,000 - ,000 Front-Wheel Drive (or AWD) Mid-Size Sport Sedan
Who should buy this car:
A person looking for an upscale mid-sized European sport sedan with room, great performance and solid construction.
Comparable cars in this class:
Acura TL, Lexus ES330, Nissan Maxima, Saab 9-5, Subaru Legacy & Outback, Toyota Avalon and Volvo S80
If it were necessary to sum up Volkswagens all-new mid-size Passat in a single word, it could be done with just two letters up.
With a handsome redesign, the 2006 sedan definitely looks more grown-up. And there is no question the car is upin power, up in luxury. up in refinement, slightly up in size and, depending on options, up, up, up in price.
Lets talk money first. Are customers finally ready for a seriously expensive Volkswagen? The results are far from in, but a look to the recent past suggests buyers may remain skeptical.
They turned their backs when the company brought out a ,000, top-of-the-line Passat powered by a unique eight-cylinder engine. It wasnt on the market more than a year. And, almost nobody flocked to dealer showrooms when VW really pushed the envelope with the Phaeton, a bona-fide Mercedes-Benz/BMW/Audi challenger.
Volkswagen recently announced that the luxury liner, priced from nearly ,000 to more than 0,000, will no longer be for sale in the United States after the final 300 2006 models are sold. However, it did leave the door open for selling the next model - due out in 2009 - in the United States.
Still, the German manufacturer has not given up entirely on its move uptown. Check all the option boxes on the newest Passat and up pops that ,000 number again.
But, at the same time, VW has not left its traditional customers behind. Base prices range from ,950 for a four-cylinder Passat Value Edition, to ,900 for an all-wheel-drive, V-6 powered sedan. Those numbers compare quite favorably to the ,310-,865 price range for similar 2005 Passats.
And, with the Value Edition, less is actually more. Volkswagens direct-injection, gasoline engine already a mainstay in several Audis and the sporty VW Jetta GLI - churns out 200 horsepower, 30 more than before, and the sedan comes with a healthy list of standard equipment.
I had the opportunity to sample four- and six-cylinder Passats during the national press introduction of the new car and found that the smaller engine offered plenty of power under all circumstances, even with an automatic transmission.
It occurred to me that it might even be more fun than the V-6 model. For example, an enthusiast who wants to take maximum advantage of the Passats handling prowess will want a manual transmission. The four-cylinder Passat comes with a six-speed shifter, manual or automatic, but the V-6 Passat comes only with the automatic.
So, heres the bottom line. If youre interested in that German engineering, dont let the high numbers scare you off. There is a variety of four-cylinder Passats that will not induce financial nose bleed. And, even careful buyers can buy well equipped V-6 sedans for a lot less than that ,000 figure.
That said, the car given me for a thorough test drive came with the 280-horsepower, six-cylinder engine, plus most of the bells and many of the whistles the company offers.
It occurred to me during my week with the car that this time Volkswagen has actually created one automobile that fits into two different classes.
Even though its four-cylinder car seems on the surface to be at a disadvantage to the comparably priced V-6 Honda Accord, it is a near-equal performer and its chassis dynamics match or surpass the Japanese competitor. At the same time, the more powerful and expensive Passat has what it takes to run with the Hondas upscale cousin, the Acura TL, and can be obtained well equipped for about the same money.
The power in front of the throne is a new version of Volkswagens unique narrow-angle V-6. With only 10 degrees separating the two cylinder banks, the engine operates beneath a single head. It will propel the 3,576-pound sedan from a stop to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds and is plenty quick in those highway passing situations where power is most appreciated in ordinary driving. In fact, it outperforms the ill-fated eight-cylinder Passat.
Despite my sometimes aggressive driving, it never averaged less than 20 mpg (premium fuel recommended, but not required) and managed nearly 29 mpg on the open road.
A major generational change is the positioning of the powerplant. It now sits sideways under the hood, instead of front-to-back.
And, speaking of generations, the new model is the sixth for Volkswagens mid-size car. Drivers of a certain age may remember the family tree bends all the way back to the Dasher, which was sold in the United States in the 1970s.
The Tiptronic automatic transmission was generally smooth and slipped easily into the gear best suited for the driving situation. However, the manual shift feature is less than satisfying because the electronics can and will override a drivers commands.
The independent suspension balanced ride and handling skillfully, giving the Passat a basically neutral attitude until it was pushed around corners close to its limits. Then, understeer (the tendency to resist turning commands) brought home the fact that this was, after all, a front-wheel-drive car.
The optional sport suspension package stiffened the ride, particularly over washboard surfaces, but it was no more jarring than in other sedans with sporty pretensions.
Torque steer another bugaboo of front-drivers - was quite subdued considering the sedans ample power. Only under heavy acceleration did the driving wheels try to take over the steering chores.
The electromechanical rack-and-pinion steering responded well to the drivers commands and the nicely modulated antilock disc brakes were Johnny-on-the-spot when a quick stop was required.
For comparisons sake, the new Passat is 188.2 inches long, two inches more than before, but its wheelbase has increased less than a half inch, to 106.7. The 71.7-inch-wide body has grown by three inches and the distance between the front and rear wheels has grown by 12 inches, to 61.1-inch. The car has also grown a half inch taller, to 58 inches.
The result of this redesign is a car that is a bit roomier all around and adds 2 inches of legroom for rear seat passengers. But, the Passat is functionally unchanged, with comfortable room for four adults and a close fit for five when required.
People who need to cart things from place to place will appreciate the 14.2 cubic feet of trunk space and the 60/40 split folding rear seat, which adds a lot of room for large or bulky items.
Typical of Volkswagen, the Passat interior blends high-class materials to create a tasteful, upscale driving atmosphere. Instruments and switches are all conveniently placed.
A nice upgrade is Volkswagens use of an electronic parking brake, which is activated by the touch of a button instead of a tug on an intrusive lever. On the minus side, the Volkswagen key must be pressed into a spring-loaded slot on the dashboard to start the car. Im not sure how that improves on the old twist-a-key method.
Safety features abound, with a total of eight airbags, pedals that descend on impact, front head rests that help to protect against whiplash, and stability and traction control.
Base price of the front-wheel-drive, V-6 Passat sedan is ,950, plus a 0 destination charge. Equipped with the sport suspension, 18-inch wheels, power driver and front passenger seats, leather and aluminum trim, climate control, premium sound system, rain-sensing windshield wipers and a navigation system, the total came to ,815. However, hit the delete button on that ,800 navigation system, and the price immediately comes more into line with the perceived competition.
Theres a lot to like and little to dislike about Volkswagens new premium sedan. Just place you order with care to avoid sticker shock.