I must admit my high school German is a bit rusty, but unless I’ve really lost the language, Volkswagen translates into “people’s car.” The original Beetle, designed to put pre-war Germany on wheels, was the ultimate example of that. So how to explain what’s happening at VW these days?
As a company, no carmaker owns more luxury brands than Volkswagen AG. There’s Audi, of course, as well as Lamborghini, Bugatti and Bentley. But even the VW marque itself is moving markedly upscale. At the recent Geneva Motor Show, the automaker lifted the wraps off the all-new Phaeton, a $70,000 sedan with all the trappings of a true luxury car. Yet for those, like myself, who grew up in the days when a moderately well-equipped Beetle could be had for $2000, there’s a bit of a disconnect.
And so it was, with more than a bit of skepticism, that TheCarConnection accepted the invitation to test drive the new W-8-powered version of the Passat sedan. It will serve as a sort of up-market trailblazer for the Phaeton, which doesn’t reach U.S. shores until next year.
Future reputations staked
There was more than a bit of uncertainty when the original Passat hit market, larger and, at about $20,000, far more expensive than anything the automaker had ever offered before. Successive generations have served to demonstrate the tremendous changes underway at the German automaker. The Passat has grown larger, more lavish and notably more refined. For its price, the sedan has become a benchmark for interior design.
But Passat still doesn’t play in the same league as other German models, such as the Audi A4 or BMW 3-Series. With the introduction of the W8, perceptions may change.
VW's unusual W-8 engine debuts in the 2003 Passat.
photo by Brenda Priddy
If you think you’ve spotted a typo, you’re wrong. Unlike a conventional engine, VW has arranged the eight cylinders in a W-like configuration. The engine’s architecture isn’t as inherently smooth as a vee design, so it requires a pair of counter-rotating balance shafts. But it has more than enough offsetting advantages, including reduced emissions and improved fuel economy. One of the key pluses is engine size: The new powerplant is small enough to fit into the Passat without requiring a massive retooling of the platform.
The 4.0-liter version in the Passat is reasonably torquey and puts out a solid, if not segment-leading, 270 horsepower. Best of all, Volkswagen actually took the time to tweak the powertrain package for the American market. The Passat W8 introduced in Europe last year was “designed for the left lane of the autobahn,” says VW’s U.S. technical chief, Stefan Krebsfanger. Revised for American roads, the new model is governed out with a top speed of “only” 130 mph. But it’s likely to surprise the folks sitting next to you at a stoplight when you slam the accelerator. VW claims a 0-60 time of 6.5 seconds.
But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Initial impressions are modest. If you’re already familiar with the basic Passat, you might not notice much of a difference, other than the W8 badge. Looks can be deceiving. With the top-line version of the sedan priced at $37,900, Volkswagen has decided, in the words of one manager, to offer “power everything.” The Passat W8 comes standard with the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, a manually-shifting Tiptronic five-speed automatic, bi-xenon headlamps, 16-inch alloy wheels, memory-sensing wipers, a sunroof, a 200-watt Monsoon sound system, eight-way power seats including a memory driver’s seat, and a commendable safety package. That includes front, side and curtain airbags.
2003 Volkswagen Passat W8
2003 Volkswagen Passat W8
A wagon version is on its way by mid-year, at $38,700, and shortly afterwards, a Sport Package. The latter will offer 17-inch wheels and an optional (at no extra cost) six-speed manual gearbox.
We spent the day driving along the northern California coast in a titanium W-8 sedan. On open roads, it proved quick and responsive. But the car really showed its stuff as we took it off the coast and onto the winding roads leading through redwood country.
The new version of the Passat feels ever so slightly nose heavy, not surprising since the sedan was originally designed for a much smaller, lighter powertrain. But this slight imbalance is quickly forgiven and forgotten. Steering is tight and nimble and while this isn’t a BMW, VW engineers have done a credible job of borrowing some of the better attributes of their cross-country rival. We aggressively flogged the Passat through some seriously challenging roads with only the occasional tire squeal.
The Passat W8 may still be the people’s car. It’s just that it’s been designed for people who like to have a lot of fun and luxury in the cars they drive.
As noted earlier, Volkswagen sets the benchmark for delivering luxury levels of interior refinement at a mainstream price. The W8 bumps that up a notch. The one thing we’d have liked with this version would have been a bit more room in the back seat. There’s a stretch version sold in China, oddly enough, but VW chose not to bring that longer wheelbase into the United States.
During a background presentation on the Passat W8, VW officials expressed their hopes that the new sedan might draw in buyers who would otherwise opt for more expensive German imports. It’s interesting to note that while they pointed to BMW and Mercedes-Benz, they notably excluded VW’s main upmarket brand, Audi. Ostensibly, that’s because VW and Audi buyers seldom cross-shop the two brands. Maybe they haven’t before, but we’d be surprised if they don’t reconsider their options now. And the lines will become even more blurred when the Phaeton hits the road.
To our surprise, VW currently plans to import only about 5000 W8s annually, or barely 5 percent of total Passat sales in the U.S. We’ll lay wager that the numbers grow once buyers get a taste of the car. For the money, it’s a lavish and inviting package. And it clearly redefines what Volkswagen translates into.
2002 VW Passat
Base price: $37,900
Engine: 4.0-liter W-8, 270 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic with Tiptronic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 185.2 x 68.7 x 57.5 in
Wheelbase: 106.4 in
Curb weight: 3907 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 18 /25 mpg
Safety equipment: anti-lock brakes, 4MOTION permanent all-wheel drive, front and side airbags, security alarm, pretensioning seatbelts, door automatic locking feature
Major standard equipment: telescoping/theft-deterrent steering column, multi function trip computer, cruise control, heated front windshield washer nozzles, rain sensor with automatic wiper speed control, power glass sunroof, headlight washer system
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles