Passats Times Three

There’s no denying the Passat “B5.5” is getting a little long in the tooth. Introduced in 2001, the B5.5 was itself just a fairly mild freshening of the B5 version, which was introduced back in 1998. Clearly, VW needs a new Passat and help is finally within sight, as official word is that Volkswagen will introduce a new B6 version Passat to North America for the 2006 model year. However, when you’re a currently sales-struggling VWoA, 2006 can seem a rather long way away, and it doesn’t take a detective to understand why VW spent a little extra for the 2004 model year and added a couple treats to their Passat lineup.

A very tired cliché states you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, but in the Passat’s case, this is simply not true. For 2004, VW added a TDI option, as well the availability of 4MOTION all-wheel-drive with the base 1.8T engine. We recently spent 3 weeks driving both of these combinations and we can confidently declare that the 2004 Passat, though certainly a dated design, is still as relevant as ever.

We drove the Passat 2.0 GLS TDI in both sedan and wagon iterations. The sedan was fairly modestly equipped, with only Tiptronic, Cold Weather Package, and ESP listed as extra-cost options. MSRP for this vehicle, including destination charge, was $25,840.00. The wagon (which retails an additional $1,000 vs. the sedan) we were offered was a bit more lavishly outfitted with the Leather Package/Wood ($1,800 MSRP) being added to the same options present on the sedan, and bumped the sticker up to $28,315.00.

For all intents and purposes, the only item that qualifies as new for these two 2004 Passats is the all-new 2.0 Pump Duese 134-hp TDI engine. But trust us when we say that’s more than enough reason to suggest mid-size car buyers might want to give the potentially over-looked Passat, well… a look. The new TDI PD transforms the Passat into a vehicle in which one really can have his or her cake and eat it, too. Rated at 27 and 38 mpg for city and highway, respectively, this fairly large and very comfortable automobile offers fuel economy typically reserved for tiny econoboxes and quirky hybrid vehicles. And we actually found these EPA estimates to be a bit conservative – on one 250-mile trip, we averaged a very awe-inspiring 44 mpg with our test wagon. Now, lest one think that 134-hp is wholly inadequate in propelling a car of some 3,500lbs with any sense of urgency, please bear in mind that the new 2.0 PD TDI offers some 247 lb-ft of torque at a mere 1900rpm. Coupled with a very thoughtfully ratioed 5-speed Tiptronic transmission, this sizable amount of torque enables the TDI Passat to feel downright powerful under most normal driving scenarios. Passing on the highway is an effortless affair, and rather more satisfying than performing the same maneuver in a 1.8T equipped version. It’s been said that horsepower sells cars, but torque keeps people happy, and in the case of the Passat TDI, this saying certainly rings true.

The new TDI engine is not the quietest or smoothest of diesels, but the noises and vibrations it does make are far from objectionable. As a matter of fact, we found the muted growl from this power plant somewhat charming. There is some typical clatter upon start up, but that goes away fairly quickly, and it’s really only from the outside of the vehicle that most people would guess there’s a diesel engine under the Passat’s hood. Exhaust soot and smoke are non-existent to the naked eye, and only the faintest of diesel smell permeates the air when the car idles in a parked position.

Considering the current Passat’s geriatric status, it’s somewhat surprising to report that the car still feels very solid and contemporary when compared to some much newer cars in its class. It’s also a damn fine driving car with a standard suspension that manages to be both supple and Germanically firm at the same time, steering that is nicely weighted with above average feedback, and brakes that offer as much confidence as one is ever likely to require. The chrome bits and pieces that constituted a large portion of the B5.5 facelift still look very good today. VW may well have been ahead of their time with the chrome goodies, too, as we now see many manufacturers following suit.

It’s safe to say that we were rather impressed with the new Passat TDI, and in fact we really have only one major complaint – we very much wish VWoA had seen fit to offer 4MOTION with the TDI driveline. Such a combination might very well have made this car a world-beater and put it truly in a class of its own here in North America.

As we condemn VW for not offering us a TDI Passat with 4MOTION, in the name of fairness we should certainly also offer them praise for finally offering that very same AWD system with the 1.8T driveline. As mentioned above, in addition to the TDI versions of the 2004 Passat, we were also offered an extended visit with a 1.8T 4MOTION 5-speed manual wagon. With a sticker price of $28,785.00, the 1.8T 4MO wagon came within a few dollars of the similarly equipped TDI wagon, though we find it interesting that, unlike Audi, VW does not list 4MOTION (read quattro) as an extra-cost option – the 4MO Passat is a specific model for VW.

Adding 4MOTION to the base 1.8T driveline makes the Passat a more useful vehicle for many buyers who may have otherwise shied away from the V6 4MOTION’s higher price tag. But when driven back-to-back with the new TDI, the 1.8T actually comes up a bit short. While we don’t doubt the 1.8T possesses better acceleration to 60mph or through a timed quarter mile when compared to the TDI, real world driving finds the 1.8T feeling comparatively sluggish. Turbo lag is more pronounced, and downshifting is the order of the day when real progress is desired. And while the EPA says the 1.8T 4MOTION Passat is capable of 21mpg city and 30mpg highway, we consistently found city mileage solidly in the mid-teens, and highway numbers well below 30. Sure, we tended to drive the car with a very heavy right foot, but as we’ve explained, you pretty much have to if you want to keep up with traffic.

We have little doubt that there will be a good many buyers for Passats with the 1.8T 4MOTION combination. Afterall, it’s still a Passat, and that means it possesses the same great driving experience as described here previously, and adding AWD to the mix will certainly make the car more attractive to those of us who live in places where the weather can actually make AWD more than a mere luxury. And if one is truly concerned about the relative lack of acceleration with the 1.8T/4MO combo, well, they need only do what many Audi owners have been doing for years, and that’s seek the help of any of the many different chip tuners who offer help for this exact concern.

The B5 and B5.5 Passats have served VW well for the past 7 years. Well respected by consumer and enthusiast publications alike, the German mid-size sedan and wagon have offered buyers a legitimate European alternative to the ubiquitous Accords and Camrys leading the marketplace. The next Passat certainly has its work cut out for it if it wishes to build upon the solid foundation laid by the previous two generations. Offering a base motor with a substantial increase in power would be an excellent start. Adding a TDI version mated to 4MOTION wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.

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