2006 Volkswagen Passat

Value judgment

75,000 a year-that's a lot of Passats. And that's how many Volkswagen has been selling on average annually since the last generation cars made their debut seven years ago. But, seven years is a long time between new models. Passat and Jetta, which combine for 75 percent of all VW sales in North America, both reached the end of their product cycles at roughly the same time. Sales slide when models age and attention wanders to what's new in the segment. That's one big reason why the company has keenly anticipated the rollouts of the new Passat and recently launched Jetta. With the Wolfsburg product pipeline now flowing freely, Passat joins Jetta as both cars elbow their way into the marketplace.

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Between the last generation and this one, Passat picked up some distinctive styling. Most notable up front is an Audi-like, wedge-shaped grille. The new Passat has a high-waisted look, capped by a rounded, coupe-like greenhouse. The sloping nose is balanced by a tall tail; distinctive head and taillights add interest at both ends.

The cabin is handsome, with impressive fit and finish. The dashboard has a heavy, horizontal theme: it's a layered look, with a "floating" top section and contrasting colored lower panel, both sandwiching a beltline wedge of wood, brushed aluminum or composite trim (depending on model chosen). Four gauges peer out from beneath the heavy dash top brow. The double-large/double-small instrument display is ringed in brightwork and lit in blue and red. The switchgear is admirably straightforward: rheostats for lights and HVAC, stalks for wipers and cruise control. And even if you spring the heavy green for the DVD Satellite Navigation system ($1,800), tunes or trip information are not hard to access.

Nav systems, like people, vary widely in their ability to recall names. Some people can breeze through a room, greeting everyone they see by first name. Others must keep a steady stream of all-purpose salutations at the ready ("Hey bud!") for those times when a face appears in your face before a name arrives from your brain. Count VW's system closer to the latter. All streets are shown, but don't bet on seeing the corresponding names for that side street you're hunting for.

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Four models are (or will be) available. A Value Edition leads the lineup ($23,565 manual/$24,640 automatic), followed by the 2.0T ($24,515 man/$25,590 auto). This winter, a 3.6 model joins the ranks ($30,565 auto). Waiting in the wings, the 3.6 4Motion ($32,515 auto) near term, and a wagon model further out in 2006. All models are well equipped; among the notable options are the aforementioned navigation system with 6-CD/glovebox changer ($1,800), rear side airbags ($350), Bi-Xenon, adaptive front lighting ($950) and a 10-speaker, 10-channel, 600-watt Dynaudio sound system ($1,000). Sirius or XM satellite radio systems are available, as well as luxury and sport packages.

Passat the latter is larger than Passat the former. The sixth generation cars are 3.3 inches longer and 3 inches wider than before. The slight stretch pays dividends inside, especially in back, where passengers pick up an extra 2.4 inches of legroom. In practical terms, that means that Passat comfortably seats six-footers, fore and aft. Inside storage spots are plentiful and include a few new niceties like a door pocket sized to take your umbrella (with drains, for when it's a wet umbrella), and adjustable cooling in the center console and glove box (perfect for that late-night sushi run). Though it shrank slightly, the trunk is still good-sized at 14.2 cubic feet, with a center pass-through and 60/40 folding, split rear seats, to boost your cargo carrying options.

Peel away the new skin on the Passat and you find an equally new chassis; some 57 percent stiffer torsionally than previously. The suspension has been redesigned (MacPherson strut front, independent, four-link rear), and joins with an also new, electromechanical, power rack-and-pinion steering system. Taken together, the package produces a car with fine road feel, and handling that is assured and sporty. The available Sport Package lowers the car 15mm and stiffens springs and damper rates. However, for our money, we'd pass on that package and spend our dollars on other options. The standard suspension Passat has a sporty feel that one would expect of a German road car; composed while cornering and without a hint of harshness. Driving enjoyment is aided in large part by a choice of two fine engines.

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Topping the charts will be a new, 3.6-liter, narrow angle V-6. The 3.6 makes 280 hp and 265 lb.-ft. of torque, (+90 and +58, respectively, compared to the former, 2.8 liter six). It promises to be fast and responsive (0-60 in 6.6 seconds, 6.2 with 4Motion, according to VW) and thoroughly appealing to enthusiasts when it arrives this winter. However, it's also about $6,000 more than the four-cylinder Passat. VW estimates that three quarters of Passat buyers will pick the 2.0T paired with the Tiptronic six-speed automatic, as did we for our test of the most popular Passat.

The 2.0T is the successor to the 1.8T, our favorite VW engine, due to its combination of long-legged performance and wallet-friendly gas mileage. The 2.0T is EPA rated at 22 mpg city/31 highway (automatic), and yet the 200-hp, 207 lb.-ft. of torque (+30 and 40, respectively, over the 1.8T) turbo four is capable of pulling the 3,300-lb. Passat down the road briskly. Six speed automatic models are said to get from 0-60 in 7.4 seconds, while six-speed stick versions are a half second faster. The turbo boost is virtually lag free and, with the powerband stretched over six gears, the Passat is unstressed at highway speeds.

Volkswagen has always been a value-oriented company and it's the base Passat models that make the most compelling case for themselves. The $6,000 kicker to step up to the V-6 puts Passat in the middle of a large pool of highly competitive models. However, at $24,000 give or take, Passat presents an interesting alternative to midsize mainstays like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. A contrast in styles is what makes a horse race, and Passat's German roots and driver-friendly attitude add a little spice to a class of vehicles that sometimes borders on the bland. (www.vw.com)

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