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New Car Review

1998 Volkswagen Passat GLS

by Carey Russ

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SEE ALSO: Volkswagen Buyer's Guide


The Volkswagen Passat has always been a little different. It has always had a definite Europhile appeal, but has not previously been a car to appeal to the average midsized family sedan shopper. Note the word "previously." The all-new 1998 Volkswagen Passat is the first of an entirely new generation of Volkswagens, and is a car that can enthuse the committed Euro-enthusiast or the mainstream sedan buyer. With it, VW is launching a major growth offensive.

The new Passat combines sleek aerodynamic styling with proven underpinnings. It uses the same chassis platform as the Audi A4 and A6, and borrows its engine from the A4. This is a return to the roots for the Passat. Volkswagen and Audi are corporate cousins, and the original Passat, released in the early 1980s and known at that time in the United States as the Quantum, took advantage of this in its use of many Audi components. The new Passat follows in its footsteps. Do not think that the Passat is merely a rebodied Audi A4. Only 40% of parts are shared between the two. It is a larger car than the A4, and is targeted at a different market niche. It has a very different character than either of the Audis, not as sporty as the A4 and less luxurious than the A6. It compares very well with any Japanese or American sedan in its class.

The 1998 Passat is currently available only in GLS trim, a front-wheel drive configuration with a 1.8-liter turbocharged engine. Later in the model year 2.8 liter V6 gasoline and 1.9-liter direct- injection turbo-diesel engines will be offered. A station wagon is in the works, as are all-wheel drive "Synchro" models.

Between two long days with Passats at the press introduction in the mountains east of San Diego, California, and a long week at home, I have had plenty of seat time in 1998 VW Passats in nearly all possible conditions. It was time well spent, and even one 250-mile day was a pleasant drive. Comfort levels of the car are close to the near- luxury level. The 1.8-liter engine has wonderful torque characteristics and plenty of real-world power. Handling characteristics are grin- producing. And, fuel economy was better than in my old Beetle.

APPEARANCE: The 1998 Passat stands out in the crowd. Its distinctive appearance is defined and dominated by the long arched roofline, which combines styling elements of the previous Passat and the New Beetle. It's not just "cab forward," it's "cab forward and cab backward," with the passenger cabin being the main mass of the car. A short hood slopes steeply to a soft-trapezoid front grille flanked by large rectangular headlight clusters that is pure Volkswagen. The high rear deck and truncated tail feature huge wraparound taillights. Bodywork boredom is controlled by a discreet bulge on the hood and small fender flares. Black lower cladding and a body-colored rub strip that encircles the car provide protection from the elements. The VW logo in the center of the grille and on the wheel covers is the only chrome on the car.

COMFORT: "Don't think small, live large" is the marketing motto for the new Passat. One look inside tells why. This is not your old Beetle. The interior room promised by the external styling is real. Design is contemporary German, simple and elegant. The appointment level is high, with standard filtration air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, mirrors, and doorlocks, remote keyless entry, alarm system, tilt and telescopic steering column adjustment, and more. The front seats are firm and comfortable in the best German manner. Although they are manually, not power, adjustable, they adjust fully, even for height. Optional seat heating and leather upholstery in my test car added a luxury touch. Rear seat passengers get plenty of room and their own heater vents. The rear seat folds 60/40, and the trunk is huge, even with a full-sized spare tire. A well-designed instrument panel and large, well-marked controls make the '98 Passat a driver's car.

SAFETY: The new Volkswagen Passat has a safety-cage chassis with front and rear crumple zones, dual depowered front and front-seat side airbags, standard 4-wheel antilock disc brakes, and daytime running lights.

ROADABILITY: The new Passat takes advantage of its rigid new chassis with a supple suspension calibration. There is plenty of well- controlled wheel travel to soak up bad road surfaces and enable the wheels to stay in contact with the road. The result? Soft comfort and good handling. This is a very enjoyable, driveable, and sporty car -- and it's not even a "sports" version. The 4-link front suspension is designed for precise handling and elimination of front-wheel drive torque steer, and it works well.

PERFORMANCE: On paper, the '98 Passat gives away 50 horsepower to its V6-powered competitors. On the road, it doesn't matter. The 1.8- liter, 5-valve-per-cylinder twincam turbocharged 4-cylinder engine may produce "only" 150 horsepower, but it produces 155 lb-ft of torque from 1750 to 4600 rpm. Torque is what gets a vehicle moving, and this means instant movement. Turbo lag is no problem here, either. The standard 5-speed manual gearbox works very well, but the optional 5-speed automatic works even better. Why? It's a 5-speed, so the gear ratios are closer than in a 4-speed, keeping engine speed up between shifts. It's the Audi electronically-controlled 5-speed, one of the best. And, most importantly, it uses the Porsche-developed "Tiptronic" manual shifting mode, which allows the driver to shift gears very quickly manually. Having fun on a mountain road? Put the shift lever into Tiptronic mode and enjoy. Stuck in traffic? Put it in "Drive" and enjoy not shifting.

CONCLUSIONS: The all-new 1998 Volkswagen Passat looks to be a strong competitor in the midsized sedan field.

SPECIFICATIONS

Base Price              $ 20,750
Price As Tested         $ 23,555
Engine Type             turbocharged dual overhead cam, 
                        20-valve, inline 4-cylinder
Engine Size             1.8 liters / 109 cu. in.
Horsepower              150 @ 5700
Torque (lb-ft)          155 @ 1750 through 4600
Transmission            5-speed Tiptronic (tm) automatic
Wheelbase / Length      106.4 in. / 184.1 in.
Curb Weight             3236 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower   21.6
Fuel Capacity           18.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement        premium or regular unleaded 
                        gasoline
Tires                   P195/65 HR15 Continental Touring 
                        Contact
Brakes, front/rear      vented disc / solid disc, 
                        antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear  independent 4-link /
                        independent torsion beam axle
Drivetrain              front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed       21 / 31 / 27
0 to 60 mph                                 8.30 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)                            16.40 sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)                    0.27

OPTIONS AND CHARGES

CD changer                              $   280
Tiptronic  5-speed automatic
           transmission                 $ 1,075
Black partial leather interior trim     $   950
Destination charge                      $   500