The redesigned 1998 Passat sedan is a new breed of Volkswagen — the most refined, best-driving vehicle it has ever sold in the United States, Volkswagen of America executives assert.
But beyond that, it is a key part of Volkswagen's plan to recast its image in the United States. It marks an ambitious move upscale in a scenario that involves the Passat competing in the mid-size passenger-car segment against entry models from BMW and Mercedes. Volkswagen executives believe the Passat will succeed because the market is ready for a well-built German-engineered car that is approachable and affordable.
It is a bold plan from a company that hasn't been part of the American automotive mainstream since the Beetle's heydey.
The new Passat shares 40 percent of its components, including the engine, with Audi's highly respected A4. If looks count — and they do — the new Passat is more appealing than its predecessor. And in Europe, the new Passat is so successful that Volkswagen has a back order of 70,000.
The four-door GLS base model (currently in dealerships) has a standard, turbocharged 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine rated at 150 hp at 5,700 rpm and 155 pound-feet of torque all the way from 1,750 to 4,600 rpm for power at low rpms as well as high. The 1.8-liter also features five valves per cylinder.
And, although it provides performance on demand, it has EPA rating of 23 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway.
A five-speed manual transmission is standard; a five-speed automatic with Tiptronic — which lets the driver operate the car as an automatic or shift manually without a clutch — is optional.
This approachable GLS — first of five models planned — is priced at $21,150 (which includes a $500 destination charge). With Volkswagen's synchro all-wheel-drive system at $1,660 and Tiptronic at $1,075, the price comes to $23,885. Standard equipment includes electronic traction control, antilock brakes, 60/40 split fold-down rear seats, and seat-mounted side airbags for front passengers in addition to front airbags.
1998 Volkswagen Passat
The new Passat is just a little bigger than its predecessor. Its wheelbase (106.4 inches) has increased by 3.1 inches. It is 2.6 inches longer (at 184.1 inches), an inch wider (at 68.5 inch) and an inch taller (at 57.4 inches) than last year's model.
Some of that extra space has been divided between the trunk and the interior, making the Passat's back seat much roomier than the Audi A4's, on which it is based. It has more shoulder and head room than before, despite the roofline design that curves down sharply in the back to make this sedan look more like a coupe.
This curving arch — as well as other stunning new styling cues that will be found in the new Beetle and the successor to the Jetta — is also found in Audi's new A4 and A6 models.
According to Volkswagen engineer Stephan Kresbanger, the new Passat's body is 10 percent stronger than the older model, and its dynamic rigidity is improved by 35 percent, which has advantages that range from better handling and ride comfort to reduced squeaks and rattles.
The new Passat has a multilink front suspension, while the rear suspension uses an improved, independent, track-correcting torsion beam rear axle. The steering is rack and pinion.
Those who seek European handling will be happy to know that this U.S. Passat has the same suspension tuning — the same shocks and cross springs— found in a German Passat, Kresbanger said. However, because U.S. Passats will have all-season tires, they will handle a little differently from European Passats, which are equipped with high-performance tires designed for good-weather driving.
Volkswagen executives say that, even though the Passat shares 40 percent of its parts with the Audi A4, they are distinctly different and have different personalities to attract different customers.
"Where we try to distinguish the cars is the touch and feel of the various surface materials, different leathers, different seat fabrics, different design of the switch that you can touch, not the technology, not the switch behind it or the mechanical part of it," said Kresbanger.
1998 Volkswagen Passat
I drove the Passat on California roads as well as roads in Cleveland — the real test when it comes to ride comfort.
The interior is generally pleasant, with enough room for four adults and good all-around visibility. But I do have several nit-picking complaints. The short sun visors make it difficult to keep the sun out of the driver's eyes, front cupholders are poorly designed, and the bizarre "chicken-wing" contortion needed to turn the knob on the side of the seat to adjust the rake of the seat back is aggravating.
Despite its relatively small size, the turbocharged 1.8-liter, four-cylinder offers impressive performance. It is a very nice, smooth and flexible engine that pulls strongly from well under 2,000 rpm and cruises happily at 70 mph at 2,500 rpm and 80 at 3,000 mph. There is a little vibration in the steering wheel at idle, but that is common to most four-cylinder engines.
Under hard acceleration, the transmission holds the gear up to almost 6,000 rpm before it shifts, which should please enthusiasts. The Tiptronic, designed by Porsche, is arguably the best of the manually shiftable automatics. In particular, it does a near magical job of matching engine speed on downshifts, something that tends to elude competitors. In day-to-day traffic, most drivers would probably ignore the Tiptronic and let the automatic shift for itself, but for special occasions, like a country road, the Tiptronic is the way to go.
When it comes to comfort, Volkswagen has done a good job with impact harshness, meaning that occupants will not be overly jarred when encountering obstacles such as tar strips. At the same time, the car communicates an enthusiasm for driving that's unusual in vehicles that can double as real-world family sedans.
More from VW: The '98 lineup
The Passat is the first of a new generation of products from Volkswagen, said Steve Wilhite, sales and marketing executive for Volkswagen of North America. The company has been doing better each year since 1993. And, at the 1998 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Volkswagen executives reaffirmed the company's intent to invest $24 billion in the next five years to expand product offerings to 51 from the current 41 by the end of the decade. Here is what is coming in the near future (all prices include the $500 destination charge).
Passat GLS TDI, priced at $21,700, will be powered by the 1.9-liter, four-cylinder turbocharged direct-injection diesel engine rated at 90 hp. When first introduced in the first quarter of 1998, it will be available only with a five-speed manual; a four-speed automatic will come later.
Passat GLS V6, priced at $23,690, will have a 2.8-liter V6 engine, with five-valve technology, rated at 190 hp. Expected to be available the first quarter of 1998, it will be available with either a five-speed manual or optional five-speed automatic with Tiptronic. The synchro all-wheel-drive system (the qua