Volkswagen Passat

American loves Honda Accord. European loves Honda Accord too, but the European Accord is a full size smaller than the American Accord. Ironically, what perceived as "mid-size sedan" in Europe (and most of the rest of the world) is deemed to be just compact sedan in America. That makes a "mid-size world car" nearly impossible. Ford Mondeo tried that idea, but while it won European car of the year award, sales figures were rather poor across the Atlantic. The only exception comes from Volkswagen. VW Passat is currently the only mid-size sedan enjoying respectable success in both worlds.  

In terms of external dimensions, Passat is half a size larger than its European competitors leading by Peugeot 406 and runs close to its target rivals in America - Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. In terms of usable space, Passat easily beat its European competitors, thanks to the high roof, if not width or wheelbase. In particular, there’s room for 3 six-footers in the rear. Both cabin space and boot volume matches Camry and trails US Accord closely.  

What makes the Volkswagen outstanding is undoubtedly build quality. It is not necessarily more durable or trouble-free than Japanese cars, but visually speaking it is simply unmatchable. Fit and finish of every body panels are out of the highest standard for mainstream cars. The same goes for cabin, which sees high quality plastics which was described by Ford’s engineers as too expensive to follow. In addition to the civilised styling, the Volkswagen feels as classy as Audi. 

In fact, Passat was derived from Audi A4. The chassis is basically a stretched A4 platform, with the same 4-link suspension up front and torsion beam plus trailing arm at the rear. Even the smooth styling mirrors the A4, especially when you notice the sweeping roofline towards C-pillar. The water-drop profile leads to a class-leading drag coefficient of 0.27, which should benefit top speed by a few mph. 

The relationship with A4 does not stop there. The whole powertrain is actually carried over from the prestige cousin, including 1.6-litre four-cylinder, 1.8-litre 20v engines (with or without turbo), top of the range 2.8-litre 30v V6, 4-speed Tiptronic gearbox and even the 4-wheel-drive system. Inevitably, the engine is positioned North-South as in A4. Note that the 4wd has been renamed from "Syncro" to "4motion" recently but actually it is Audi’s Quattro system with Torsen differentials. 

All engines are highly competitive. Even the grass root 1.6 (with 100 hp and variable intake) has sufficient torque to cope with the heavy Passat. The 1.8-litre had already proved its goodness in A4, especially is the light-pressure turbo version with a useful 155 lbft of torque occurring at just 1,750 rpm. It provides performance mid-way between Honda Accord’s 2.3-litre four-pot and 3.0-litre V6 so that most American customers are satisfied with it. 

In Europe, the 2.3-litre narrow-angle V5 (yes, a unique 15° five-cylinder in Vee) is probably an even better choice. Being as powerful and as torquey as the 1.8T, it is creamy smooth yet sounds nicer to ears. (Update: with 4-valve head now output 170 hp and 166 lbft) In contrast, the 193 hp V6 is decisively more powerful but it also burden the nose. The 5-speed manual gearbox is particularly crisp by Volkswagen’s standard. Tiptronic is faultless in auto mode and could be fun in manual mode. 

In terms of handling, Passat is also very competitive. Even by European standards, it is fluent to drive quickly in twisty roads, thanks to good body control and good brakes. If there is anything worse than our benchmark Peugeot 406, it is the over-assisted power steering, hence less steering feel. However, this is just out of the view point of European driving enthusiasts. For most people, especially American drivers, Passat feels sportier than its Japanese counterparts. It is particularly good at high speed stability and high speed ride. 

In many ways, the Passat is much better to buy than the pricier Audi A4. Not only it is roomier, its build quality and dynamic ability are no less remarkable. Most important, it is cheaper. Against the European and Japanese mainstream competitors, it is a bit more expensive, but what you get is a car as classy as any German prestige cars. 

The above report was last updated on 8 Mar 2000. All Rights Reserved.

Passat W8

With an eight-cylinder engine installed, the top Passat is obviously targeting executive class. Its appearance - same as all other members of the facelifted Passat - certainly looks prestige, so is the famous build quality of interior. However, the chassis is still standard Passat, not only far smaller than BMW 5-series, but the rear suspension is still torsion-beam axle, in other words, semi-independent. Look at the price tag, the Volkswagen is 17% cheaper than a BMW 535i, although it is more powerful and provides 4-wheel drive. Worth your consideration? 

Center of the limelight is undoubtedly the unique W8 engine. The 32-valver displaces 3999c.c., pumps out a reasonable 275 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. Mated with 6-speed manual (from Audi S8), it reaches 100kph from rest in 6.5 seconds, very quick. 5-speed Tiptronic (also from Audi) softens that to 7.8 seconds, which is less impressive by class standard. 

As many people know, W engines are the duplication of narrow-angle VR engines. In other words, W8 is conceptually two 15° VR4 (though VW never produced that) joint at a common crankshaft at 72°. The engine is very short - just 42cm in length, thus can be installed in the small Passat’s engine bay without any modifications. The whole engine is mounted in front of the front axle because it has to drive the differentials of 4motion (actually Audi’s Torsen quattro) 4-wheel-drive system. No FWD or RWD option. 

It employs quite a long list of advanced technology, such as continuous intake variable valve timing, 2-stage exhaust VVT, variable resonance intake manifold and friction-reducing roller finger followers. It also adopts flat-crank configuration like Ferrari, TVR or Lotus’ V8s, although that is purely because of space reasons rather than sporting nature. Flat-plane crank means it works like a pair of inline-4 engines, not just sounds like that but also vibrates in the same way. Therefore it needs twin balancer shafts to cancel the second order vibration. With all these things, no wonder the W8 engine weighs an ordinary 190kg, unlike what it looks. For reference, Mercedes' 4.3-litre V8 weighs 175kg. 

Anyway, it is very smooth, as smooth as BMW’s straight six. Power delivery is linear but not impressive. It can rev cleanly to 6200rpm cut-out, but below 2500 rpm it lacks torque. Look at the bore and stroke dimensions of 84x90.2mm, think about the VVT and variable induction, I cannot quite understand why the W8 doesn’t shine in torque curve.  

W8 is a good companion on motorway. It is uncanny smooth and quiet at speed. However, attack corners reveal its weakness. The standard Passat already lags quite far away from Mondeo in handling, so the heavier W8 can only suffer more. Although there is some reinforcement to the chassis and stiffening of suspensions, plus 20mm lower ride height, the basic suspensions architecture remains unchanged and the 50:50 quattro (well, it’s called 4motion) doesn’t help improving fun factor. The heavier W8 makes it even nose heavier than the V6. Body control is not very well, with quite a lot of roll. Thanks to the old A4’s 4-link front suspensions, dive and squat are obvious under push and braking. Steering is once again over-assisted and lack of feedback. At the same time, ride becomes lumpy and noisy on rough surfaces. Autobahn is still its homeland. 

Whether Passat W8 can beat BMW 535i is not important, because what really embarrass the former is 530i which is bigger, more comfortable, by far more fun to drive, feels more prestige while being not much slower. At the same price, my choice cannot be clearer. 

The above report was last updated on 21 July 2001. All Rights Reserved.


Passat 1.8T
Passat 2.8 4motion
Passat W8
Front-engined, Fwd
Front-engined, 4wd
Front-engined, 4wd
Size (L / W / H / WB) mm
4703 / 1746 / 1459 / 2703
4703 / 1746 / 1461 / 2702
Inline-4, dohc, 5v/cyl, turbo.
V6, dohc, 5v/cyl, 
variable intake
W8, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT,
varialbe intake, balance shaft
1781 c.c.
2771 c.c.
3999 c.c.
150 hp
193 hp
275 hp
155 lbft
206 lbft
273 lbft
5 Tip
6M (5 Tip)
F: 4-link; R: torsion beam
195/65 R15
225/40 ZR17
1352 kg
est 1530 kg
1590 kg
Top speed
135 mph*
est 144 mph
155 mph (limited)
0-60 mph
8.5 sec*
est 8.2 sec
5 Tip: 6.8 sec**
0-100 mph
23.8 sec*
5 Tip: 17.4 sec**
* Tested by Autocar
** Tested by Road & Track

Copyright© 1997-2009 by Mark Wan @ AutoZine