Even decades after it left the market, the Volkswagen Beetle remains to many people the quintessential Wolfsburg model. But its enduring popularity has also been an albatross around Volkswagen’s neck. Because no matter how advanced its other products become, the Beetle’s econo-bug image always colors the public’s perception of Volkswagen. So what was needed was a major leap forward, one that would shed that economy image forever.
The car that Volkswagen intends to finally make that leap with is this all-new Passat sedan. Now, its roots lie not in basic transportation, but in combining many of the best qualities of mega-buck German cars into one affordable family sedan package. Is Volkswagen finally moving uptown? In a word, yes! Because the 1998 Passat is much more than just another Volkswagen.
Built on the same middle-weight platform, and with many of the same components as its sportier cousin the Audi A4, the latest Passat is by no stretch of the imagination a run-of-the-mill family car.
Gone is the old Passat’s rather dumpy styling, replaced by lines both aerodynamic and muscular, a look reinforced by flush-fitting glass all around, which features one-touch power operation, and finger pinch protection for family safety.
Rear styling also carries hints of Volkswagen’s more expensive Ingolstadt relatives, while still retaining a clear Wolfsburg identity. And while the new Passat is 4 to 5 inches shorter than the average mid-size sedan, its 106.4-inch wheelbase equals or beats those of many competitors. This more-from-less concept carries over to the interior as well. The spacious, and extremely well appointed cabin, offers a very competitive 95 cubic feet of passenger space.
The typically efficient, but stark, dash features the usual dual air bags, which are now supplemented by standard side air bags for the front seat occupants. Those front seats offer familiar teutonic firmness, but are both wider and more supportive than before. They face a standard tilt steering wheel, which frames a clear, if incomplete, analog gauge cluster. There are big, idiot-proof ventilation controls, and a standard cassette stereo that’s well laid out, but set too low in the dash for easy use while driving. The stereo is also compatible with an optional CD changer that mounts in the trunk.
The expansive cabin also features plenty of storage space, including a large glovebox and multiple cupholders, which while clever, are a bit flimsy. The rear seat is not quite as roomy as we expected, but still plentiful for such a concise machine. A lockable, split-folding seatback is also standard, and leads you into a large, car-sized trunk, and one of the biggest in its class. With 15 cubic feet, it’s more generous than a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. And it has its own power point for lights or an air compressor.
The power point up front is a bit more sophisticated. Audi’s 1.8-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, the same used in the A4 Turbo, is the Passat’s base engine. 150 horsepower, and 155 pound-feet of torque, come courtesy of a 5-valve cylinder head, a turbo and an intercooler. Both the A4’s excellent 2.8-liter V6 and a 1.9-liter direct-injection turbo-diesel arrive this spring. The standard transmission is a light, easy-shifting 5-speed manual, and a 5-speed automatic is optional.
And we naturally enjoyed the manual, which allowed our test car to hit 60 in only 7.8 seconds. Our best quarter mile run took 16.2 seconds, ending at a speed of 87 miles per hour. Add about a second for the automatic. Obviously, the engine’s free-revving character is more sports car than minivan. And while extremely punchy for a small turbo-four, with almost no turbo lag, it does require you to stir that stick for maximum power returns. So many buyers may want to wait for the V-6.
Handling also has taken a giant step to the sporty side, thanks to that solid Audi platform, and an all new four-link front suspension. The steering is quick, if a little vague in feel, while cornering stability is vastly improved. The Passat is fun to drive yet also safe and very predictable.
Only our braking test was a disappointment. Distances averaged a reasonable 123 feet from 60, but pedal feel was very poor. On the plus side, a Bosch ABS system, with integrated traction control is standard.
Trading the track for the street reinforced our impressions that the new Passat has an upscale feel. Ride quality is first rate. While interior noise levels, especially on the highway, have dropped to luxury car levels.
Not bad for a car that comes fully equipped, for only $20,750. With its single option, a CD changer, and destination charge, our GLS grade test car comes to $21,530.
Which makes the price number one on our list of hits. We also favor the new Passat’s long list of standard equipment, sporty handling, luxury car ride, roomy interior, and large trunk.
Misses are the extremely poor brake pedal feel, surprising in such an otherwise well tuned car, the stereo’s low dash position, and the delayed availability of the V-6.
But every new car has a few glitches. And while these are annoying, they don’t change the fact that the latest Volkswagen Passat is not only light years ahead of its own predecessor, but many well-established competitors as well.
Automobile Magazine called the new Passat: “…an attractive alternative to the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, with a special Germanic feel that those estimable Japanese cars simply cannot match.”
While AutoWeek said: “Simply put, this new Passat is the best Volkswagen since Reunification.”
With the new Passat, Volkswagen has clearly put its economy car roots behind it, once and for all. Both in performance and amenities, the 1998 VW Passat now borders on the near-luxury sedan class. It is one of the top 4-door values of the year.
Engine: 1.8-Liter Turbocharged 4-Cylinder
Torque: 155 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 7.8 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 16.2 Seconds @ 87 MPH
60-0 MPH: 123 Feet