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Road Test: Passat V6

By Bernd Felsche

Copyright © 1998 Bernd Felsche, Perth, Western Australia
All Rights Reserved
This Document may not be copied without the author's written permission.
Breaking the drought of Club road tests, the red Passat V6 with Tiptronic transmission was delivered by Skipper's staff to my office door with 9104 km on the clock.
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A cursory inspection showed few battle-scars and the fact that the owner's manual wasn't in the car. Perhaps a previous road-tester was still doing research. Still, controls are logical and intuitive enough for me to figure out how to set the clock and to discover a mini-sunvisor above the rear-view mirror.

Thanks go to Inchcape, importer of Volkswagen into Australia, for making the vehicle available and to Skipper VW for the preparation and delivery service.

Exterior

The shape of the car makes it look smaller than the overall dimensions, perhaps the rounded flanks and single-swoop roof-line are the most deceptive features. Some would say it's a jelly-mold car, but the profile of an arch on a wedge is at least distinctive while contributing class-leading aerodynamics.

Passat Profile
Front and rear screens are enormous in dimension, the front screen's base being well over a metre forward of the driver's hands giving the interior a feeling of space.

The roof-line itself starts well forward of front seat passengers, the long A-pillars curving forward to meet the flanks just behind the wheel arch centres. Back seat passengers get first-class treatment too and don't have to endure direct sun on the back of the head or neck.

To appreciate the detail of the exterior design, it's instructive to wash the car. Honest! The shape and the blending of the panels over minimal panel gaps are exemplary. It's actually possible to wash the body of the car in half an hour, including the rinse and dry.

Passat Rear
The big 16" alloy wheels are another story: They suffer from the layering of brake dust, especially at the front wheels after just a few hundred km. This really spoils the look of the wheels which otherwise set off the shape of darker-coloured cars well. Leaving brake dust on alloys for a long time can lead to problems with the wheels. Regular cleaning is therefore advisable, but although the shape looks simple enough, the few fiddly corners can be difficult to clean and unless you have small hands (or can bribe some) cleaning the visible inside of the rim will require removal of the wheel.

Side protection moldings around the perimeter reduce the chance of panel damage, but being painted in the body colour, they are vulnerable to minor bumps and scrapes. The base-level Passat has a more sensible black plastic finish to the moldings and they look interchangeable with the painted items.

Creature Comforts

A huge glass house proves good for all-round visibility marred only by the high bootline and rear headrests when reversing. Reflections off the large rear shelf onto the rear screen further impede visibility, especially when the shelf is of a lighter colour. There's a market in there for entrepreneurs.

As already stated, the apparent external dimensions belie spacious interior. There's ample room for 5 large adults in comfort, without it feeling crowded. Interior width is so large that the driver cannot easily reach the opposite door.

Headroom and legroom abound in back but lack of ventilation outlets from either the centre console or the roof could mean a stifling start to a journey.

Seats prove firm but comfortable, both front seats featuring height and lumbar support adjustment in addition to the usual seatback rake and fore-aft position setting. The front seats provide good lateral support so the perhaps inevitable exploration of the car's cornering abilities is never frustrated by lack of location of the driver's posterior.

Safety features high with 3-point belts all round along with headrests. For those requiring the assurance of explosive devices in case of a crash, there are belt pre-tensioners and air bags. Lots of them.

A tilt-slide sunroof helps to provide immediate relief from the stored heat after the car has been parked in the sun for even a short time. Convenient unlocking at the drivers door allows all windows to be lowered by holding the key in the unlock position for a few seconds, but the sunroof doesn't follow suit. When locking, all windows and sunroof can be closed from the drivers door lock.

Given a chance, the climate control maintains a comfortable interior temperature, a sensor on the dash compensating for the direct heat from the sun. You set a temperature and the climate control does its best to maintain that. An economy setting puts the system into heating-only for winter operation.

Main interior lights also integrate with the central locking and ignition so that the lights stay on until the engine is started or the doors locked. Doors open wide exposing unprotected sills. (An oversight?) Damped grab handles are above each door beside a courtesy light over each rear door and a light on the underside of each door indicate the depth of thought given to the design and implementation of the Passat.

All the materials feel and look expensive; the switches and mechanisms feel positive and of course, all the doors, bonnet and boot shut with a secure thunk.

In the front of the cabin, there are heaps of places to stash your lollies, keys, Psion, etc. They don't have to hide under the seat. (Road testers take note!) Various pockets are lined with removable, non-slip mats to stop your paraphernalia from drifting about. Unfortunately, none of the cubby-holes is large enough to accommodate a StreetSmart directory. The lockable glove compartment won't take it in a single bite either.

Rear seat occupants have to make do with the seatback pockets or rent some space in the front centre arm-rest. It's odd that Volkswagen didn't find room in the doors for a cubby holes.

Quiet ride and low noise levels put this car into a class of it's own. If digital clocks could tick, you'd be able to hear this one!

The engine is still audible, but noise levels are never intrusive. There's almost no difference in interior noise levels between 70kmh and 100kmh.

Suspension noises are well suppressed and only become apparent over the worst bumps, where one is more likely to hear a thump than to feel it. Ride remains fluid without a hint of wallow.

All the more reason to enjoy the sound from the 6-stacker CD and radio/cassette system with speakers all round. Although pretty much of a "budget" system, it performs adequately for most; others will be seeking to augment it by replacing the speakers with more exclusive items and perhaps add in an equaliser to eliminate some of the boom which can spoil an otherwise pleasant acoustic environment.

Cavernous is a good description of the boot, but the CD-stacker may not be in best location to allow best use of space when carrying the accoutrements of 5 people. Thoughtful as ever, Volkswagen provides a power socket in boot for a car fridge so the refreshment can stay refreshing. A full-size alloy spare is under the reinforced floor mat, with a tool pouch tossed in the recess of the wheel. But there's no "cooler bucket" like in a Mercedes, VW owners expected to provide the ice bucket for the beverage we're no longer allowed to call Ch*mpagne.

Under the Bonnet

This is 1998 and I don't think mere humans are supposed to look there any more. Nevertheless, you'll find something that looks like an engine with a large black plastic cowling with shiny "V6" emblem, but otherwise coyly revealing only the inlet manifold. blush Various fluid reservoirs around the engine bay can be inspected at a glance, and the dipstick challenges you to pull it out with it's orange-ness amongst the sea of black cowling and nondescript pipes.

The battery and electronics live on the other side of the firewall, ahead of the windscreen wipers. A rubber seal around the edge of the engine compartment helps to keep noise inside when the lid is closed; and maybe even helps the aerodynamics.

Driving

The Passat is almost too easy to drive. Fast, light, accurate and direct steering inspires supreme confidence. There's a smidgen of feedback that penetrates the slightly over-servoed steering. With multi-link suspension front and back providing flat cornering and excellent roadholding no doubt helped by the big, low-profile 205 rubber on 16" alloys, it goes where it's steered, almost immune to the bumps, holes and ripples characteristic of Perth roads. Only occasionally does the back step out when cornering hard and there's a mid-corner ridge. Composure is regained quickly once the wheels are all back in contact.

Low-speed navigation and placement is easy. The size of the car is never a problem. A curved front profile helps to get the nose into tight spots, the restricted rear visibility and drooping front corners not presenting too much of a problem once you get used to how the car fits. The Passat soon becomes a car that one wears like a glove; aware of but unflustered by its dimensions.

Braking is progressive, positive and very effective. It stops in a very short distance and there's enough servo to allow the average driver to trigger the ABS on dry surfaces. That should at least help to avoid a few smashes and to improve the model's insurance ratings.

Underneath the other pedal sits 2.8 litres breathing through a total of 30 valves with smooth, broad torque delivery from 2000 rpm to over 6000 rpm due in part to the variable inlet manifold. The engine is always ready to pounce with more than adequate power for even extraordinary Perth traffic conditions. Loads of power doesn't have to be over-powering. ASR Automatische Schlupf-Reglung traction control comes into play on damp or loose surfaces when accelerating through a corner. No time-wasting wheel-spin unless you switch it off!

It all combines to give a surprising ability to point and squirt for a car which could tip the scales at 2000kg when fully laden.

The Passat remains well balanced on loose surface with confident handling even under power.

Its 5-speed Tiptronic gearbox, which provides automatic and manual-shift gates, is slow to follow manual down-shifts commands unless prodded with a corresponding movement of go pedal. Not exactly Formula-1 stuff. After the novelty wears off, most drivers will opt for the automatic gate for everyday driving. The transmission will shift to an appropriate gear to protect the engine and transmission, even in manual-shift mode.

The gear ratios are spread well for performance, noise and economy. 100kmh represents 2000 rpm in top (5th) gear. Automatic changes are smooth while keeping up with traffic using moderate acceleration but tend to be more noticeable when under power. As we've come to expect, there are several safety interlocks that require you to put your foot on the brake before being able to use the transmission. Fortunately it doesn't take 60 minutes to figure that out.

The steering wheel is adjustable for height and reach. Pedals are in the right place, as is a footrest at the left. That needs to be said because not every car gets it right.

Minor switch-gear is located within easy reach of the driver. Cruise control is activated by a slider and push-button on the left (indicator) stalk. It works as well as any. You'll make much use of it to protect your licence from flash erosion by speed cameras.

The trip computer is controlled by push-buttons on the right (wiper) stalk; one on the end to select between displays and one underneath to select the memory; either trip or indefinite. Fuel consumption, driving time, distance and average speed are displayed, along with time of day, momentary fuel consumption and the distance to the next Multanova (I wish).

The wiper stalk also sports a small multi-position switch to set the intermittent wipe delay. I found it too fiddly to use with seemingly always the wrong delay between wipes. Volkswagen used to have programmable delays set by successive pulls on the wiper stalk at the desired interval.

Instruments are clear and legible. The two main dials for engine revs and speed flank engine temperature and fuel level gauges. There are two LCD (digital) displays, one in each main dial. One is the digital clock and computer display, the other odometer and trip meter.

Distinctive blue back-lighting of the instruments and displays contrast with a red glow from switches and dial needles. This is an extremely attractive display! One fly in the ointment is the bright blue warning for driving lights. Its glare at night is almost intrusive and it doesn't dim at night.

When the ignition is first switched on, a myriad of warning indicators light up to show what's working. There are so many gadgets here that you don't have time to scan them all before they extinguish. A large rectangular panel between the main dials remains mostly vacant, at least for the time being until navigation system data and the appropriate options from Volkswagen become available in Australia. When it does become available, you'll be able to tell apart from the GPS antenna concealed under a scrotum at the base of the radio aerial.

Summary

Stepping back into my Golf GTI after a week and 700 km in the Passat, made the GTI feel like it was "broken". Although Passat is half a tonne heavier, it feels lighter and as willing to turn into a corner. The Golf's machined-from-a-billet solidity is humbled by the Passat's rigidity.

But then, with more than 10 years of development and double the engine power, we wouldn't expect less. Not from Volkswagen.

Although there are various aspects which couldn't be reasonably tested (e.g. crash performance), the Passat is almost "flawless" in design and execution. It demonstrates that Volkswagen is capable of setting new benchmarks in a new class. The few faults, which would by the way hardly ever be counted as such in other cars, don't put a dent in the overall impression of an extremely competent vehicle. It exhausts superlatives. No wonder it won, amongst others, the NRMA award for best luxury car under $55,000. Perhaps it should have also won one for best under $100,000 for that is the class of worthy rivals such as the Audi A6, Mercedes E-class or BMW 5 series from Germany.

The Passat V6 is proof that quality doesn't have to cost the earth. It makes good sense too with urban fuel consumption averaging just over 11 l/100km with the climate control working most times and highway cruising around 8 l/100km.

If you have $100,000 to spend on a luxury car, then the Passat is right up your alley. The $40,000 back in your pocket is more than fair compensation for the missing Mercedes star or BMW propeller.

Copyright © 1998 Bernd Felsche, Perth, Western Australia
All Rights Reserved