The Volkswagen name was once synonymous with the ultimate in economy, the least expensive cars to buy and operate. A lot has changed since the original Beetle, however. VW's are still efficient, but they are not the cheapest cars on the lot.
Now, with the introduction of the Passat W8, Volkswagen is competing with established luxury marques with a base price flirting with 40 grand. One thing that's the same, however, is VW's innovative spirit. There was nothing like the Beetle, and no one has ever made an engine like the W8's.
The entire Passat line was completely redesigned for 2002, with bolder contours and new lights front and rear. Its chassis is 10 percent stiffer for an improved ride and better handling.
The Passat W8 went on sale in April as a 2002 model. The W8 model is named after its unique eight-cylinder engine, a compact engine with its cylinders in a double V, hence the W8 designation. This results in a midsize sedan with a 4.0-liter eight-cylinder engine, where all its competitors have at best a V6. Indeed, Volkswagen boasts that it's the only eight-cylinder European sedan priced under $50,000 on the market today.
Passat comes in a variety of models that all have their individual merits. We'll focus on the Passat GLS with the manual transmission to see how much VW you can get for under $22,000, and the Passat W8, to see what a difference another $16,000 makes.
GLX comes with the new 1.8T engine. The V6 offers quicker acceleration than a 1.8T with an automatic, but a 1.8T with the manual transmission is quicker than the V6 with the automatic. If you prefer an automatic transmission, we think you're much better off with the V6. No surprise, the 270-horsepower W8 eclipses them all with a claimed 6.5-second dash from 0 to 60 mph.
Volkswagen shares the 1.8T with corporate cousin Audi. This relatively small (1781cc) four-cylinder engine uses a double-overhead-cam five-valve-per-cylinder design combined with an intercooled turbocharger to produce a prodigious 170 horsepower. Even more impressive is the broad torque spread, 166 pound-feet from 1950 rpm all the way up to 5000 rpm. The only downside is a thirst for unleaded premium (91 octane) fuel.
The larger (2771 cc), naturally aspirated 2.8-liter V6 also has five valves per cylinder but offers only 20 more horsepower than the 1.8T four-cylinder. Torque, important for those using the Passat's passenger or cargo capacity, is, however, a healthy 206 pound-feet.
Raw numbers aside, we like the eager feel of the 1.8T. It has a solid punch down low, thanks to careful tuning of its turbocharger, but really sings at the upper rev range. This engine truly enjoys its work, and working it is especially enjoyable as well. The five-speed manual gearbox contributes an operation delight of its own, with a feel of quality material shaped by careful hands. The shifter slides effortlessly from gear to gear.
We drove the Passat GLS 1.8T on winding roads in the Georgia red clay hills north of Atlanta and were impressed by the Passat's ability to accelerate away from slow corners with little drama from the chassis. The Passat had none of the squirreliness suffered by many front-driver cars, due in large part to its sophisticated front suspension.
Cornering is balanced front to rear, with little understeer. The four-link front suspension uses coil springs and an anti-roll bar, while the rear suspension uses VW's trusted and true torsion beam axle with trailing arms, coil springs and an anti-roll bar. The suspension absorbs bumps and potholes like a dry sponge on spilled milk. The Passat is solid, with no shakes transmitted through the steering column or the chassis. Want confidence? It comes bundled in the base Passat.
The W8, on the other hand, has an "almost all-new" engine. It has been on sale in Europe for a year at the time of U.S. introduction, but that's not the reason we call it "almost all-new." We use that term because the W8 engine is the conjoining of two Volkswagen VR6 engines, less two cylinders each, on a single crankshaft. The explanation gets a bit technoid for the next few sentences so bear with us or feel free to skip ahead while we satisfy the gearheads in the audience: The VR6 is a narrow angle V6, with an enclosed angle of 15 degrees and a single cylinder head. VW engineers originally joined two VR6 engines to create a running W12-powered concept car. In the W8, two "VR4" engines are joined at 72 degrees on a common crankshaft with offset pins that produce an even firing pattern. Although this produces even power pulses, it's not dynamically balanced, but VW cures that with twin counter-rotating balance shafts. The result is a compact eight-cylinder that makes more horsepower than an engine squished into that small of a space has a right to make. The W8 engine produces 270 horsepower at 6000 rpm with a strong 273 pound-feet of torque at 2750 rpm.
The W8's power is masked by its smooth delivery. The Passat W8 responds to the accelerator pedal with no-fuss/no-worry acceleration. The 4Motion all-wheel drive mutes any power delivery histrionics as the Passat is whisked t
The Passat is America's best-selling German car. Volkswagen has gone from selling about 15,000 Passats annually five years ago to nearly 100,000 sold last year. The Passat GLS 1.8T was the least expensive German-built car sold in the U.S. until the Jetta wagon arrived last summer; lower priced VWs sold in the U.S. are made in Mexico. The W8 now becomes the most expensive Volkswagen ever.
Volkswagen plans to sell only 5000 W8s per year, which makes the W8 something of a halo car, meant to reflect glory on its lesser peers. On the other hand, its features make the W8 a good deal for the money, even if that's more than the base GLS.
The Passat GLS 1.8T is our pick for those on a moderate budget. It beats the V6 by several miles per gallon.
The Passat W8 will place you in an exclusive group of drivers. There is no other W8 engine in the world, nor is there likely to be one, and owners of a W8 can expect to explain the difference between it and a V8 many, many times. In addition to being a member of the elite, you'll be driving an excellent automobile. We're interested in the sport package and six-speed manual transmission, which we expect will give the Passat W8 a more sporting personality.