The 2004 Passat was first introduced in 2000 as a 2001 model. It was an instant hit here in North America, as it was worldwide. In 2001, I test drove the base Passat with FWD (front-wheel-drive) silky 5-speed manual transmission and 170hp 1.8L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine (1.8T) for one whole week and pronounced it one of the great bargains in automobile-dom. Many people in this part of the world, however, still associate small engines with old folks and won’t have any part of them. The W8’s potent 4.0L engine comes from Volkswagen/Audi’s seemingly bottomless storehouse of big 8-cylinder engines and is an engineering tour-de-force. The cylinder heads are set at a 72 degrees angle rather than 90 degrees. When looked at from overhead, they form a double V or W. (I guess you’ve got to know how Germans pronounce “W” to get it.) Anyway, it produces 270 hp and 273 ft-lbs of torque. The 4Motion permanent AWD deserves a mention too; it features sophisticated Torsen center locking differentials. While not exactly 4WD, 4Motion is probably the next best thing to it for getting down unplowed streets.
Volkswagens have always been known for excellent build quality. A few years ago, some weaknesses began to appear but in the past couple of years the slide has been reversed. The W8’s body feels very tight with superlative fit and finish. The familiar appearance of the Passat is greatly improved by the addition for 2004 of big 225 45 R17 tires. Although difficult to clean, the attractive spoked alloys fill up the wheel wells in a way that reminds me of the wonderful E-500 Mercedes-Benz of the ‘70s. They’re optional but well worth the extra $1,500. Ergonomics of this Passat, while not quite up to the best available from the Japanese, are still excellent. Full power adjustment comes standard on both front seats. The thick leather steering wheel has both tilt and telescope functions. The W8 eschews the fiddly little knobs and switches that were once standard in Volkswagens. The compact exterior gives scant hint of the immense interior space. Headroom is great; elbowroom terrific; and legroom in the rear seat limo-like. Front and rear doors open wide for very easy entry and exit. The Monsoon sound system may be the best ever in any VW.
On the Road
The W8 exhibits first-rate highway manners. Some reviewers complained of slight oversteer which they attribute to the extra weight of the 8-cylinder engine. I can’t speak personally to this because I didn’t take the W8 out on the track or attack twisty mountain roads at high speed. I tried to experience it as what it is supposed to be – a comfortable and spirited German sedan built for the open road. The 5-speed automatic with shift-it-yourself manumatic function performed flawlessly. The standard all-wheel-drive (AWD) is a welcome, even essential, addition, what with the very torque-y W8 engine under the hood. AWD helps keep things under control especially during hard driving in poor road conditions. And if you find you’ve pushed things beyond the car and your own limits, the optional ($430) ESP (electronic stability program) cuts in and helps keep you between the lampposts. Incidentally, the W8 has a gratifying short turning radius, which really helps navigating narrow city streets and when you’re parking. Observed fuel economy was a bit of a shock but was not, I guess, all that much out of line with similarly heavy and powerful machines – especially since the greatest part of my driving was short haul in-town trips.
The Passat W8 is a tough one to figure out. It’s a lot more expensive than other Volkswagens and while it’s a terrific automobile, the W8’s still a VW and to the North American masses, the brand flat lacks cachet. As one of my more cynical (or perhaps more insightful) enthusiast friends suggests, it’s a transparent attempt to soften up the American public to the idea of a high-priced Volkswagen - the $80,000 Phaeton. But Volkswagen
is already one of the more upscale brands in Europe. The Passat name is very strong there and has long had an image equal to the C-class Mercedes
. Wolfsburg clearly expects the W8 (and the Phaeton) to help move the entire VW brand up-market here. I hope they’re not that serious. I truly can’t abide the idea of a $25,000 Golf. Nevertheless, if you’ve got the bucks and you’re looking for a luxury-performance sedan which is both European and a bit out of the ordinary, give the W8 a look-see. Driving one will say some good things about you – for example, you’re a guy who knows something about cars and you ain’t cheap. But what may best thing about owning a W8 is you won’t see yourself at every stoplight.