The 1998 Volkswagen Passat was a surprise blow to the popular mid-size sedans at the time, the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Ford Taurus. It wowed buyers with a level of attention to interior materials and details that was otherwise at that time reserved for premium-brand models costing much more. Its fun-to-drive characteristics and sporty feel made it an attractive standout versus the rest of the mid-size pack, reminding buyers that a driving a four-door sedan didn’t have to be such a dull tactile experience.
But while the Passat handled like a more expensive sport sedan, at the same time it had its deficiencies. For a mid-size car, there was a surprising lack of rear-seat space, with tight headroom and legroom. In addition, while the powertrains were competitive, they weren’t necessarily the most refined in the segment.
The all-new-for-2006 Passat improves on those complaints and many more, becoming more powerful and more refined, and larger in nearly all dimensions. Most notably, it’s 3.0 inches wider and 2.5 inches longer. Although the wheelbase grows by a trivial 0.3 inches, the cabin has been reconfigured to boost rear-seat legroom by 2.4 inches. Volkswagen officials commented that while the outgoing Passat was at the small end of the mid-size segment, the new Passat grows to a size that’s straight-on competitive with Camry, Accord, and Maxima.
The new Passat is built on a different platform than before, now sharing basic underpinnings with the recently introduced Jetta. Besides being larger in most respects, the Passat also makes gains in interior space due to the packaging advantages of a transverse-mounted (crossways) powertrain, as opposed to lengthwise for the outgoing car.
The overall body structure is about 24 pounds lighter than that of the previous model, while the use of high-strength steel has increased, and torsional rigidity has increased by 57 percent, according to VW.
Looking at the new Passat from the side helps emphasize just how much the model has changed. Shape-wise, it’s much more wedgelike now, with short overhangs, and the extended roofline replaces the more overtly rounded roofline of its predecessor. From the front, the design is highlighted by elegant, clear-lens projector-style headlamps and a large chromed grille that wraps down into the bumper, as used in the new Jetta. The taillight design closely resembles the new shape used in both the Phaeton and the Jetta, while the taillights themselves now use an LED system rather than traditional bulbs.
Packaged for a roomier interior
The change in packaging translates to a much roomier interior. Inside, there are plenty of cues borrowed from VW’s big luxury sedan, the Phaeton. The quality of the materials has been stepped up again, and the overall design can be described as both luxurious and practical. The interior now gets a couple of useful storage drawers at the top of the center stack and just below the air vents. There are more interior storage bins than ever before, including cupholders not positioned directly over the CD-player loading slot, and there’s now even an umbrella-storage area. Useable seating space in back has, as claimed, improved noticeably, and the contouring of the seats themselves seems more leg-friendly for lanky adult passengers. Although the rear doorline makes an odd straight cut downward, the door’s shape really helps entry/exit. The ventilation system now has adjustable vents for rear passengers, too.
All Passats now get a setup where you simply put the key into the slot, then give it a push to start the engine. If you give it a push without your foot on the brake it will go only into accessory mode. To shut off the engine, you again simply push on the key. The Passat’s switchgear has also seen a mild redesign; the steering wheel gets shortcut buttons for auto, phone, and menu/trip computer functions, as well as the buttons for shifting up and down a gear.
With struts in front and a four-link setup in back, the new Passat’s suspension setup is closely related to that used in the Jetta, though there are several key differences. The Passat uses a single-piece subframe, while the Jetta uses a three-piece setup, and the Passat also uses more aluminum — especially in front where VW says it saved nearly 30 pounds on the front-axle assembly versus steel.
A new electromechanical steering system — similar to the one that debuted on the latest Jetta — replaces conventional hydraulic assist with a servo-motor system. Sensors read steering-wheels angle, rate of change, and vehicle speed to help determine the right level of boost. An advantage of the system is that it can automatically correct for sidewinds or overly slanted roadways; on another note, it allows easy retuning of the steering feel for different powertrain and suspension combinations.
An electromechanical parking brake system is now standard on all Passats. The parking brake is engaged and disengaged with a simple press of a button mounted on the left side of the dash, next to the headlamp switch. Incidentally, while the windshield wipers are on, the brakes will very lightly tap on at regular intervals — unnoticeable to occupants — to clear the rotors in rainy weather and maintain optimum brake performance. All models also now get a hill-holder function that will momentarily hold the car on an incline or decline when starting
Engines now at the top of the class
Engines and transmissions have gone from being a weak point of comparison to a strength. The “base” engine is now a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, termed the 2.0T making a very impressive 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. The 2.0T has four valves per cylinder and replaces last year’s five-valve, 170-hp 1.8T. The new engine (termed FSI in other markets) makes substantial improvements in power and efficiency due to the use of direct injection.
If that isn’t enough in your mid-size car, the former 90-degree V-6 design has been dropped in favor of a newly reworked (also direct-injection) version of VW’s long-serving narrow-angle (10.6-degree) V-6, termed the VR6. With displacement pushed out to 3.6 liters, variable valve timing, and four valves per cylinder, the VR6 here makes 280 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque.
The new six-speed automatic transmission — developed in-house and capable of handling up to 368 lb-ft (500 N-m) of torque — is offered with either engine and is the only transmission we were able to sample. V-6s are only paired with the automatic, while four-cylinder cars have a six-speed manual as standard and the automatic optional.
Six-speeds all around
The new six-speed automatic has great shift quality with either engine. We didn’t encounter any long grades to test the transmission’s shift quality on, but we didn’t notice a hint of hesitation on upshifts or downshifts. The six-speed manual transmission that’s standard on the 2.0T versions should be stellar, too; it’s an Aisin-supplied unit that has a reputation for being smoother shifting and less notchy than the five-speed of the outgoing car.
Although the new VR6 promises a lot of power and refinement and delivers on it, we really liked the 2.0T and would recommend it for most buyers unless you’re a serious hotfoot. While direct-injection engines can be noisier than their predecessors, the new 2.0T engine feels just as smooth, if not more refined, than the outgoing powerplant at speed. Chalk in the 30 extra horsepower, nice non-turbo-like throttle response, and good fuel economy, and this is a great little engine that doesn't at all feel small. Using the Passat’s onboard trip computer, we saw about 22 mpg in varied, sprightly driving on mostly congested roads with the four-cylinder and automatic transmission and about 18 mpg in similar conditions with the V-6. Fuel-tank capacity has been boosted to 18.5 gallons, though VW recommends premium fuel for both models.
Considering the standard mid-size competition, the Passat is one of the quietest, most refined cars inside. Road noise especially seems much better isolated than in its predecessor, the ride is very well controlled, and it’s perhaps more refined inside than many luxury-brand mid-size models.
The new Passat handles and maneuvers well, but take a few hard corners and it’s clear that with the standard suspension you shouldn’t expect sports-car reflexes. There’s an available Sport Suspension will provide both stiffer springs and shocks and a 0.6-inch-lower ride. Both the standard suspension and the steering is tuned differently depending on whether you have the four-cylinder or the V-6, and we actually liked the feel of the four — in terms of both ride and handling — better. It felt more responsive and tossable.
The only complaints we had on our preview drive of the Passat were relatively minor. On our automatic car, the gas and brake pedals were way too close together for my size-13 street shoes, and tight for drivers with narrower footwear. Secondly, this very tall driver had trouble adjusting the steering wheel to a position where some of the gauges weren’t obscured. And finally, we noticed some wind noise around the side pillar of our pre-production test car, which we wouldn’t have heard had the Passat not been so otherwise quiet inside.
Safety-wise, the ESP stability control system and Brake Assist are standard on all models. A direct-type tire-pressure sensing system is standard on all Passats. Side airbags are standard for the front occupants, and front and rear side curtain bags are also standard, but rear side airbags are optional. The response of the side airbag system, we were told, has improved as the system now has air pressure sensors and additional C-pillar sensors in addition to the internal acceleration sensors.
Plenty to option up to
Options on the Passat will include a “steerable” bi-xenon headlamp system that will adjust the angle of the beam based on steering wheel angle and speed; a front and rear park-assist sensor system; and the latest DVD-based nav system.
An eight-speaker, MP3-compatible CD sound system is standard on 2.0T models, while a premium system with six-disc in-dash changer is optional on the 2.0T and standard on VR6 models. VW has this time turned to Danish audiophile company Dynaudio for its top-option sound system. It’s custom-designed for the Passat, with ten speakers and a ten-channel amp with 600 watts of nominal (not peak) power.
Because of the migration to a transverse-mount powertrain setup, a Haldex clutch-pack system will be used with the new all-wheel-drive Passat — still labeled 4Motion. 4Motion will only be available with the V-6.
A Value Edition starts at only $22,950 (plus destination), while the 3.6L 4Motion model tops off the range, starting at $31,900. The 3.6L model starts at $29,950, and can be ordered with either a “Sport” or “Luxury” option package, and the equipment together can give the car a quite different feel. Four-cylinder Passats should be available at dealers right now, while the VR6 and 4Motion cars are a couple months away.
In terms of car for the money, we were left thinking that the 2.0T model is hard to beat. All Passats come impressively equipped, and the 2.0T should have enough extra power for full-load passing power, unlike the Camry and Accord fours. The VR6 is faster and more refined; a well-equipped 3.6L model pushes the Passat into a price class well over $30k, where the luxury-brand competition is thick — and you might find better resale value and dealer service with some of those others.
In all, other mid-size sedans have come a long way in the past eight years. The new Passat won’t revolutionize the market the way that the last-generation car did, but it’s a much-improved car that’s more likely to fit the lifestyle of mid-size sedan buyers who value style and refinement.
Base price range: $22,950–$31,900
Engine: 2.0-liter in-line four, 197 hp/207 lb-ft; 3.6-liter V-6, 280 hp/265 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, front- or all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 188.2 x 71.7 x 57.9 in
Wheelbase: 106.6 in
Curb weight: 3305–3576 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 22/31 for four-cylinder automatic
Safety equipment: Front, side, and side-curtain airbags; ESP stability control; Brake Assist; crash-active front headrests; tire pressure monitoring system
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, cruise control, trip computer, power windows, mirrors, and locks, remote central locking, tilt/telescope steering wheel, AM/FM/CD/MP3 sound system
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles