Once upon a time, Volkswagen was known as the affordable-German-car company. It built sensible but well-engineered cars, like the Rabbit, and even if they fell apart like anything touched by Isiah Thomas, it wasn't so bad because they were as easy as making toast to fix. Over time, Volkwagens grew more luxurious, expensive, and complex. Sure the new ones were nice cars, but the old Volkswagen simplicity was gone. They still fell apart, but now you had to pay someone to fix them.
But there's a light shining back to the better times of the past, and it's the almost-base Passat Wagon. If you're really shaving dimes, there's a "Value Edition" that goes for less, but the 2.0L (or 2.0T, depending on either our window sticker or vw.com) throws in a few extras that are worth a few months of ramen to pay for the difference. It's still got gratuitous amounts of chrome too, so the untrained eye won't tell the difference between this bargain edition and the high-line V6 version.
Anyway, those extras are things like stability control, and a power liftgate. If you've never had a power liftgate, it might be just enough to convert you to the wagon sect (we already think the Passat looks better in wagon form). It's like having your very own Mini-me to do all your hatch opening- and closing-related business. Sadly, it will not kick other motorists in the junk for you (we tried). The Passat also has a "hold" feature on the transmission that, when activated, automatically applies the parking brake at stops so your left foot can be left free for important things like tapping along to the beat of your Phish bootlegs.
And standard on every Passat are lots and lots of storage bins, including two slide-out drawers above the radio and a big compartment near the driver's left knee. There's even a seemingly secret door inside the map pockets. Could this be a special consideration for the aging Deadhead demographic?
Of course it's not all good. The plastic is cheap. Not quite Korean-cheap, but well below VW's reputation for beautiful interiors. And the radio, while functional, almost mocks you with its lack of features. The leatherette-covered seats are so flat, presumably to fit Taco Bell-widened American asses, that clutching the steering wheel is the driver's last resort to keep from falling sideways in turns.
Then there's the engine, which is same turbocharged two-liter found in the GTI, Jetta GLI, A4, TT, and just about every other car VW/Audi makes. It's hard to believe the Passat moves so well with a mere 200 horsepower, but it does, even at highway passing speeds. But without the turbo boost, the Passat feels like it makes seven horsepower, and the turbo spools suddenly, like a post-White Castle trip to the bathroom. Neither mashing the throttle or dealing with the after effects of a Sack of Ten are pleasant experiences, but at least White Castle feeds you.
Still, this is a full-fledged family car at an affordable price, a segment we had thought Volkswagen was pricing itself out of. So take it easy on the options and the Passat will be all the car you need. Plus — judging by recent Volkwagen quality numbers — you'll need that extra cash for trips to the shop. [by Mike Austin]
Ad Watch: The VW Passat — Leading Cause Of Non-Hybrid Smug [internal]