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2006 Volkswagen Passat Preview

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By Carey Russ

Little did anyone realize, when the 1998 Volkswagen Passat debuted in late 1997, that it would have such an influence in the mid-size sedan class. Prior to that time, Volkswagen's mid-size sedans - called, in North America, Dasher in the late 1970s, Quantum in the 1980s, and finally Passat in the `90s - had been minor players. There was little reason to expect a different reception from the 1998 Passat.

But, where its predecessors were ignored, the `98 to 2005 Passat was noticed. Sales increased dramatically, averaging 75,000 a year. And its influence extended beyond the VW faithful, as the styling of some later competitors demonstrates.

Why the success? In a class of largely-unexciting transportation appliances, the Passat stood out. Even in its original form, front-wheel drive with a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, it offered emotional appeal, with a sportier character than its competition. Its pleasing, uncluttered, functional styling offered an alternative to the blandness or gimmickry of the competition. And its roomy interior had a pleasant European ambiance.

Model choices grew with the debut of a V6 engine, 4-Motion all-wheel drive, and a wagon body style. The Passat line got a mid-life cycle overhaul partway through the 2001 model year, and continued to more than hold its own against all comers in the mid-size class right through Summer, 2005, when the 2006 model was quietly introduced.

I first saw a 2006 Passat not at a press introduction in some faraway place, but in a supermarket parking lot a mile from my house in early August. ``New Jetta,'' I thought at first, as the latest Jetta hadn't been out all that long and there is a distinct similarity. But wait, this car was a little longer, a little more formal, a little more Phaeton-like. VW had quietly started selling the 2006 Passat in early August, with none of the usual auto industry fanfare and hoopla. No klieg lights, no in-your-face advertising campaign, just a few cars to its dealers. With the result that 4,000 or so 2006 Passats were sold before there was even an ad campaign.

More recently, VW did formally introduce the 2006 Passat to the press, in Boston, MA. Not only was the current turbocharged four-cylinder 2.0T available for driving, but also the upcoming 3.6-liter V6.

In either form, the new Passat builds on the strengths of its immediate predecessor, but is a very different car under the skin. The previous generation had a longitudinal engine placement and was built on the same platform as the Audi A4 and A6. The new version is based on the underpinnings of the latest Jetta, with transverse engine mounting.

The new Passat is notably larger than the Jetta - and larger than the previous Passat, especially inside. It's slightly longer and wider, and its styling further develops the design language introduced on the newest Jetta - with a large helping of Phaeton elegance. It looks a class above the basic midsize family sedan.

Lightweight, high-strength materials and a more efficient design have reduced weight slightly, and chassis rigidity, never a sore point, has increased significantly. The suspension is fully independent, with MacPherson struts in the front and a four-link system at the rear. Although currently-available Passats are front-wheel drive, 4-Motion all-wheel drive versions will be available later in the model year. Unlike the previous system, it will have a distinct front-wheel drive bias, and, although it will add weight, prototypes have tested quicker in acceleration because of improved traction.

And there is plenty of power to be gotten to the ground. The old 1.8-liter turbo four has been replaced by the 2.0-liter turbocharged and intercooled FSI direct fuel injection four-cylinder familiar from the Jetta GLI and Audi A3 and A4. With maxima of 200 horsepower between 5100 and 6000 rpm and 207 lb-ft of torque between 1800 and 5000 rpm, it's closer to the output of some competitors' V6 engines than other fours in the class, and can be matched to a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic® manual-shift mode.

The V6 engine is completely new, and at this point exclusive to the Passat. Like the old VR6, it has a narrow vee angle for the compactness necessary for its transverse mounting. But it is not the old 15-degree VR6. It's narrower, with a 10.5-degree vee angle, and features dual chain-driven overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, and FSI direct fuel injection. As in the 2.0T, FSI allows a high compression ratio for added efficiency. The 2.0 turbo engine's 10.3:1 ratio is higher than many naturally-aspirated engines; the 3.6-liter V6's 12:1 would require a serious octane-booster diet without the precision of FSI. It, like the 2.0T, runs happily on a diet of normal premium unleaded gasoline. And with 280 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 265 lb-ft of torque at 2750 rpm, it puts the new V6 Passat at the head of the mid-size sedan class for performance. When it becomes available later in the 2005 calendar year, it will come only with a six-speed Tiptronic automatic.

The previous-generation Passat had a fine reputation for safety, and that should only be enhanced by the new car. Its structure is designed to meet or exceed government requirements for the foreseeable future, and passive safety is also helped by standard front, front seat thorax, and side-curtain airbags, with rear thorax airbags optional. Crash-active front headrests, three-point safety belts and headrests for all seating positions, and daytime running lights are also standard on all models. For active safety, count very responsive handling, four-wheel antilock disc brakes coupled with an electronic engine braking assist system, the ESP electronic stability-enhancement system, ASR traction control, and electronic differential locking. The electromechanically-assisted steering saves fuel, dispenses with petroleum-based fluid, and can be equipped to compensate for crosswinds. Additionally, brake wipers automatically remove moisture from the rotors, for improved stopping in damp conditions.

With features like that, it seems that the 2006 Passat is a step above the average mid-size family sedan. And it is, with a high level of standard equipment and upscale options including ``steerable'' bi-xenon HID headlamps that illuminate around corners, a DVD navigation system, Sirius or XM satellite radio, and, especially for the V6 models, a number of option packages that put a Passat on a par a with midsize German luxury car for equipment, design, and refinement.

But the 2006 Passat is still a Volkswagen, which means that it is priced very reasonably. The 2.0T ``Value Edition'' starts at $22, 950 with the manual transmission or $24,025 with the automatic. The standard 2.0T is $23,900 with the stick, or $24,975 with the automatic. The V6 starts at $29,950, or $31,900 with 4MOTION. Add $615 for destination. With a full suite of options, it's possible to get the price of a V6 over $40,000. But consider that similarly-equipped midsize luxury-brand sedans go for over $10,000 more.

The proof is in the driving. Often, new car introductions are done at a location far removed from daily traffic, and urban ``pavement.'' Not this one. We drove through Boston traffic and through the suburbs to the coast, on a mixture of highways and secondary roads. It was a fair approximation of real-world driving, timed only to miss the worst of commute traffic. No glamourous fantasyland here. The 2.0T driven in the morning was impressive. The interior styling and quality was equal not to the common midsize sedans with which it is meant to compete, but with the entry-level German luxury models, which also are smaller cars. The ride quality, even, or really especially on poor pavement, was excellent - with long, well-damped suspension travel and very good soundproofing. Acceleration, braking, and cornering abilities were first-rate, with no comparison possible to your average midsize family transportation appliance.

And the V6? More of the same, with impressively strong power and an interior finish that put it head-to-head with any similarly-sized six-cylinder offering from the German luxury brands. Seriously. Especially in V6 trim, but even with the four, think of the new Passat not as an enlarged Jetta, but as a smaller Phaeton.