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2003 New Car Review - VW Passat W8

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2003 Volkswagen Passat W8 Base price: $37,900 Price as tested: $38,475 EPA mileage: 18 city/26 highway

By Des Toups

Is it a luxury car if none of the neighbors can tell it's a luxury car? That's the $40,000 question posed by the Volkswagen Passat W8, which wears the same clothes as the $22,000 Passat 1.8T but sports twice as many cylinders driving twice as many wheels.

It's VW's misfortune that the comparison the W8 brings to mind is not with players such as the Audi A4 and Volvo S60, but between its own sedans. The lesser-grade Passat is one of the great deals of the automotive world, handsome and graceful and rich-feeling. So rich-feeling, in fact, that justifying the extra 15 grand or so might be difficult.

That extra cash buys a unique engine driving all four wheels, a spiffier dashboard and every luxury option in VW's inventory, but the only exterior differences of note are dual exhausts and an ultra-discreet "W8" badge on the trunk lid.

That "W8" stands for the odd configuration of the engine's cylinders, which are slightly offset rather than in the traditional V-shape. It's a lovely, torquey, whisper-quiet motor that produces an even hundred horsepower more than the standard 1.8-liter turbocharged four. It ought to make this tidily sized sedan fly. It doesn't.

The problem is twofold: First, the five-speed automatic transmission is lazy and reluctant to downshift, hesitating before delivering the goods at times you need power most -- like entering a busy roadway from a parking lot. That sluggishness can be at least partly overcome by taking advantage of the tranny's Tiptronic feature, which lets the driver control up- and downshifts. Once in motion, the W8 offers a bucket of low-end torque -- which peaks at just 2,750 rpm and means the Passat pulls strongly in any gear.

Second, the W8, with its boatload of goodies and all-wheel-drive, is a hefty 600 pounds heavier than a garden-variety Passat. The extra weight blunts not only the W8's punch but its moves, too. The lighter Passats are among the more agile sedans on the road; the same car carrying 20 percent more weight feels nose-heavy and deliberate. It's not a boat by any means, but there's little of the joy that drives enthusiasts toward BMWs. Steering feels overly heavy at low speeds, and though it lightens up as the speedometer moves to the right, communication between the wheel and the wheels feels as if it goes through a translator first.

Of course, we buy cars to get to work in one piece and to drop little Caitlyn and Joshua off safely at middle school, not just to fling about on off-ramps. That function the W8 performs admirably, with an electronic stability program gently braking any wheel that's stepping out of line. Should that fail, passengers are wrapped in front, side and side-curtain airbags. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn't tested a W8, but it bestowed stellar five-star ratings in frontal crashes, and four stars for side impacts, on the plain-Jane Passat. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, whose offset tests are more demanding, rates the Passat a "Best Pick."

Though many drivers see all-wheel-drive as a safety feature, the friction and weight of the 4Motion system are a poor trade-off for anyone whose commute doesn't involve a lot of ice. Additionally, the 4Motion gear takes up a lot of space, cutting trunk room by a third and forcing use of a smaller, temporary spare tire.

Inside, you'll find an interior not substantially different from cheaper models. Gauges are more ornate, attractive but harder to read. Toys such as the Monsoon sound system, rain-sensing wipers, heated seats, sunroof and rear sunshade abound. It's a comfy, inviting, classy interior, awash in leather and real wood and chrome.

But when largely the same interior and exterior are available at 40% off -- with a livelier, friendlier feel on the road to boot -- the intangibles come into play.

A substantial part of the mission in sedans of this price class is to broadcast one's standing in the freeway pecking order. The W8, with 270 horsepower, a first-class interior and a sophisticated drivetrain, certainly has the technological goods to compete. It is more athletic than a Lexus ES300, more substantial than a BMW 3-Series, more relaxed than a Mercedes-Benz C-class. None is particularly more attractive or comfortable than the W8.

Yet these rulers of the entry-level luxury class have something VW can never engineer into the Passat: Instant driveway credibility in the suburbs where such things matter most.

Des Toups is a Seattle free-lance writer whose work has appeared in AutoWorld magazine, The Seattle Times and newspapers nationwide.