A Refreshing Alternative
Everyone now knows the formula for a successful mid-size sedan: smooth & quiet ride, plenty of room for four adults, five in a pinch and reasonably good acceleration and handling. And of course, lots of cup holders. Add to the mix quality and reliability and presto! Your family sedan is ready.
Apparently, the people at VW somehow missed the message. To its credit, the Passat marches to its own beat. The car has personality and a clear emphasis on sportiness -- offering an alternative to today's cookie cutter automotive would.
Although the Passat sold fairly well, it placed well behind the leaders in the sales race. As result, you won't see yourself coming and going on every drive.
Replaced in 1998 with an all-new, rounded, but still refreshingly unique design, the Passat of this review was offered from 1990-97.
From the start, the Passat was offered as a 4-door sedan and a 4-door wagon. The wagon accounted only for approximately 20% of total production, so they may be difficult to find.
The original Passat was available in GL trim. For '92 a base CL model was added, then dropped in '93 when the GLX VR6 models were introduced. For '94 the base GL was dropped, leaving only the 6-cylinder GLX. Then - are you still with us? - in '95 the GLS with a different 4-cylinder engine was back, and remained through '97. An advanced 4-cylinder turbo-diesel was added in late '96, available only as the TDI model.
To sum up the engine availability, at first only a 4-cylinder engine provided motive power, but eventually a 6-cylinder (GLX only) and a 4-cylinder turbo diesel (TDI) found a home in one or more versions of the Passat engine bay. A 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic could be mated to all of them, except the TDI which came only with a manual.
The Passat has a decidedly conservative, but still distinctive design. It stands rather tall (over an inch taller than an Accord or Camry) with both a high beltline and roofline. The wagon model is particularly attractive.
An extensive styling update accompanied the '95 model and the Passat gained a front grill that replaced its original smooth aero look. All new sheetmetal (save the roof) and new taillights were also part of the new styling mix. The basic short hood/high trunk design was still very much in evidence, and again, the wagon manages to look the most integrated.
Step into the cabin of an Passat and the words Teutonic efficiency come to mind. It has a purposeful, almost stark look, particularly the early GLs. The GLX version is much more inviting using textures and colors to soften the presentation.
The dash design has not aged as well as the rest of the car. Overall it looks rather bulky and cluttered. For the most part, it is well laid out, however, with the radio up high and big rotary knobs for the HVAC controls. A speedometer, tachometer and full gauges greet the driver. One oddity: the rear power window switches are located on the dash.
Until 1995, when they received dual front airbags, Passats made do with no airbags and irritating auto seat belts.
Fit and finish were first-rate on the vehicles we sampled, but the integration of trim and interior panels was somewhat busy.
You sit up high in a Passat, with a commanding view of the road. The exception: The high trunk lid obstructs the rearward view for short drivers.
The front seats are firm and comfortable, and they offer good lateral support should the need arise for some spirited driving. Height and lumbar support can be manually adjusted on both front seats. Two Passengers in the rear will find enough head, leg and shoulder room to be comfortable, but three is tight. Consider rear seat room to be slightly below average for the class. One of the benefits of the aforementioned high trunk back is a tall rear seatback which offers plenty on support for the upper body.
The Passat is somewhat noisier than most other cars in its class. Wind noise enters the cabin at speed and the four cylinder engine is rather loud during acceleration. Road noise is noticeable, too, especially over rough or coarse road surfaces.
Another benefit on the high trunk lid is a larger trunk than either the Accord or Camry. And the split-rear seat folds down in a two-step process that leaves a long flat cargo area. It is a versatile setup.
No question. The Passat's trump card in the family sedan category is it's responsiveness and handling prowess. It does not try to isolate the driver from the feel of the road, nor does it try to cocoon its passengers in some numb, serene, and passive experience. Rather, it seeks to allow the road to communicate with the driver. This is not to say the ride is harsh, but it is not the norm for this class. The emphasis toward handling and responsiveness is not what most people are seeking in a family sedan.
Although the Passat's ride is firmer and more controlled than, say, a Camry or Taurus, in our opinion it's still very good and it inspires a bit more confidence during abrupt maneuvers than those two models. The GLX, with its larger wheels and tires, tilts even further toward the handling bias, and the ride remains comfortably firm.
Two engines were available. An OHC four-cylinder generating 138hp, and beginning in 1993 a 172hp OHC 6-cylinder of an interesting design. VW cast the cylinders in a staggered pattern, resulting in a very compact package. There's nothing exotic about it, but it is smooth, eager to rev and it sounds great. It'll move the Passat with authority, especially with the 5-speed manual transmission.
The four-cylinder's power output is adequate. It's not as smooth or as quiet as the Accord's or Camry's 4-cylinder engine, but it's smooth enough to avoid being obtrusive. An advanced, direct-injection 4-cylinder, 90hp turbo-diesel was available in late '96 but not readily obtainable until 1997.
Your transmission choices consist of a 4-speed automatic or 5-speed manual. Neither one shines. The early automatics perform harshly under some circumstances. An improved unit was used beginning with the '94 model year but it's still no world-beater. The 5-speed manual also comes up short, which is surprising for a car that stakes a claim as a driver's car. Like most VW's, the shift action of the manual is somewhat rubbery and lacks the precision of the best in the business - the Honda Accord.
All Passats come with 4-wheel disc brakes. They pull the Passat down from speed with confidence, and pedal feel is excellent. Stops are short and true, and the ABS kicks in smoothly when needed.
VW was well behind the marketplace on this one. Motorized belts made do for passive crash protection until the redesigned '95 model bowed with dual airbags as standard equipment.
An ABS braking system was standard on the GLX model and optional on others until the '95 model year, when it became standard equipment across the board. Traction control was standard fare on the GLX and optional on others beginning with the 1994 models.
The U.S. government rewarded the Passat with four stars for both the driver and front passenger in its head on crash testing - a very good performance. All '95 and up models meet 1997 side impact standards.
Don't expect unfailing, appliance-like reliability from the Passat, particularly in the earlier models. They tend to require more attention than their Japanese and even American counterparts. Major components are pretty robust, but trips to the repair shop for minor things tend to happen more frequently.
Potential trouble areas include the constant-velocity (CV) joints, wheel bearings, brakes, the AC system and the occasional electrical problem.
Many Passats will still have warranty coverage on their powertrains. Beginning with the '94 model year, VW extend coverage on certain powertrain components to 10 years or 100,000 miles.
Parts costs are above average, but not excessively so. After calling several dealers and parts stores, we were actually surprised that they were as low as we found.
Regular service items include a timing belt replacement every 60,000 miles for the 4-cylinder motor, the V6 requires no replacement - definite plus compared to its Japanese competition. Coolant and transmission fluid are scheduled at 30,000 miles, an average interval for these model years.
One local Volkswagen dealership we called suggested that we shouldn't put more than $2,000 worth of repairs into a '94 model because "They're not worth anything." Hardly a ringing endorsement for the model, but he might've been trying to sell us a new one.
First of all, the Passat is not for everyone. You will need to decide for yourself if the Passat's character fits what you want in an automobile. Most people looking at a 4-door family car are looking for a quiet, smooth, comfortable ride with reasonable handling. As mentioned above, the Passat put the emphasis on handling and driving.
Resale values are generally pretty strong for the Passat, especially newer ones. There appears to be a demand for Volkswagens in general among the thirty-ish and under crowd. We also noticed a wider than usual disparity between private party and dealer pricing, so it may behoove you to start looking early, be patient and go the private route. You should be able to save a couple of thousand dollars.
In a cookie-cutter automotive landscape, the Passat is at once refreshing and satisfying.
Note: Pricing comes from dealers, wholesale mail-order companies and independent parts stores. Average labor rate computed at $50/hr. Pricing can vary widely - shop around.
*Brakes include turning rotors
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