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Volkswagen Passat (2001.5)

SEE ALSO: Volkswagen Buyer's Guide

by Carey Russ

Volkswagen has a new Passat. Prior to late 1997, that would have meant little to other makers of premium midsized family sedans, and even less to most buyers of such cars. Before the 1998 model year, the VW Passat was, to put it diplomatically, a minor player in that most important class.

The 1998 Volkswagen Passat changed that. It was a surprise to competitors and a delight for buyers. Previous generations of the Passat, first called "Dasher" in the 1970s then "Quantum" in the early 1980s in the US, never really caught on in the American market. The 1998 to 2000 Passat caught on in a big way, and paved the way for Volkswagen's renaissance in this country. Not only did it give Jetta, Golf, and New Beetle owners something in the Volkswagen line to move up to, it provided a European choice in a field dominated by Japanese and American cars. Sales increased accordingly, from well under 20,000 for the best years of earlier models to 80,000 for model year 2000.

At a glance, the 2001.5 Passat looks little different from a 2001 model, or even a 1998. Don't be fooled, only the doors and roof are the same, and there are around 2,300 changes. Most notably, the 1.8-liter five-valve turbo four-cylinder engine in the GLS trim level now has an extra 20 horsepower, giving it near-parity with the 2.8-liter V6 in GLS V6 and GLX. As before, wagon versions of all trim levels are offered, and V6 Passats in both body styles can be had with the "4Motion" all- wheel drive system for all-season versatility. All Passats except those with 4Motion are available with a 5-speed manual gearbox as well as a 5-speed automatic with Porsche-developed "Tiptronic"(r) manual shift mode.

I've recently finished a week with a new front-drive Passat GLX sedan, and had the opportunity to drive all other variations at the national press introduction in Atlanta, Georgia, earlier in the year. With a price range from the GLS sedan's low $20,000 to a GLX 4Motion wagon's low-mid $30,000, the Passat has the premium family car market well covered. And don't think of the four-cylinder GLS as a poorly-equipped "base" model. Especially with the manual transmission, it's the fun car of the line, with a personality like a larger Jetta. And personality is a rarity in the class. V6 Passats are a little smoother and more luxury-oriented, with a very European feel. In any form, the Volkswagen Passat is a fine alternative to the usual choices for a family sedan.

APPEARANCE: The new Passat doesn't look any different? Look again. Lines and edges are replaced by curves. The nose is longer and more rounded in profile, with new, reshaped headlights. The grille is tilted steeply back, which, from some angles, makes the passenger cabin look lower - "chopped" in custom car terms - and gives the car a bit of resemblance to its corporate relative, the Audi TT coupe. The chopped look is an illusion, as the roofline is one of the few body panels unchanged. The rear deck and fenders are subtly changed to accommodate new, larger multicolored taillights. Like most European luxury cars, a tasteful amount of chrome trim on the grille, bumper corners, side rub strips, and around the side windows adds a bright touch.

COMFORT: The newest Passat's interior has been changed, too. All models have been more "Americanized", with a new center console featuring real, functional, adjustable cupholders and a larger, more useful storage box. The basic interior design is elegantly uncluttered, and a dark instrument panel top helps reduce glare. At all trim levels, the new Passat is above class standards in comfort and equipment level. Although the GLS has comfortably supportive standard velour seat fabric and manually-adjustable front seats, the GLX comes standard with leather upholstery, eight-way power adjustment, and five-level seat heaters. It also replaces the GLS's painted trim surfaces with real wood trim, and adds a leather-wrapped rim and cruise and audio controls to the tilt- and telescope-adjustable steering wheel. The GLX is so well-equipped that the only options are a CD player or changer. If it's not quite upper class in fanciness and price, it's definitely at the top of its class in comfort and equipment.

SAFETY: Every 2001.5 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 anticipation of upcoming, more powerful models, the Passat's unibody chassis has been stiffened. This benefits the current versions as well, with more precise steering and suspension response. The multilink front / torsion beam axle rear suspension is tuned to European luxury specifications. It's reasonably soft, with good compliance and control and moderate amounts of body roll in spirited driving. At any trim level, the new Passat is a great car for covering distance, with very good handling characteristics and low noise levels.

PERFORMANCE: With an increase from 150 horsepower to 170, the turbocharged and intercooled 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine found in the Passat GLS is closer than ever to the 190- hp 2.8-liter V6 in GLS V6 and GLX models. V6 cars weigh a bit more, so the power-to-weight ratios, indicative of performance potential, are similar. Unlike many turbocharged engines, the Passat's has plenty of low-speed and midrange torque, making it work well with the available five-speed automatic transmission, although it's more fun with the manual. The V6, as in my test GLX, is a touch smoother and more refined than the four, and helps give the GLX its luxury character. Its power characteristics are such that the automatic is the perfect match, and, with its adaptive shift logic, the manual-shift "Tiptronic" mode is never really needed. Because of the weight of the all-wheel drive system, 4Motion models suffer slightly in acceleration compared to the front-wheel drive versions. But 4Motion offers improved traction in all conditions, and especially when weather is poor.

CONCLUSIONS: There is a 2001.5 Volkswagen Passat to please any premium midsized sedan need.

2001.5 Volkswagen Passat GLX Sedan

Base Price              $ 29,825 with Tiptronic
Price As Tested         $ 30,375
Engine Type             dual overhead cam 30-valve V6
Engine Size             2.8 liters / 169 cu. in.
Horsepower              190 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)          206 @ 3200 rpm
Transmission            5-speed automatic with 
                          Tiptronic® manual shift mode
Wheelbase / Length      106.4 in. / 185.2 in.
Curb Weight             3452 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower   18.2
Fuel Capacity           16.4 gal.
Fuel Requirement        unleaded premium gasoline (91 octane)
Tires                   P205/55 HR16 Michelin MXV4 Plus
Brakes, front/rear      vented disc / solid disc, antilock 
Suspension, front/rear  independent 4-link with coil springs /
                          independent torsion beam axle 
                          with trailing links and coil springs
Drivetrain         front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      18 / 26 / 21
0 to 60 mph                 8.2  sec (mfg)
Coefficient of Drag (cd)    0.27

Destination charge     $ 550