What a difference 0.5 of a year makes. Way back when--say, last fall--all of us busy-bee auto scribes were buzzing about the 2000 Passat sedans from Volkswagen, equipped with clever little--make that very little--1.8-liter turbocharged engines making 150 horsepower. What a neat idea, we collectively thought: take a popular sport sedan from corporate sibling Audi (the A4), stretch it into a slightly larger VW Passat family sedan, and install a fuel-stingy turbocharged mini-motor to keep the lid on purchase price and operating costs.
The result may not have been especially thrilling in terms of raw performance, but the compensation was stylishness, comfort, and even pretensions to luxury for just $21,450 base price. The hive of scribes chalked one up to V-dub, and we moved on in search of our next pronouncements.
By spring, VW Passat was back. "What gives?" we buzzed. "You've already gotten your chalking." Undeterred, VW's entry-level Passat GLS lifted her skirt and showed a little leg. "What-ho!" we scribes exclaimed. "Where've you been?" And with that, the 2001.5 VW Passat debuted an ambitious makeover accomplished in just six months' time.
Among the 2300 engineering and styling changes that VW claims to have made since just last fall, by far the most conspicuous is the 13-percent horsepower boost that enables VW's little turbocharged-engine-that-could to deliver 170 huffing-puffing horsepower. Even more dramatic are the 11 additional lb-ft of torque. Not only does torque now peak at 166 ft-lb, but it manages to reach and maintain maximum torque from 1950 rpm to 5000 rpm--a flat nirvana of maximum pulling power that inhabits almost half the usable powerband. In a 3200-lb sedan, these kinds of engine enhancements are enough to transform a humdrum commuter car into a very happ'nin' sport sedan--all for just a $300 increase in base price to $21,750.
Tweaks of the Passat's appearance are subtle but significant: The shape is edgier, bolder, cockier-looking than its predecessor. There are different chrome accents, a more steeply raked grille, some new sheetmetal creases at the rear, other creases ironed smooth up front. New treatments for front and rear lighting assemblies are discreet, but they add up to racy changes in appearance for a car that's positively more spirited to drive.
2001 Volkswagen Passat
It's not that 170 horsepower is so all-fired exceptional, of course; but it bears pointing out that turbocharged horsepower--which is essentially an engineer's exercise in efficiency worship--isn't exactly the same kind of horsepower you'll get from your average grain-fed gelding. Passat's small-displacement motor pulls hard and true for over 3050 rpm worth of maximum torque, but you'd better be prepared to stick your foot in it and keep it there if you want to savor the thrill. That, by the way, can be a little hard to manage in the pickup line at elementary school. And if you're determined to try the feat on your typical neighborhood street signposted for 35 mph, then you'd better get on a first-name basis with second gear and cultivate a taste for the shrieking revs that go wailing out your tailpipe. Otherwise, you'll notice that you're spending a lot of time reining in this amped-up quarter horse, chomping at the bit, snorting flecks of spittle at every stop sign when maybe a ruminating, even-tempered Clydesdale might be more appropriate for your particular beer wagon.
I can certainly see this engine's attraction, of course. In fact, I love the afterburner-style rush of a maxed-out turbo; and out in barnstorming country, there's an entertaining, puzzle-solving thrill that comes from gauging where and when to plant the accelerator so that your power burst is waiting for you around the next apex when you need it. Mistime such an event, and you'll know you flubbed it; but you'll just keep trying till you get it right.
There is something a bit schizophrenic, however, about the '01.5 Passat GLS and its rocked-up turbo when you consider the sophisticated refinement of the Passat's interior. The layout is living-room elegant--it's roomy, comfy, even a bit sedate. Switch controls such as the power windows, air conditioning, and cruise control (all standard on the GLS, by the way) exhibit the very essence of Teutonic crispness. My own tester was further accoutered with optional leather upholstery ($1500), a luxury package with sunroof ($1550), and an eight-speaker Monsoon sound system ($325).
2001 Volkswagen Passat
On occasion, I must confess that I imagined myself in a comfortable suite at the Pierre Hotel, overlooking Central Park--only to have this rock star riffing on his drum kit in the very next room, or underhood, as the case may be.
Then again, it's probably the rock star who's better suited for this car--even though you don't have to be a rock star to afford one. There is a pricier V-6 version of the Passat whose 190-horsepower output is not only more powerful but also less skittish than the turbo four. Perhaps I've reached that point where I prefer to segregate my comforts from my exhilarations: Give me the stately V-6 for my touring sedan, for example, but save the rock 'n' roll tiny turbo for playtime in my Audi TT roadster.
Just the same, even I must admit that there once was a time when I was determined to have my cake and eat it too. So it's only reasonable to assume that there are others--perhaps younger, perhaps not--who are convinced they can do the same. Certainly, Volkswagen must think so. They've spent the last six months designing a 2001.5 Passat GLS whose comfort and styling catch the eye, but whose spit-fire motor takes the cake.
2001.5 Volkswagen Passat GLS
Base price: $21,750; as tested, $25,675
Engine: 1.8-liter turbocharged in-line four, 170 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 185.2 x 68.7 x 57.6 in
Curb weight: 3199 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 24/31 mpg
Safety equipment: Front, side and head-curtain airbags, ABS, traction control
Major standard equipment: Four-wheel independent suspension & disc brakes, HVAC, AM/FM/cassette audio system, remote entry, power windows/locks/mirrors
Warranty: Two years/24,000 miles
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