Model Rewind: The Passat in North America, Part 2

Welcome to the second half of our two-part series on the history of the Passat in North America. In the previous article, we covered the B1 Dasher through to the B4 Passat. The car never took off, sales-wise, but things were about to change for Volkswagen’s sedan.

B5/5.5: 1997 – 2005 Passat

While the B3/B4 models were more successful than the two generations before them, the fifth-generation Passat caused buyers to sit up and take notice. To start, there was an entirely new and completely refreshing styling direction. The Passat was the first model to feature Volkswagen’s new Bauhaus-inspired designs. The look is clean, smooth, and uncluttered. The public loved the new look.

And it wasn’t just a handsome design, the B5 Passat rode on an entirely new platform shared with the Audi A4. This meant the larger sedan returned once again to longitudinally mounted engines, just like the first two gen models. A 4-door sedan and wagon were offered. Early Passats had an all-new engine in the form of a 150 HP 1.8-liter turbocharged motor. And GLX models came with the 190 HP 2.8-liter V6. Both engines were shared with the A4. A 1.9-liter TDI engine was added later. The new Tiptronic automatic transmission allowed drivers to toggle through gears using the shift handle, and manual transmissions were available with all engines. Passat wagons could be had with 4-Motion all-wheel-drive (once again from Audi).

Inside, new Passats had upscale “soft-touch” plastics, upscale cloth and leather seats, switches that “snicked” with precision, and dashboards featuring blue and red lighting (I’ll never know why they ditched this design element – so cool). And not only did the cars look and feel upscale, but they also drove very very well. The base engine made good power and the V6 was even better. The multi-link front suspension made the car especially fun to drive.

This new Passat was a certifiable hit. The highest sales year for the B4 model was 1996 with 19,850 sold. The 1998 model sold close to double that: 39,272 cars. Two years later the sale would more than double again: 84,521. Sales topped out at 96,142 B5 Passats sold in 2002.

Halfway through 2001, the Passat received a substantial update making the B5.5. The car had updated interiors, chrome bits sprinkled inside and out, and front and rear fascias were completely restyled. The entire front clip was widened to make space for a bonkers of a motor: the W8.

The outrageously complex (and outrageously expensive) engine arrived in 2003 and had 8 cylinders arranged in a “W” layout. The Passat W8 4Motion was available in sedan and wagon form, with an automatic transmission in the first year, and a 6-speed manual in the second. All W8s had all-wheel-drive standard, special wheels, quad-exhaust tips, bi-xenon headlights, and upgraded interior trim. They also had huge price tags: $38,700. Using an online converter, that equates to $51,000 in 2018 dollars.

I test drove a used W8 6-speed in late 2005. It was a phenomenal car in an intriguing color called Samoa Red (brown with red metallic flakes) and it was originally titled near Volkswagen’s Detroit headquarters; could it have been an executive’s former ride? I often wonder what happened to that car. I also wonder how much a clutch replacement would cost; it required the engine to be dropped out of the car. Oof.

Model highlights: 4-motion wagons, especially in 1.8T trim. If you’re able to turn your wrench, the W8s can be magical, especially with the manual transmission and when the mufflers are removed. I’ve heard stories of these cars being rather reliable, but that could be internet rumors.

B6: 2006 – 2012 Passat

When it came time to refresh the hit model, Volkswagen took the B6 Passat in a new direction again. The new model severed ties with its Audi cousin and returned to a Volkswagen shared platform: the PQ46 shared with the Golf and Jetta. And once again, the engine direction flipped to a transverse layout. The 2006 Passat was wider and longer than the B5.5, and the rear seat legroom grew. It was again available in a sedan and wagon. Buyers could choose from Volkswagen’s all-new 2.0T FSI engine, or the updated VR6. 4Motion all-wheel-drive was available on V6 sedans and wagons.

Despite its popularity, Volkswagen abandoned the Bauhaus styling for the B6 and moved to designs that looked a bit like the cars coming from Japan. The most noticeable flourish was the chrome “shield” grille. It was intended to impart visions of strength, but more than one reviewer saw it as a copy of the ones found on Audis.

The B6 inherited a number of upscale features that trickled down from the Phaeton über-sedan. It had an early version of key-less ignition: you inserted the entire key fob into the dash, then pressed it to start the car. There was an umbrella pocket in the driver’s door. It even had a simplified version of the Phaeton’s draft-free HVAC. The car had upscale leather, real aluminum trim, and plenty of updated (read: more durable) soft-touch plastics.

But the swoopier new Passat didn’t woo buyers as its older brother did. The 2006 model had the highest sales: 54,208. Another new direction was needed.

Model highlights: VR6 models were entry-level luxury cars, especially with 4Motion.

B7: 2011 – 2019 Passat

The ups of the B5/5.5 and the downs of the B6 must have caused Volkswagen product planners to take a long hard look in the mirror. How could they go from nearly 100,000 models moved in 2002 to only 12,497 eight years later? What were other manufacturers offering that they weren’t? It was rather simple: price and size.

To combat price, Volkswagen moved production as close to their buyers as possible reducing costly shipping and tapping into lower-cost labor. the Chattanooga, Tennessee plant opened in 2011. And to offer a competitive model, a new platform was needed (reducing the amount of upscale interior materials also helped). The NMS, or North American Sedan platform was considerably wider and longer than the B6 model.

The first models came with one of three engines: the 2.5-liter 5-cylinder, the 3.6-liter V6, and the 1.9-liter TDI. During its life cycle, it would also receive the 1.8T motor and the 2.0 TDI. Both automatic and manual transmissions were available. But one thing was dropped from the Passat lineup: a station wagon.

The updates to the car and the lower price were a huge hit. The large Passat was no longer a quirky German car; it was a serious family car. The Passat beat out formidable competitors like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry in many auto magazine comparison tests. In 2012, Volkswagen sold 117,023 Passats. The positive reviews helped sales, but so did the inventive and original commercials. To ensure the success of their newest model, they created a commercial that Time Magazine said was “the ad that changed Super Bowl commercials forever.Vader Kid was released online and it went viral immediately.

In 2016 the B7 Passat was refreshed with all new front and rear fascias, new dash and door trim, and new wheel designs. For the first time in its history, an R-Line appearance package was offered. It had a more aggressive body kit and larger wheels. Sales didn’t really improve with the update but remained rather steady. Sales tapered off quite a bit in 2018, but all sedan sales took a nosedive as SUVs and crossovers continued to gain popularity.

Model highlights: Some people swear by the TDI sedans, especially for road trips. There was a “Sport” model offered with large wheels, a black roof, and a small spoiler. The model to have though is the 2018 Passat GT. It had a version of the R-line body kit, 19″ Tornado wheels, a black roof, and, best of all, the 280 HP 3.6-liter V6.

B8: 2020 Passat

So where does Volkswagen take the next Passat? Well, some would suggest moving to an all-new platform. Some might say that aggressively styled sedans are where the money is (the Camry XSE is very sporty looking and selling well). And others might say to pack it full of the latest tech. We don’t know much about the 2020 Passat, but we do know that VW is charting a safe path with the new one. Curiously, in the era of “MQB ALL THE THINGS” they’ve chosen to keep the Passat on the NMS platform. Of course, there will be updates, but the news really caught a lot of people by surprise. The B8 will have entirely new styling inside and out; only the roof panel is unchanged from the B7.

We can’t blame VW for being cautious with the Passat: sales for sedans are sliding downhill fast as consumers move to SUVs. There’s still a market for sedans, but why invest precious capital into a model type whose sales may never return to the level of 2012? Or even the level of 2006? Volkswagen closed out 2018 having sold 41,401 Passats. By comparison, they moved 59,677 Atlases. All signs point to more decline in sedan sales in 2019, so if you’ve got money to spend, put it where the buyers are going. Like in a 5-seat Atlas Cross Sport.

We’d say the Passat’s days aren’t numbered, but there’s plenty of opportunities for it to continue on as a solid seller in the market, especially as there are fewer and fewer competitors.