Review and road test of the Volkswagen Passat (1997 - 2000)
FAMILY TICKET TO THE DOME
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Volkswagen's Passat saloon had never enjoyed much success in the UK until it was thoroughly updated in 1997. Until that time it had been a bit of a lumbering oaf, well-meaning but neither fun to drive nor carrying any social cachet. How things change. The fifth generation model was a massive advance over its predecessors, offering a range that competed with mainstream Vauxhall Vectras and Ford Mondeos at one end, yet was able to stand comparison favourably with BMW, Mercedes and Audi at the other. The Passat was always something of a bargain, probably due to Volkswagen's corporate insecurity about models with boots, though this latest model holds its value somewhat better. Still, a used fifth generation Passat is an intelligent way to land a top quality saloon at prices that may surprise.
(4dr saloon, 5 dr estate 1.6, 1.8, 2.3, 2.8 petrol, 1.9, 2.5 diesel [S, SE, Sport, SEL, VR5, Syncro, V6 4 Motion])
The fifth generation Passat was launched in February 1997 to much acclaim. The styling was bold and rakish, the pricing was aggressive and the quality challenged, and often bettered, more expensive offerings from BMW and Mercedes. The range originally consisted of saloon models only, with five different engine choices. Three petrol engines were available - a 100bhp 1.6-litre, a 125bhp 1.8-litre and a turbocharged 1.8-litre that developed 150bhp. For diesel buyers the choice was between 90bhp and 110bhp versions of the 1.9i turbo-diesel unit that had seen service with many of the Volkswagen Group's products. October 1997 saw the launch of an estate version in the same S, SE and Sport trim levels available for the saloon.
The Passat was a large car, and one of the early complaints was that with a range of engines none of which breached the two-litre capacity limit, the Volkswagen was a bit weedy when it came to motorway muscle. This oversight was rectified in March 1998 with the launch of the 2.8 V6 Syncro saloon and estate models, boasting four-wheel drive and a brawny 193bhp engine, but this product line was to be short-lived, being discontinued in May 1999, replaced by the differently badged, but otherwise identical, V6 4Motion range. October 1998 saw the introduction of the 150bhp 2.3-litre VR5 SE and Sport models, whilst diesel buyers were granted more power in September 1999 with the 150bhp V6 2.5TDi models. A six-speed manual gearbox was made available for the 2.5TDi in October 1999.
July 2000 saw the launch of the SEL trim level on the saloon range. This designation offered a high specification interior at almost entry-level pricing, and was available with 1.8, 1.8T and 1.9TDi 115bhp engines.
Winter 2000 saw another revision to the Passat range, with facelifted grille and lights, subtle interior tweaks, beefed up suspension and chassis and a new range of engines. In all, seven engine choices were available, four petrols and three diesels. Of the petrols there was a 115bhp 2.0-litre, 150bhp 1.8-litre turbo, the new 170bhp 2.3-litre V5 and a range-topping 193bhp 2.8-litre V6, fitted as standard with four-wheel drive. The diesel engines included the uprated100bhp 1.9-litre turbo diesel, a new 130bhp Pump-Duse turbo diesel unit and the flagship 150bhp 2.5-litre V6 diesel.
Summer 2002 saw the addition of the luxury W8 eight cylinder variants at one end of the Passat scale and the fitment of a 16-valve cylinder head to the 2.0-litre model, raising power from 115 to 130bhp. The 130bhp PD diesel model was also made available with a 4MOTION all-wheel drive transmission. Prices were cut amongst the top range models in early 2003 and the lower end models got a significant equipment boost as well as a little more chrome detailing.
What You Get
The Passat is a very tidily styled car. You only need to see how Ford's 2001 Mondeo apes its styling to realise the regard in which the design is held. Externally, all V-engined Passats are differentiated from lesser models by their red-tinted tail lights, special alloy wheels, fully body-coloured bumpers and side bump strips. Inside, there are standard sports seats upholstered in Alcantara (a kind of hard-wearing suede) and leather. The dashboard and doors are (depending on interior colour) trimmed in either wood or aluminium. Electronic 'Climatronic' air conditioning is standard, along with all the other features you'd expect to find for this kind of money.
Whichever Passat you choose, it can be ordered either as a saloon or in handsome estate guise. The estate is a pretty significant part of the line-up: it did, after all, account for over 80% of all sales in the previous-shape range. This isn't the largest estate car in its class but load-carrying capacity - some 56.5 cubic feet in total - should be sufficient for most. Volkswagen point out that the latest Passat Estate is 77mm longer, 25mm wider and 50mm taller than the previous shape model.
The Estate model's bodyshell, like that of the four-door, is fully galvanised, creating rust resistance good enough to earn the car an 11-year anti-perforation guarantee. Shades of Audi here of course, Volkswagen's group brand stablemate. Nor do you have to look very far for other family likenesses. The Passat shares the same basic platform as the Audi A4 and virtually all its engines are identical. Other common features include the front suspension and the four-wheel drive system used on the V6 flagship versions.
The differences, however, are also significant. Buy a Passat and you'll enjoy more interior space and much more equipment included as standard. Even the entry-level S-specification model comes with electronic climate control, an electric sunroof, anti-lock brakes, an engine immobiliser and twin front airbags (side airbags are optional). You can also expect front and rear head restraints, front electric windows, front and rear seatbelt pre-tensioners, an adjustable steering wheel and central locking.
Apart from S, there are three other mainstream trim levels; SE, SEL and Sport, all of which now feature alloy wheels and CD players as standard. The SE grade also includes velour upholstery, a trip computer, an electric glass sunroof, remote central locking allied to an alarm with interior protection and rear electric windows. The bargain priced SEL may be only available in four colours, but with 15-inch alloy wheels and sports suspension it represents great value. As you might expect, Sport trim includes sports seats and suspension settings, alloy wheels and `more youthful` trim that includes aluminium on the dash. Volkswagen have managed to make small incremental changes to the Passat whilst keeping faith with the overall look and feel of the car launched in 1997. This ensures that residual values of early cars are not wiped out. With a design as fresh looking as the Passat, that's fortunately not too hard a job.
What to Look For
The Passat is one of the most reliable cars available. Its image never attracted the sort of go-faster merchants who were attracted to junior model BMWs and, to a lesser extent, Audis. If you are going to buy a high-mileage car, try to avoid anything with an engine less powerful than the 1.8T unit, as it will have been worked quite hard. Aside from this, check that the power steering pump is working fine and air conditioning units are fully gas charged. New cam belts are due every 60,000 miles so check to see if this has been carried out. Otherwise insist on a service history and rest easy.
(approx based on a 1998 1.8S Saloon) Volkswagen parts used to have a reputation for costliness, but by and large that's now unfounded. A clutch assembly retails at around £170, front brake pads are £75 a pair whilst rears are £40 a set. A new alternator is a fairly reasonable £280, and a new headlamp is a middling £190. A new exhaust system including the front and down pipe is £1100. We did say 'by and large'.
On the Road
Though the Passat has always made a refined and capable motorway mauler, enthusiastic drivers have never held it in particularly high regard. Other models in the class such as the Peugeot 406, Ford Mondeo, Nissan Primera and, latterly, the Vauxhall Vectra have all supplied a more entertaining experience behind the wheel. Nevertheless, if you rarely feel the need to saw at the wheel like a touring car driver, the Passat is just about as good as it gets. The 1.6 and normally aspirated 1.8-litre engines are probably best avoided, being none too impressive in the way that they haul the Volkswagen's not inconsequential bulk up the Queen's highway. The larger-engined cars, especially the V6 (both petrol and diesel) are mightily impressive. Drive one and you won't want to settle for the acres of cheap elephant-skin effect grey plastic that confront you in mainstream rivals. Everything just seems to drip with quality and there's a fair turn of speed as well. The pricey 150bhp V6 TDI is probably the pick of the range, generating tarmac-rippling torque and an effortlessly gutsy level of performance.
Mature without being fusty, elegant without being ostentatious and well-equipped without being gimmicky, the Passat is a class act. Stretch to one of the more powerful engines if possible and you'll have a spacious, well-engineered car that should last for years. The Passat is quietly the best car in Volkswagen's range and looks like a sound used buy when compared with the Audi A4 or more proletarian rivals such as the Ford Mondeo. It's definitely one of the top ten used buys around at the moment.
Volkswagen Passat (1997 - 2000) review by ANDY ENRIGHT