New Car review: Volkswagen Passat W8 Sedan

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SEE ALSO: Volkswagen Buyer's Guide

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

Volkswagen got its start in the American marketplace with the Beetle, but both Volkswagen and the automotive marketplace have changed considerably since those days. The company whose name means ``people's car'' recently introduced the Passat W8, its first luxury car and, at nearly $40,000, the most expensive VW to date. A $40,000 ``people's car?'' Has the world changed that much?

Perhaps Volkswagen, its products, and its customers haven't changed as much as one might think. Many original Beetles were bought as ``protest cars,'' by people who could otherwise afford something more expensive but felt that the large, extravagant, and garish cars of the late 1950s were not for them. In the same vein, VW is offering the Passat W8 as an alternative to ostentatious, expensive, ``name brand'' luxury cars. It may be pricey for a Volkswagen, but it's far less expensive than any other eight- cylinder, all-wheel drive sedan or wagon. And VW is adamantly not abandoning its core market. Jettas are not going away. VW's current offerings will continue to attract the young, educated, upscale buyers that have made VW the envy of the auto industry, but the company is expanding the brand in order to give them vehicles to move up to. The W8 is the first step, soon to be followed by the Touareg SUV and the Phaeton, a premium luxury sedan. Volkswagen's remarkable resurgence in the past decade has been due to its making of cars that people want to buy, and its future lies in doing the same on a wider scale.

The Passat W8 starts with the well-received Passat sedan or wagon chassis, and replaces the GLX 4Motion trim level's 2.8-liter V6 with a unique 4.0-liter eight-cylinder engine. Exterior and interior changes are minimal. This, after all, is not a car for the ostentatious, and the Passat GLX is hardly underequipped. The W8's heart and soul is its engine, which, basically, combines two VR4 engines on a common block for an ultracompact 270- horsepower powerplant. With one crankshaft, it's less a ``W'' than a double-vee...hmm, double vee from VW...I smell an irresistible pun. A regular V8 wouldn't fit into the Passat's engine bay without extensive, expensive modifications. The short, wide W8 fits handily.

I first had the chance to drive the Passat W8 when it was introduced to the press in Half Moon Bay, California, just south of San Francisco. It acquitted itself very well on the tight, twisty mountain and coastal roads of the area, with nimble handling and a smooth, quiet ride. More recently, I've spent time in the traffic of my home town. It works there, too. In any situation, the combination sports sedan acceleration and braking, a European luxury ride, and the comfort, spaciousness, and style of the Passat is hard to beat. And, the presence of the W8 in the Passat lineup takes nothing away from the other versions. They have made the Passat a surprise in the mid-level, mid-sized sedan class, with record sales and influence beyond its market position - just look at several key competitors, and notice the stylistic similarities. The Passat W8 may just surprise the established luxury makers in the same way.

APPEARANCE: Stealth luxury? The W8 is meant for people who don't feel the need to loudly proclaim their fortune. It looks no different than any other Passat, except for its four chromed exhaust pipes and standard high-intensity discharge headlamps. The ``4Motion'' badge is shared with other all-wheel drive Passats, while the ``W8'' badge on the tail is unique.

COMFORT: Inside, as out, the W8 is little different from the GLX trim level. It's not that the W8 is lacking in appointment; the Passat GLX, and even GLS, are appointed above their station, and have the elegant, understated design that is part and parcel of European luxury. The W8 gets a slightly different trip computer, understated chrome trim on the instrument panel and doors, and uniquely-faced instruments. Expect leather upholstery and wood trim, power seats and accessories, five-level seat heaters, and excellent electronic climate control. The front seats are equal to those in any mid-luxury car for comfort and support, and the rear seat has plenty of room for two or even three people. A huge trunk makes any Passat a great car for everyday use or long vacations, and wagon versions of all, even the W8, are available for people who need more cargo space.

SAFETY: Every 2002 VW Passat has four-wheel antilock disc brakes, a rigid body structure with front and rear crumple zones, front, front side, and front curtain air bags, and three-point safety belts for all occupants.

ROADABILITY: In standard trim, the W8 Passat strikes a good balance between sport and luxury. Its fully-independent four-link front, double wishbone rear suspension is tuned softly, with plenty of travel for comfort on all types of road. But excellent damping control and 4Motion all-wheel drive traction mean good handling and cornering ability, and plenty of fun. This is a Volkswagen German luxury car, after all, and the company that invented the GTI isn't going to make a stodgy, boring luxury car.

PERFORMANCE: Recipe for compact power: take two 2.0-liter, 15-degree vee angle VR4 engines and mount them on a common block at 72 degrees to each other. Use a crankshaft that essentially makes the resulting four-bank engine into a flat-plane crank V8 for good breathing ability, to maximize power and economy and minimize emissions. Add twin counter-rotating balance shafts for smoothness. Match it to a five-speed Tiptronic ® automatic transmission, and deliver the resultant 270 horsepower and 273 lb- ft of torque to all four wheels via VW's ``4Motion'' all-wheel drive system. The W8 has a linear power delivery, with a healthy little surge toward the top, and makes a pleasing sound unlike any other engine built. A wide torque curve helps the transmission shift easily, with manual mode never really necessary except for performance driving. VW stealth sports enthusiasts take note - a six-speed manual gearbox will be available in the 2003 model year.

CONCLUSIONS: Volkswagen continues to surprise with its first eight-cylinder luxury car.

SPECIFICATIONS 2002 Volkswagen Passat W8 Sedan

Base Price $ 37,900

Price As Tested $ 38,450

Engine Type dual overhead cam, 32 valve W8

Engine Size 4.0 liters / 244 cu. in.

Horsepower 270 @ 6000 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 273 @ 2750 rpm

Transmission 5-speed automatic with ``Tiptronic''® manual-shift mode

Wheelbase /

Length 106.4 in. / 185.2 in.

Curb Weight 3907 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 14.5

Fuel Capacity 21.1 gal.

Fuel Requirement 91 octane premium unleaded gasoline recommended

Tires P215/55 HR16 Continental Conti Touring Contact Eco Plus

Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc, antilock and stability control standard

Suspension, front/rear independent four-link / independent double wishbone

Drivetrain front engine, all-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 18 / 25 / 21 0 to 60 mph 6.5 sec (mfg)

Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.27

OPTIONS AND CHARGES Destination charge $ 550

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