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Long-term Update: 2003 Volkswagen Passat W8

Post Time For The Passat

Nov 1, 2003
Epcp_0311_01_z+2003_vw_passat_w8+side_view Photo 1/1   |   Long-term Update: 2003 Volkswagen Passat W8

For anyone familiar with horse racing, the use of the phrase, "post time," will make perfect sense. For those who may think it has to do with the mail, let's be generous and say that both definitions apply to the new Passat W8.

The long awaited and much anticipated arrival to ec's long-term fleet of the flagship of the Passat line has been a revelation of sorts. Make no mistake, the W8 is a very good car, but can a solidly built and well-engineered car succeed these days on its own merit? As Editor Collins pointed out in her introduction, that many may be taken aback by a VW costing 38k, the legacy of VW being purely an economy car still has deep roots. A Toyota costing that much would suffer the same image problem; however, a Lexus priced close to the Passat W8, while being based on a Toyota, paints a very different mental picture. The same problem may impact potential buyers of the new Touareg. An extended test drive in either should bring those people around to just how far VW has come in building high-end performance and luxury vehicles.

A quick walk around the Passat W8 to most will reveal little to set it apart from, let's say, a 1.8 entry-level model. That is both the traditional blessing and curse. Many in the marketplace want a car that screams, "I cost a lot." Others prefer a Q-ship, wolf in sheep's clothing approach. A perfect example of VW's approach of engineering versus gimmickry is a photo taken a few years ago at VW's test track. The passenger was Editor Brown and the driver (in a suit and tie) was Ferdinand Piech. Their focus of attention was a full-blown race Lupo that appeared quite stock on the outside, if you call ground clearance of less than 100mm stock, and an alloy rollcage, a ratchet sequential gearbox and a lot of electronics. How many other automotive companies have a CEO that would feel at home in one of its own products around a track? You would find most in their suite on the corner of the top floor. I have no doubt that prototypes of the Passat W8 were given a thorough wringing out by Dr. Piech.

I picked up the subtle silver Passat one morning with orders to put a few miles on it and bring it back in a week. My approach to driving new cars is always the same. A few hours or a day will reveal very little. If possible, the car must fill the same role as your daily driver. It has to double as the grocery getter and be valet parked. It has to feel the heat of the desert and the off-camber turns in the hills. Unfortunately, with today's press scheduling, these kind of extended road tests are not always as common as much of the staff would like.

Arriving home, I made a cup of coffee and then went back out to the driveway to consider the latest from Wolfsburg. The newly designed factory 17-in. wheels brought instant approval from passersby. Aside from the W8 emblems, most noticeable on the rear deck lid, the only visual to give the big 4.0 liter away are four exhaust tips, subtle in their presentation.

My decision on which direction I should take was immediate as I got a call from a fellow writer. Her publisher had her going all over the state, and I suggested the Passat as the mode of transportation. I would be the chauffeur. The odometer showed 713 miles when the road trip started and more than 2,000 upon the return. A great many back roads were traveled between California's Central Valley and the barranca-carved coastline. The Passat W8 is an admirable and willing performer. Power is always on tap for the extra surge in the passing lane, and the sure-footed 4Motion system instills confidence on every variety of road surface and conditions.

The interior is well appointed and comfortable, and the usual fatigue of being in a vehicle for such a long period was almost non-existent (the seats are that good). The neverending turns and winding sections of Highway 1 were followed by high-speed runs on two-lane blacktops across the desert. The optional sport suspension is not as harsh as the Audi A4 but just as effective. If the Passat W8 has a weakness, it is a lack of identity. One expects great things from a Quattro because the bloodline is well established. VW has an uphill battle to get the Passat W8 accepted and away from the image of an orphan.

I was also able to gather my impressions of the W8 from the passenger seat as my companion took her turns shuttling the silver Q-ship about and raving about the five-speed Tiptronic transmission. Volkswagen is at a crossroads, and the Passat W8 shows a willingness to build a solid and exclusive performer. In many ways the current products are built to a better standard than partner Audi AG, and the Touareg has been reported to be superior to the much-hyped Porsche Cayenne. The big question, and one that has to be answered, is if VW is to survive in the U.S. market, who is listening? The greatest areas of concern are the consumer complaints of the dealer network. Poorly trained technicians and long waits for service head the list of comments from people I have asked over the last few years.

Our Passat W8 is impressive. It has a strong secure cabin, the trim is well attached, and the mechanicals are built above standard. It is everything that most Japanese cars are not. Parts that are upgraded by the aftermarket seem not to be much needed in the W8. It is a solid, almost over-engineered car. But how will it be at 100,000 miles when consumer confidence knows what to expect of a Nissan or Toyota. Over the next year, european car will attempt to help answer that question.



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