- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

It’s the two.

The all-new Passat from Volkswagen is the second haymaker of a one-two punch that the German automaker has summoned to rescue its eroding fortunes in the United States.

The first jab came with the all-new 2006 Jetta, which occupies a niche somewhere between economy compacts and midsize family sedans. It is now joined by the 2006 Passat, which goes hub-to-hub against the likes of the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima, and even against entry-level performance/luxury cars such as the Audi A4, Cadillac CTS, BMW 3-Series and the new Lincoln Zephyr.

The one-two punch is extremely important to sales-starved Volkswagen because the Passat and Jetta account for three out of every four Volkswagens sold in the United States.

VW’s midsize sedan has gone through different identities since it was introduced in the 1970s as the Dasher. It became the Quantum in the 1980s, after which the Passat name took over in 1990. But sales were modest.

In 1998, the newly designed Passat took off with a combination of Germanic performance, handling and styling that attracted a broader range of buyers. Among other things, it got the attention of Honda, which tried to plug some of the Passat personality into the Accord, its perennial hot seller.

Passat sales moved to 96,142 in 2002, then started to decline, finishing 2004 with 67,640. The downward trend continued in 2005. Clearly, something needed to be done, and the 2006 Passat is the result. It is longer, wider, roomier and stiffer than its predecessor, with a new transverse layout for two new engines: a 200-horsepower four-cylinder and a reworked narrow-angle VR6 with 280 horsepower.

As before, the Passat is more expensive than the leaders in the midsize family-car class. Its entry-level version, called the Value Edition, starts at $23,565, compared with the Toyota Camry’s $18,595 and the Honda Accord’s $18,775. A loaded VR6 with such amenities as a navigation system and satellite radio bumps up near $38,000, which is thousands of dollars more than the top-of-the line Camry and Accord, and even intrudes into Audi A4 and BMW 3-Series territory.

The tested Passat 2.0T, with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, started at $24,515. But that included a sturdy list of standard equipment: stability control, antilock brakes, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, heated and motorized outside mirrors, air conditioning (including an air-conditioned glove compartment), central remote locking and alloy wheels.

With option packages that included a six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic manual shifting, a navigation system, satellite radio, power sunroof, in-dash six-disc CD changer, leather upholstery and heated front seats, the test car had a bottom-line sticker price of $31,565. But it did not have the thermostatically controlled dual-zone climate-control system.

Though that comes off as fairly pricey for a four-cylinder sedan, this one is no slouch. The turbocharged four is so refined that the dreaded turbo lag — that hesitation when you push the gas pedal — has been eliminated. What you get is a surge of power and smooth shifts from the six-speed automatic that gets the Passat up to 60 mph in a shade more than seven seconds.

With responsive electromechanical power steering — there are no hydraulics in the system — the Passat has good road feel and straight-line tracking along with flat cornering on curving roads. It has that subtle, tactile feel that the cognoscenti describe as German character. But with its bias toward precise handling, the Passat gives up a soft ride. The ride is stiff — even more so if you order the sport-tuned suspension system — and can even be jarring on roads with big pockmarks. Smaller bumps are absorbed without much fuss.

Inside, the surroundings are classy and comfortable. There’s tasteful wood-grain trim and even an air diffuser on the top of the dash that circulates cool or warm air without blasts from the vents, although the vents are available as well if you want a shot of cold air in the face. The air diffuser system is similar to that on the Volkswagen Phaeton, which sells for between $68,000 and $100,000.

Another interesting wrinkle that so far has appeared only on expensive luxury cars is an electric parking brake. Instead of pulling up on a handle or stepping on a pedal, a touch of a button on the dash sets the parking brake.

The system also can be set to hold the car in place at a stop sign. Simply step briefly on the brake pedal, then release, and the Passat sits tight. Step on the gas and the brake automatically releases.

It’s of dubious benefit on an automatic transmission car, which can be held in place by slight pressure on the accelerator, but a comfort for keeping a stick-shift car from rolling backwards on a hill.

The front seats are comfortable and supportive, with a myriad of both manual and power adjustments. Out back, the outboard passengers have more than enough knee and head room, and even the center-rear passenger has an acceptable seat except for having to straddle the driveline hump.

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