From the November 1997 issue of Car and Driver.
While looking at an illustration of the new Volkswagen Passat GLS’s four-link front suspension, we noticed that the partly cutaway wheel in the picture had an Audi four-ring logo on it. You know why? Because Audi’s so-called B-platform (which has the same front suspension and is the basis for its A4 and A6 models) is now found under VW’s new Passat, too. So having artwork with an Audi logo on it is almost like boasting.
The common platform also explains why the new Passat feels like a car from a higher demographic zone than the one it customarily inhabits, and it confirms company chairman Ferdinand Piëch’s stated intentions of taking VW upmarket. A look under the hood reveals more shared components: the Audi A4’s 20-valve, turbocharged, 1.8-liter four-in-line installed in a north-south position rather than the east-west orientation found under previous Passat hoods. Audi does that to facilitate four-wheel drive, which the new Passat will get, too, eventually.
From its distinctive exterior styling—clearly evolved from the curvaceous new Beetle and Audi TT concept cars—to an interior reminiscent of a Mercedes-Benz’s, this new Passat is a suit cut from altogether different cloth, and we like it. Now 2.6 inches longer, an inch wider, an inch taller, and with a wheelbase 3.1 inches longer, there is more interior space, headroom, and cargo capacity. Yet a lot of what you get in the new GLS sedan is somewhat unexpected, and that’s a welcome change from the me-too nature of family sedans populating the low-$20,000 range.
The small turbo motor is unusual in this segment, but it works very well in the Passat. Apart from slight sluggishness at takeoff if you don’t get the revs up or slip the clutch a little, it propels the 3080-pound car with considerable élan, producing eight-second sprints to 60 mph and 16.3-second quarter-mile dashes.
The 20-valve four generates 155 pound-feet of torque all the way from 1750 rpm to 4600 rpm, making the small engine much less peaky than you might expect. Although response to the throttle is less than forceful at moderate cruising speeds in fifth gear, most of the time the car answers the right pedal something like a 2.5-liter car would. And the turbo’s presence is fairly transparent, producing neither whistle nor whine nor the abrupt surge of power you feel in, say, a Saab 900. All you hear is a nice resonant throb from the engine as it pulls steadily through its range.
The relative linearity of the power delivery makes the Passat seem a lot like a normally aspirated car in fast-driving circumstances, with prompt throttle response during acceleration and double-clutched downshifts that feel quite natural—apart, that is, from the way the engine hangs on to revs during shifts, a mannerism that may be due to its pressurized intake system.
With a shifter that is light and fluent, the Passat encourages your search for the best gear for continued strong acceleration. The only time the lever feels imprecise is when you press downward onto the spring-loaded, reverse-lockout mechanism during shifts: It produces a rubbery bounce in the mechanism. After you learn not to do that, the shifter assumes the same relationship to the driver as do the steering and brakes; everything operates as if there were a plastic layer between metal and human, but not so much that it dulls all sense of immediacy.
So although the steering is nicely isolated from nasty impacts, producing only some mild vibrations on rippled surfaces, it quickly impresses with its accuracy and integrity. If there are any manifestations of torque steer, we could not feel them. In fact, on this 1.8-liter, turbo-powered model, most owners will probably be unable to detect which wheels are driving the car. Even very hard launches produce no directional caprice, because the car’s standard traction-control system activates a limited-slip differential, balancing front-wheel grip.
VW has also achieved a good roadgoing compromise on the new Passat, with a ride soft enough for the family vacation, yet with body-motion control that allows sporty driving. The Passat’s body shell is 10 percent stiffer than its predecessor’s, and it provides quietness and seclusion at near-luxury-class levels. With an industry-leading drag coefficient of 0.27, the Passat also produces little wind roar at speed. In fact, the only evidence of engineering down to a price in this VW are mild vibrations through the steering column, floor, and seat on certain surfaces.
With anti-lock brakes standard, the Passat has good brake feel and, with a 193-foot stopping distance from 70 mph, reasonable braking performance. The brakes never feel overboosted, and they have good initial bite with little lost motion in the pedal. The responsibility for the average braking distance falls on the all-season Continental tire fitted to the car. Although these mud-and-snow radials ride fairly quietly and promise decent performance in varied weather conditions, the unimpressive 0.75-g skidpad number and our high-speed cornering experience suggest that high-performance rubber would substantially improve all the numbers.
Better rubber would also make the Passat livelier company. As it is, the Passat turns in willingly, hangs on well, and has well-mannered cornering habits. It rewards smooth inputs with surprisingly high cornering speeds before the front tires push wide, although it will squeal off-line immediately if you drop the car onto its outer front tire with fast steering inputs. When it’s understeering, the Passat will tighten its line obediently as the throttle is trailed off. It rolls a fair bit in bends but takes a firm set and is extremely stable in transitional maneuvers. For all the stability and imperturbability, there is a surprising degree of nimbleness in the chassis. Particularly considering the comfortable spring and shock rates—soft enough to allow a touch of float over abrupt crests—and the all-weather rubber.
But dynamic sophistication isn’t the be-all and end-all of cars in this segment. Potential Passat customers will be looking for security, equipment levels, and comfort, and the GLS has some of that. Along with the ABS and traction control, the car features seatbelt pretensioners to go along with its dual airbags and dual front-seat-mounted side airbag. A remote-access system arms a theft alarm—it’s standard—and there’s a two-program trip computer to calculate fuel range and arrival times. All the windows have a one-touch-down function; the front windows go up with one touch, too, and have pinch protection.
The car has an expensive-looking two-tone interior with numerous thoughtful details, many of which are typically not available on cars in this class as standard equipment. The list includes a glove-box door with latches at both sides instead of one in the center to prevent distortion with age and use; a 60/40 split rear seatback for greater carrying versatility; a steering wheel that tilts and telescopes; anti-whistle ventilation outlets; rear reading lights; vanity mirrors with lights set into the headliner so you don’t blind yourself; and silicone-damped grab handles that retract noiselessly when released. Although the front seats must be adjusted by hand, they feature a roller-mounting system for easy movement, and they’re height adjustable via a low-effort crank lever on the outboard side. Seatback rake is adjusted by the usual VW knurled knob, which allows infinitely small graduations but has to be cranked until your wrist seizes up in order to move the backrest to full recline.
The layout of the Passat’s controls is just about perfect, with clear gauges that glow a peaceful green at night and clever graphics on switches and buttons. There is even an electric fuel-filler release button, which is completely uncharacteristic of German cars. In fact, having just looked at the new Mazda 626, which now has a manual fuel-filler flap and no rear reading lights in the name of lowered cost, we have to wonder how the Germans can offer this much car for $21,250. Even though our test Passat came with $950 worth of leather upholstery, the car stickered at only $22,200.
However they do it, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. Here we have a sophisticated and stylish family sedan that provides performance, comfort, and luxury at a very reasonable price. Even if this new Passat isn’t exactly the return of the people’s car, it’s certainly a deal people shopping in that price range would be wise to consider.
1997 Volkswagen Passat GLS
Vehicle Type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
Base/As Tested: $21,250/$22,200
Options: leather seats, $950
turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 20-valve inline-4, iron block and aluminum head, port direct fuel injection
Displacement: 107 in3, 1781 cm3
Power: 150 hp @ 5700 rpm
Torque: 155 lb-ft @ 1750 rpm
Suspension, F/R: multilink/multilink
Brakes, F/R: 11.0-in vented disc/9.6-in disc
Tires: Continental ContiTouring Contact
Wheelbase: 106.4 in
Length: 184.1 in
Width: 68.5 in
Height: 57.4 in
Passenger Volume, F/R: 53/42 ft3
Trunk Volume: 15 ft3
Curb Weight: 3080 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.0 sec
1/4-Mile: 16.3 sec @ 86 mph
100 mph: 22.9 sec
Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 9.6 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 11.3 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 9.9 sec
Top Speed (gov ltd): 126 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 193 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.75 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 26 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
City/Highway: 23/32 mpg
C/D TESTING EXPLAINED