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AMR Preview: 2006 VW Passat

The Background
Oh to be a car. Every couple of years, you get some sort of plastic surgery, and get completely reborn every 4-6 years. That is, unless you're a Passat. When the current Passat bowed in 1997.5 (for the US), it was far and away the class leader. The only mid-size family car to provide a luxurious interior, refined handling, gorgeous styling and a bit of panache for as little as $21k. Add in all the options and 4Motion, and you were still looking at a hair under $30k. Well, times change, and so did the Passat. With its platform-mate, the Audi A4, it received a freshening in mid-2001 that brought a new front and rear end treatment, some added chrome flair, interior upgrades, and, most importantly, more power. The price rose slightly, but so did the standard equipment level, so one could call it a wash. I loved the car so much, I picked one up in June of 2002, and the rest is history.

So, why did I say, "Unless you're a VW Passat," you ask? Its competitors have all been reborn (Camry, Accord, Mazda 626 becoming the 6, Dodge Intrepid, Ford Taurus becoming the Five Hundred, Legacy/Outback, etc), yet the Passat stayed the course for what will be 8.5 years by the time it is replaced. That is a very long time in car years. However, unlike the Ford Taurus, which had a similar life-span and similar refreshenings, the Passat has seemed to be competitive the entire time. Still gorgeous, still a great value, still a great handler, and still a practical family sedan.

VW Passat InteriorNonetheless, the time has come, and a refreshening is not what the Passat has received. Feast your eyes on the new BMW Passat. I'm sorry, I mean VW Passat. Yes, that slip up was intentional, and yes, it does foretell much of how this preview will progress.

"Nice BMW"
A member of my Passat car club was once told, "Nice BMW," by someone gazing upon his highly customized (and impressive) 2002 Passat 4Motion V6 (with a supercharger, no less!). Well, people who buy the 2006 Passat should prepare themselves to hear that even without modifying their car. I have to say, my first thought was not positive, but the more I see of the car, the more I like it. Given the class the Ford Five Hundred is bringing to the family sedan arena, I think this car is appropriately positioned, and very handsome. What I don't think, however, is that it looks like a VW.

The Hoffmeister kink and the kidney grille are the signature design elements of BMW. The grille was safe from VW, but look at that rear door. If that doesn't look just a bit Hoffmeister-esq to you, you're looking at the front door. Now do you see what I'm saying? It's not that this is a bad design element, but it is a signature of a competitor, and not one you should copy. I blasted Ford for aping the Audi A6's greenhouse on the Five Hundred, and I will blast the victim of that design-robbing, VWAG, for this. VW had a great and unique look in the current Passat. There was no reason to take a key element of one of your competitors.

So, enough about that as there's plenty more from the BMW design house floating about here. I will say that the front end is pure VW. If you've seen any VW concept cars (or the new Golf and Jetta) lately, you'd instantly recognize the grille and lights. The rear end is also very VW, at least in the light placement, shape and pattern. Sure, the VW badge is also quite VW. Unfortunately, the body is a bit BMW, and this isn't a good thing. It's not even 'not a good thing' because its copy-catting. It's a non-good thing because, well, it doesn't look good. BMW has been getting criticized for their flame-inspired Chris Bangle styling. The creasing, scalloping and odd angling of the sheet metal is bold and different, but that doesn't make it attractive. If VW calmed down just a hair, I think they would have hit the mark. They did tone it down from what BMW did to the poor little 1-Series, but, again, this is a VW, not a BMW. There's more than just 3 letters different between the companies, and the cars should reflect that. If I wanted a BMW, I'd buy a BMW.

It's What's Inside That Counts
Ah, the interior. Another area that BMW killed their cars with iDrive and the blasé 5-Series interior. Thankfully, VW stayed mostly clear of BMW here. There's an odd overlap/outcropping from the upper-dash material here, but it actually looks good in some pictures, so I won't criticize. There are also some very modern angles, especially in the doors, but they don't look so bad here. Also, this is a very spacious car, and extra room seems to be given to the rear passengers. This is an area of weakness for the current Passat, especially with tall people in the front (like me). The gauges are, as usual, gorgeous. VW makes a nice cluster. The steering wheel is understated, clean, and has plenty of redundant functions on it that are laid out neatly and in a way that seems intuitive. Looking down a bit is where the luxury really comes in, especially when wood is at play.

The interior of the new Passat is gorgeous. I really mean it. The shapes, lines and materials all look wonderful. Clean, elegant and rich are the first three words I thought of when I saw the picture of the interior that I'm including here with the close up of the wood. My sister has a Passat wagon (Variant is the technical name for it, according to VW) with wood, and I just don't like it. It is more of an afterthought than something they tried to integrate into the vehicle. Here, we see a wonderfully integrated set of wood trim parts that are clearly high quality, and well-matched (in terms of the grain). Aluminum is an alternative trim, and also looks nice, but gives a modern feel versus the warm luxury of the wood. Overall, the interior is great. I was a bit worried after seeing the new Golf's interior, and the interior on the new A6 (which is rich, but seems to be made up of shapes that are just not luxurious at all). Here, I would put the Passat very close to the level of the Acura TL (when the Passat is dressed in wood), which I think has one of the best interiors for under $60k.

What isn't clear is if we will get the navigation system here. The current Passat has one in other markets (and it has HIDs, like the one pictured here), but we do not get this option. I do hope VW sends all of these options our way as the competition offers them, and the parts are already developed, so it's merely an issue of sourcing the map data, which is definitely available (Audi offers navs in some models, as do the Phaeton and Toureg, so VW clearly knows how and where to get maps for the US).

Lastly, a touch of non-BMW copying in the triangular, high-mounted hazard button. Recongnize it? No? Go drive a Mercedes, and then look again. The layout is very new-Mercedes looking. Nice, but, again, not original. In fact, the Mercedes inspiration extends to other parts of the interior. On the whole, looking at the center stack reminds me of a mix of a few Mercedes. That's not a bad thing, again, but it isn't good to copy such close competitors. Especially when VW has proven itself quite capable of designing capable, functional and beautiful interiors.

The Power Couple
The motivation for the new Passat comes from two engine choices, at least initially for us. Gone is the venerable 1.8T that VW has used in pretty much everything they've sold here since its early days as a 16v engine, through its current incarnation as a 20v 170-180hp, highly tunable beast (I have one that is running 206hp and 238 lb-ft of torque in my Passat). It is replaced by a 2.0T that employs FSI, which is a gasoline direct injection technology. It returns to its 16 valve roots (4 valves per cylinder), yet FSI more than makes up for this as it increases both power and efficiency. The new Passat runs with 197 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque in the base version (up from 170 hp and 168 lb-ft in the previous Passat). The optional engine is a new 3.2 liter, narrow-angle V6. The Passat is now once again riding on the same MK platform as the Jetta and Golf (though stretched) which is now in its fifth generation, which means it is again using a transversely-mounted engine, and can use the "VR6" narrow-angle engine those cars make use of. This is the same engine (at least at its heart) that is used in a few other MK cars like the Audi TT 3.2 and VW Golf R32. Having previously ridden on VWAG's B platform, the B5 Passat ran the same engines as the A4 and A6, which also shared its platform. None of them could fit a narrow angle V6 as they couldn't take a transversely-mounted engine. The result was that a Jetta could be had with more power than a Passat since the 2.8 VR6 was more gutsy than the 2.8 V6 that VW put in the Passat (by about 10 hp and a bit more torque). The Audi folks were able to get a little more displacement out of the 2.8, but VWAG chose not to share that with VW to help protect Audi a bit. Not a bad thing considering the VW brand's other major move was directly in competition with Audi (Phaeton).

Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes, the 3.2 liter V6. It does not employ FSI, like the 3.2 unit in the new A6 (which is really a 3.1L engine that is marketed as 3.2 a la Ford Mustang 5.0 packing a 4.9 V8). It should produce somewhere around 240 hp, though I can't quite pin down the numbers as of yet. For most people, this will be a great choice, while the 2.0T is clearly going to be sufficient. The 2.0 will basically produce the same power as the current car's 2.8 liter V6, though, of course, it will have a different torque curve, and will also have some turbo lag. The question for non-normal people like myself is, what will the tuner community be able to do with this engine? For me, a 2.0T would be a better choice because I know I could spend $400 on a chip for it and be able to outgun any 3.2 Passat out there...or at least most likely. I'll need to put in a call to my good friends at Wetterauer to see if they have anything in the works. This is as compared with a $1,000-$2,000 price difference between a 4 and 6 cylinder Passat.

The Final Review
So, if I'm talking about checking in with the makers of the famous Wett Chip, you might think that I am planning on getting another Passat. I have to say, until I saw more pictures, the answer was a resounding no. I love my car, but hate it at the same time. Those who know me know that I have had lots of little annoyances with my Passat, and it's had me longing for an Acura TL (which is an EXCELLENT car). Early pictures of the 2006 Passat (none of which is what it ended up looking like, though the grille was accurate) didn't get my soul enticed enough to overlook the hassles. That said, neither did the first pics of the actual car. The more I look at them, the more I like it (especially that close up of the wood interior). For me, I can't say if I'd buy it. I would definitely consider it, but there are a few things I'd think about. First, there's no way I'd buy it when it first comes out. VW has enough trouble getting problems worked out after 5 years of making a car, let alone in the initial batch. Second, I have lost so much resale value because of recalls that I would need to seriously consider what I plan on doing with this car. For me, I have a bad hip that's aggravated by my Passat's seat, and I also moved to New Hampshire, so I wanted AWD. I thought about getting rid of my Passat this past summer, but found that I was about 15-20 percentage points worse off on resale value than I had expected to be at this point. The reason: when I bought my car, things were good, and then the recalls started. Recalls are not good for resale value, especially when a company does nothing for so long, and gets a lot of negative press. The coil pack recall affected me, stranding me two times, with VW willing to do nothing about it...not even apologize. Add to that a wheel-well liner recall (possible threat to the gas tank filler line), and then add in all of the little things that went wrong that never should have. On top of that, next to nothing has been fixed on the first try, and several new things are broken during any repair. On top of that, VWs have expensive maintenance costs (both labor and parts), and the dealerships aren't known as the friendliest. That's not to say there aren't good ones, but there does seem to be more negative sentiment about VW dealers than most other dealers. None of this bodes well for my intent to repurchase.

So, in the end, I like this car a lot more than I thought I would. Had I not already owned a Passat, I think this car would be much more appealing to me. But, the fact remains, I do own one, and have not had the best owner experience with it, and that is tainting my decision process. For me, I think I'll stick with my plan for a TL. You get the Passat, and let me know how it is. And, um, could I borrow it from time to time?


Finally, All New

Managing Editor

This new Passat has big shoes to fill. For sure, recreating a class-leader is never an easy thing to do. The 1997.5-2005 Passat represented the luxurious choice in the mid-size segment. It gave the consumer exceptional build quality, luxurious materials, an exquisite interior and classic, unique styling. Any worthy replacement should at least contain these qualities, if not more. The 2006 Passat looks to embody most of them, except, in my opinion classic styling. The current Passat is the very definition of understated elegance, excellent lines but not overdone in any way, shape or form. It seems like this new Passat's theme song should be "Turning Japanese" from that 1980's one-hit wonder, the Vapors. Okay, well, it's not that bad, but to me the front headlights scream 2005 Subaru Legacy while the rear has hints from the Toyota Corolla. Okay, okay, so you could also say that the rear end is similar to the Phaeton or 2005 Jetta, but it's still more, how shall we say, "complex" than the current design. I'm just not sure if I like the exterior design yet, but only time will tell. The interior lives up to VWAG's claim to fame, in terms of fit and finish and execution. I concur with Bryan on the Mercedes cues, though, they were fairly obvious to me and, I'm willing to bet many other enthusiasts out there. Regardless, it looks like a nice place to spend time and attention to detail can almost be assumed. I am personally excited about the new powertrains, especially the prospect of the 280hp 3.6L VR6 that is being rumored (probably reserved for a future "R" version of the Passat). It's worth noting that the base 2.0L FSI Turbo engine in the 2006 Passat is actually more powerful than the top of the line 2005 Passat (190hp 2.8L V6), so you really can't go wrong with any of the 2006 Passat's engines. For sure, this new Passat has been highly anticipated and will be scrutinized by many a competitor and consumer alike. We'll just have to see if this car stands the test of time as well as its predecessor.