console flows rearward from the dash, housing the navigation screen, climate controls and shift lever. Flanking the shifter are buttons for ESP deactivation, an Auto Hold function to keep the car from rolling backward on hills, and optional Park Distance Control. Two large cupholders fit between the seats just forward of the folding armrest. The furry material around the cupholders looks like it could be a haven for crumbs, not good for people who eat in their car. Storage is available in a number of bins, including a sunglasses holder.
The Passat wagon can carry a large amount of cargo, even without folding the back seats down. Pulling out the cargo cover hides whatever you may be carrying from prying eyes. Fold the back seats down simply by flopping the seatbacks forward. This expands the cargo area, though the rear seats do not fold perfectly flat.
The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine is responsive and works well with the six-speed automatic. Volkswagen and Audi seem to have solved some of the drivability issues we've expressed in the past about the compatibility of the 2.0-liter turbo with the automatic transmission. On previous-generation models, the turbo and automatic didn't work together: The turbo would lag and the transmission would upshift right when we stepped on the gas and wanted to go, which was not good when we were moving out of a slow lane into a fast lane with trucks looming in our rearview mirror. But all of that seems to be gone now.
The 3.6-liter VR6 is a smooth engine. Responding with an approving growl to the driver's right foot, the narrow-angle V6 delivers a robust flow of power, taking the relatively heavy Passat to 60 mph from a standstill in about 6.6 seconds. The 3.6-liter engine has good torque down low, and once underway it revs freely, happily climbing toward the 6200-rpm power peak without harshness. But it sometimes hesitates at the bottom end. Step on the gas and there's a moment when little happens, both from a standing start and when cruising slowly. This can be annoying.
Otherwise, the six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic control feels well suited to the 3.6-liter's power band. A highly robust unit, it's designed to handle much more power than the V6 can deliver. Gear control is smooth when shifting manually using the Tiptronic.
The sport-tuned suspension that comes with the VR6 lowers ride height (by 15 mm) and stiffens the springs and shocks. We found the VR6 sedan to be very stable at high speeds (135 mph), tracking straight and true. These are benefits of its balanced chassis with multi-link rear suspension and MacPherson strut front suspension. The front suspension does a good job of handling the conflicting duties of the front tires to both pull and steer the car.
But even the standard sedan settings feel far more sporty than in most mid-size family cars. Body roll, brake dive and acceleration squat have been all but eliminated, and torque steer is nearly nonexistent.
On the other hand, the Turbo wagon we drove did not encourage sporty driving. But it was quite comfortable in parking lots and on bumpy neighborhood streets, with a nice, cushy ride.
The Passat's electromechanical rack-and-pinion steering is very responsive and adjusts the power-assist based on steering wheel angle and vehicle speed. It also corrects for side winds as well as minimizing column vibration. We can attest to its precision while making rapid lane changes at high speed.
Braking is excellent. The four-wheel discs (ventilated in front) provide 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, aided by Brake Assist (as we found out on the Autobahn, when an old, wheezy, and plastic-bodied jalopy left over from the Communist era pulled into our lane about 75 mph short of our velocity).
We've also driven a Passat VR6 sedan equipped with the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, though we haven't had a chance to try it out on slippery or snowy roads. Volkswagen has offered all-wheel drive in the Passat since 1984, but the current system was all-new for 2006. The electronically controlled system is designed to work effectively with the ABS, traction control, electronic differential lock, and electronic stability program. On dry pavement, where we experienced it, it was largely invisible. We recommend 4Motion for anyone who gets snow and ice in the winter, though it's also very beneficial in rainy environments such as the Pacific Northwest.
Multiple electronic aids are on hand in all Passats to help the driver in distress, but they do little to mute the pleasure of driving the car, 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.
The Volkswagen Passat is a sophisticated car with a high-quality cabin. It's roomy and comfortable. The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine makes a good companion for the automatic transmission. The ride is smooth and comfortable and the chassis is well controlled at high speed. The available 4Motion all-wheel drive is an excellent option for bad weather. And the wagon makes for a highly practical car.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Greg N. Brown reported from Hamburg, Germany; with editor Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.