1995 Volkswagen Passat
Volkswagen’s Passat sedan and wagon line was named for a cold wind that sweeps across Germany, although VW was hoping that this car would blast the U.S. market with the force of a hurricane. Successor to the competent but unloved VW Quantum, the Passat was supposed to sweep Yankee minds clean of such established family favorites as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Taurus. Unfortunately for VW, the Passat’s effect on the American market so far has been about as strong as a wispy breeze.
Early Passat popularity problems were perhaps justified by a buzzy 4-cylinder engine that, when combined with VW’s lackluster automatic transmission, offered little driving excitement. Then, last year, the car was given needed muscle with a V6 engine transplant, and the automatic gearbox was extensively revised for smoother, crisper shifts. Dynamically the car became more palatable, but the Passat’s jelly-bean styling and grille-less nose failed to create much interest.
This shouldn’t be the case with 1995’s Passat. Mechanically, it’s almost identical to last year’s model, but the Passat gains a more sophisticated look and represents one of the best values in the market. Powered by Volkswagen’s acclaimed V6, the new Passat offers unmatched levels of standard amenities in the family-oriented midsize segment. When comparably equipped, the Passat beats its primary Asian rival by a couple thousand bucks, and VW’s service and powertrain warranty are among the best in the business.
Despite a slight growth in overall exterior dimensions, the new Passat Wagon is still markedly more compact than its rivals. Its 181.5-in. length beats its primary rivals by significant amounts – the Accord by 6 in., the Camry by 8 in. and the Taurus by a foot. This means exceptional around-town mobility and the sensation that you’re driving a sedan, not a wagon. More importantly, interior space isn’t compromised by the Passat’s modest overall size. In fact, it boasts more passenger space than any Volvo.
The revised styling includes a new waterfall front grille and body-color bumpers, mirrors and side moldings. The previous Passat’s rear spoiler has been nicely integrated into the rear deck lid, and larger rear taillamps and the removal of certain character lines from the body create a more formal upmarket look to the car, reminiscent of its Audi cousins.
The Passat also echoes its upscale relatives by offering an impressive list of standard equipment such as 15-in. alloy wheels, anti-lock brakes, dual airbags, an anti-theft alarm system, heated power mirrors, a multi-function trip computer and cruise control.
And in case there’s any doubt that Volkswagen has every intention of recapturing a large share of the U.S. market, the company offers a customer-care program called Protection Plus, which has the industry’s best limited powertrain warranty at 10 years or 100,000 miles. It comes with complimentary scheduled maintenance for two years or 24,000 miles, and two years of roadside assistance. Corrosion protection is six years with no mileage restriction in addition to a comprehensive 2-year, 24,000-mile bumper-to-bumper limited warranty.
So extensive is the standard equipment that there are only a few luxurious options available, including a power sunroof and a cold-climate package that includes heated front seats and washer nozzles.
VW dubbed the Passat “The Space Machine” when it was first released several years ago, and the revised wagon wears the title well. Its 34.2 cu. ft. of normal cargo space increases to a yawning 68.9 cu. ft. with the rear seatback folded flat, and, like its competition, it’s possible to fold just part of the seat to accommodate both a rear passenger and cargo. The Passat offers 99 cu. ft. of passenger space, more than an Accord, and overall leg-room is more abundant than in the Accord and Camry.
Once accused of designing cockpits with all the warmth of day-old bratwurst, VW has responded with new interior fabrics, color-coordinated trim and plastic trim described as having a “luxury feel,” newly designed door panels and handles, switches and ventilation controls, and, yes, dual folding cupholders. The instrument panel is easy to read yet full of information. A minor glitch is that the digital clock fades to almost invisibile when sunlight hits it.
Another issue is the lack of a proper glove compartment. The passenger’s airbag uses up that space, and VW’s solution is a lockable bin between the front seats. It’s none too large and the lock appears as though it would yield to a hefty screwdriver without much struggle.
The front seating is adjust-able for height, recline, and thigh and lumbar support, and its supportive bolsters and stiff cushions reflect VW’s philosophy that a car must provide a dynamic experience for ultimate enjoyment and safety. The driving position is up-right, making for a generous, unhampered view, and the various instruments are no more than a handsbreadth away from the steering wheel. Adjustable for height only, the leather-wrapped wheel nonetheless feels properly placed, adding to the overall feel of command.
VW has long been a promoter of active safety, and it has also caught up to the industry leaders in passive safety components with the addition this year of emergency tensioning front safety-belt retractors. In the event of a head-on collision, a pyrotechnic device ignites and pulls all belts tight within 12 milliseconds, optimizing the belts’ position against the body and reducing in-juries caused by loose fits.
Earlier, when we said the Passat drove like a family sedan, we should have made that family sports sedan. Volkswagen’s hearty 2.8-liter V6 has earned accolades by combining a fistful of engine torque for sprinter’s acceleration away from the stoplight, and a willingness to run long distances at interstate speeds without pausing for breath. Its German heritage is a virtual guarantee of high-speed stability. A car designed to run at 90 mph all day has little problem with America’s relatively modest highway pace.
But there’s more to this new Passat than generous power. Overall body stiffness has been increased by 15 percent, and VW’s special Plus Axle sport-tuned suspension delivers a more stable platform to better handle rigorous road maneuvers. Four-wheel independent suspension, terrific power disc brakes, stabilizer bars in front and rear, and special track-correcting bushings makes Fahrvergnugen – German for driving pleasure – more than a marketing slogan.
We preferred the standard 5-speed transmission. It doesn’t have quite the velvet-smooth operation of a Honda transmission, but it coaxes more muscle from the V6 rated at 172 hp. Of course, sporty driving comes at a cost: The EPA ratings of 18 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway aren’t great, but the 18.5 gallon fuel tank means a maximum driving range of more than 450 miles.
Serious questions remain, however, about Volkswagen’s ability to service America properly, a market once owned by the German firm but which now is a few pencil scratches on the company’s international ledgers.
VW’s American and Canadian operations are being merged, with a severe reduction in the North American work force. Can this leaner, stripped-down Volkswagen presence compete against its rivals effectively?
What’s clear is that VW is building the kinds of cars that should by all rights be ending up in someone’s garage and not in a holding pen at the port. The Passat Wagon is such a car.