- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

Once upon a time, no one, but no one, expected a station wagon to be fun to drive. Uttering the term “sport wagon” would have drawn catcalls from anyone within hearing. Pre-1990, a station wagon was, for the most part, just a family sedan with reconfigured cargo space.

Engineered for utility, it was a straight-line, point-A-to-point-B vehicle. Not so anymore. A gaggle of sporty, fun-to-drive wagons now populate new-car showrooms, coming in a variety of sizes, classes and prices. With the redesign of the Passat Wagon, Volkswagen has tossed its hat squarely into the sport-wagon ring.

It has always been as much about handling as forward thrust, and this wagon provides a hearty dose of both. It’s an engaging driver that hasn’t lost sight of its utilitarian mandate.

Both available engines pack a wallop. The 2.0-liter turbocharged four powers the $25,855 entry-level Value Edition, as well as the $26,805 2.0T version. Delivering 200 horsepower, it is bolted to a six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic driver-shift mode that hustles output to the front wheels.

The $31,780 Passat Wagon 3.6 and the $33,730 3.6 4Motion use a 280-horsepower 3.6-liter V-6. The same transmission delivers power to the front wheels in the 3.6 and to all four wheels in the 3.6 4Motion. Volkswagen provided a 2.0T for this evaluation and even the less-aggressive powerplant supplies enough thrust to hold driver interest. Switching to the tranny’s manual mode can maximize the turbo’s production, further boosting the fun quotient.

No one will confuse the driving experience with that of the hot-shoe GTI; but without glancing back at the open cargo area, it’s easy to forget that what’s going on from the front seat forward is actually connected to a station wagon.

Still posting decent gas mileage, the turbo’s performance does not come at the expense of fuel economy. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the 2.0T at 22 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.

The four-wheel independent suspension also makes a contribution to the sporty feel. While Volkswagen didn’t forget that this is a station wagon after all, it tuned the suspension to minimize body roll without sacrificing ride quality.

The result is a nicely balanced, well-behaved wagon that can make a good time of hauling the kids to school or trekking cross-country.

Granny will still be quite comfortable in the back seat, while the driver has a little fun tossing the Passat around the twisties. The steering is responsive, with just the right touch.

A good deal of thought and care went into the five-passenger cabin. Workmanship and materials are top-shelf. A few familiar VW-styling cues are here, such as the four-spoke steering wheel and the T-shaped shifter.

The lines are clean and operating the wagon’s primary systems is achieved with a minimum of knobs and switches. Firm, supportive seats enhance the sport-car feel. There are plenty of storage areas and cup holders, too.

Not a bad thing, but quirky nonetheless is the press-start ignition.

A cross between traditional ignitions and the new wave of keyless push-button systems, the wafer-shaped key is inserted into its slot and then pushed like a button to engage the ignition.

Passengers are treated to generous leg, head and shoulder space. With 41.4 inches of front leg room and 37.7-inches of rear leg room, no one should feel cramped.

With the fold-flat second seat in place, the Passat still supplies 35.8 cubic feet of cargo space with a low lift-over.

While it doesn’t offer the high-seating position of an SUV, the Passat still affords a nearly unobstructed view of the road and surrounding traffic. Safety features are an essential ingredient. Even the Value Edition comes standard with all-wheel antilock disc brakes, traction control, electronic stability control, tire pressure monitor, front side-impact air bags and side curtain air bags.

Volkswagen didn’t skimp on standard convenience features. Entry-level doesn’t mean stripped down.

Every Passat Wagon boasts an eight-speaker audio system with MP3 capability and CD player, cruise control, power windows and door locks with keyless remote, air conditioning, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, heated power outboard mirrors, and trip computer.

The 2.0T adds a power driver’s seat and 16-inch alloy wheels.

A power sunroof, leather seating, in-dash CD changer and 17-inch alloy wheels are added to the 3.6. All-wheel drive rounds out the 3.6 4Motion edition.

When the goal is to increase the cargo-hauling capacity of a sedan without the extra bulk of an SUV or minivan, a station wagon is the logical choice.

If that wagon also provides loads of driving fun; all the better.

The Passat Wagon lives up to that expectation. Its spirited acceleration, predictable handling and inviting accommodations compliment its versatile cargo-hauling capability.

It may not turn the heads of the street-corner gapers, but its timeless exterior styling, edgy performance and upscale interior won’t leave you wondering if you made the right choice.

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