Once upon a time I was all low-slung, big-power, high-style behind the wheel of whatever latest sporty car was snagging its 15 minutes of headlines. Then one day I suddenly find myself under a tweedy "rat catcher" cap, grasping a steering wheel at regulation 10 o'clock and two o'clock, actually enjoying traffic's stuttered flow. Music to my ears once consisted of the rat-a-tat-tat snare of a high-strung, twin-cam exhaust note reaching after redline. Now I'm pecking the CD changer to shuffle between Uri Caine Ensemble's weird take on the Goldberg variations and this wild "godspeed you black emperor!" alt-rock stuff that my editor's turned me on to.
When I finally get home, with the repaired Venetian blinds and groceries laid out over the folded backseats and the copy paper and office supplies spilling out of their bags into the front passenger footwell, I don't want to get out of the car. That's because I know that for the entire rest of the day I'm unlikely to be as comfortable, as content, and even as competent as I am right now in this brand-new Passat GLX 4Motion wagon from Volkswagen.
I am smitten by a station wagon, for crying out loud. And I'm haunted by Eliot's couplet: "I grow old...I grow old / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled." Heaven's sake, I'm only 44. Isn't there anything I can do?
Maybe I should just explain that this V-dub Passat wagon shares none of the extinct style of those wally-wagons that scarred a kiddie generation in the Automotive Archaic epoch before the evolution of the minivan. At the upper end of VW's pecking order, Passat sedans and wagons are legitimate contenders in the "near-luxury" class. In full-featured GLX trim, moreover, with the addition of a 4Motion all-wheel-drive powertrain and the Tiptronic "clutchless-shift" automatic transmission, this car isn't so much an affordable family wagon as a pricey performance pod.
2001 Volkswagen Passat
I love sitting in the Passat wagon because everything I need and most of the things I want are within logical, easy reach. That said, it does take a session or two for the imperative logic of the Teutonic mind to impress itself onto the improvisational logic of the American imagination. The radio controls, for instance, are a butterfly ballotful of potential mis-selections; and who'd a-thunk that the rear wiper would be controlled by moving forward the stalk controlling the front wipers? But if it's an important control that you need, you can bet it's within inches of your hands while they're on the wheel. If it's something less vital that you merely want, it's a short reach farther along. And if it's something that a German driving purist wouldn't need or want at all—like a cupholder—VW pointedly designs it to be nearly invisible and hopelessly flimsy.
After all, VW is the car company selling its wares under the rubric "Drivers wanted." As it turns out, theirs is no idle pitch. Any commuter will detect the exuberant throttle response of the twin-cam, 2.8-liter V-6 installed in this Passat 4Motion wagon. Only drivers—the folks for whom a destination is but a regrettable end to an enjoyable preoccupation—are likely to note the sophisticated five-valve architecture of this motor, refined ever further by variable intake and valve timing.
This latter feature, in fact, is what gives the Passat GLX wagon a driving personality far more expressive than its 190-horsepower rating might suggest. The car launches into acceleration like the Hallelujah Chorus. Since this model is unavailable with a manual transmission, the five-speed Tiptronic auto shifter is virtually mandatory for snatching the ideal gear during spirited driving in challenging conditions. The addition of VW's clever 4Motion all-wheel-drive system adds another dimension yet.
Like its cousin, Audi's fabled quattro AWD system, 4Motion marries proportional power distribution at all four wheels to computerized traction control. Gone are the dramatic fore-and-aft weight shifts characteristic of front- or rear-wheel-drive powertrains. Passat 4Motion tracks solid and flat, even though its delicate adjustment of traction remains impalpable.
2001 Volkswagen Passat
During what passes for snowy roads in Middle Tennessee, 4Motion gobbled up highway miles without so much as a single sideways "uh-oh." Moreover, nimble steering response and handling behavior enable the Passat wagon to negotiate around and past the white-knuckled "candles and batteries" crowd that ruins every snow day in these parts. My only sensory complaint about this wagon's road manners is an extra bit of body lean when cornering at the limits. But that's just a compensation, I suppose, for the more compliant, comfy ride at neighborhood speeds. It's a tradeoff most compatible, I must say, with rolled trousers.
The Passat wagon serves up a full tray of standard safety features, of which ABS brakes and the front, side, and head airbags are most notable. The three rear headrests are part of this mix too, and I'm glad to have 'em when the kids are along. But the need to remove and store the headrests when you want to fold the seatbacks complicates the process of expanding cargo space to its 36-cu-ft maximum. Of course, VW thoughtfully provides temporary stow holes for the headrests in the folded seat cushions. Just the same, the engineers' preferred retort to this whine of mine is most likely to be, "Get over it."
But the occasional whine is a prerogative of middle age, and I'm no more ashamed of expressing one than I am of the rat catcher cap that gives my kids the giggles. Let 'em laugh. Passat's 4Motion wagon gives me the giggles, and it's taken me 44 years, a hat, and rolled trousers to get here.
2001 Volkswagen Passat GLX Wagon 4Motion
Base price: $32,360
Engine: 2.8-liter V-6, 190 hp
Transmission: five-speed auto with Tiptronic control, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 183.8 in x 68.5 in x 59 in
Wheelbase: 106.4 in
Curb weight: 3603 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 17/24 mpg
Safety equipment: Gen2 SRS front airbags, side & head SRS, anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Auto climate control, power windows, locks, and mirrors, wood & leather trim, heated seats, eight-speaker Monsoon AM/FM/cassette stereo with CD changer pre-wiring
Warranty: Two years/24,000 miles