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1998 Volkswagen Passat

At last! A great VW!

Andrew Frankl

Many, many years ago, way back in the early 60s, my cousin and I had some serious fun in a Beetle. We zapped from Montreal to Cape Cod, to the race track at St Jovite, and to lots of other fun places. We were, I hasten to add, young and carefree in those days. I have not really had too much fun in VWs since then, and somehow the company's image kept going slowly down in my estimation. Luckily for them, the Audi division kept the excitement going with Quattros and, lately, wonders of the automobile world such as the A8-- a truly remarkable automobile.

VW themselves have been plodding on with a series of Polos, Golfs, and totally uninspiring Passats. Things were going so badly that they even closed and sold their manufacturing plant in the United States. If the new Passat is anything to go by, however, they have definitely turned the corner, and it seems there is lots more to come. Seat, a fully owned Spanish subsidiary has recently unveiled a sub-B class car, the Arosa. Apparently it will be made at VW's Wolfsburg factory in an amazing 7 and a half hours. It is even shorter than Ford's revolutionary Ka yet still offers dual air bags, anti-lock brakes and air-conditioning.

My spies tell me that it was the brain-wave of recently departed Jose Ignacio Lopez, the former purchasing director. Lopez, a highly controversial character who joined VW from GM in 1993, left the German automaker after a court case fairly recently. Whether this project was his brain-wave or not, it does show that VW is ready for battle against the Mercedes-backed Smart car, which was an idea from the makers of Swatch watches and which will go on sale in 1988. I think the Pico (VW's name for the Arosa) is probably too small to be sold in the United States, unless there is a fuel crisis.

One car on its way from Mexico in 1998 is the much-awaited Beetle! It seems to me that the auto industry is going into the retro business. VW is re-launching the Beetle and BMW/Rover is putting the finishing touches to the Mini. All we need now is a limited edition Model T Ford... Seriously though, the new Beetle is going to be big news. It will have its engine in the front and the small trunk/boot in the back, but I don't think that will matter a great deal, if at all. What matters is that the engineers managed to turn an instant antique into a highly desirable classless, ageless, unisex fun-car. I am sure the students at Berkeley, Cambridge, and all over the world are already working out just how many of them will be able to squeeze into the new one, and into the Guinness book of records.

But I digress..back the Passat. VW took us to San Diego and beyond into the mountains where we certainly had plenty of opportunities to put the new car through its paces. Much to my delight it was fitted with a Tiptronic transmission. This was a huge surprise, as up to now I have only ever come cross this brilliant system in Porsches and top of the range Audis! Even the aluminium cover was straight off the A8. For the uninitiated, Tiptronic is a way of using the gearbox up and down without having to use the clutch. Very similar to what Formula One Grand Prix drivers do, except that they have the controls just behind the steering column and not on the floor.

If you want to change up you move it upwards, if you want to change down you move it downwards, it is as simple as that. The system has a lock-out mechanism to make sure you don't accidentally try to change into second at 80 miles per hour. A silly but annoying detail that we came across on a blazing hot day: one cannot see the read-out on the dashboard while wearing decent sunglasses--Revos in our case. Ultimately we just changed by ear and feel, but it would have been nice to see the instrument which told us whether we were in fourth or fifth.

The other silly fault--duly acknowledged by refreshingly honest marketing Supremo Steve Wilhite--was the lack of clearance between the "B" pillar and the side of the seat: not enough room to adjust the seat mechanism. Until the factory switches the mechanism to the inside of the seat, dealers would be well-advised to bring this to the notice of potential customers.

Let's face it--a ripped-off Breitling or an Omega Seamaster is not much fun at the best of time, and for it to happen in your own car would be just too horrible to contemplate. If by now you think that I am picking on little things you are right. Essentially it is a very good, very competitively priced car. I have driven a lot of BMWs, and have recently been looking at the prices of second-hand ones at Sonnen Motors in Mill Valley. Wow! You can buy a brand-new Passat with all the extras for about 23 grand, whilst Sonnen was asking 30 plus for two-year old 525s. Please. Let's get serious.

After all, for 23 big ones you get a 5-valve per cylinder, 150 horsepower, four cylinder engine with an automatic gearbox which comes with the above mentioned Tiptronic. You also get side-mounted air-bags, CFC free A/C, power windows at the front, keyless entry, and a good AM/FM radio with CD capability.

The first car will be followed by a V6 engined version and a turbo diesel, as well as a wagon. Prices include a two-year/24,000 mile new vehicle warranty and an 11 year/unlimited mileage corrosion perforation limited warranty.

On the road the new Passat was quiet and comfortable, with the A/C working overtime in 100 degree heat. Whilst we would have preferred the power of the V6 going up into the hills, on flat stretches we did managed to exceed 100 mph without major dramas or increase in wind noise. This is one of the advantages of a car that has to live with fast-moving traffic on German autobahns.

All in all, a very good car which will be a big success. Let's face it--this one had to be very good because its predecessor was a huge lemon. Once people realise that the only thing that has not changed is the name (maybe it should have, bearing in mind the chalk and cheese situation between the two?), they will buy it and enjoy it. We certainly did.