Review: Volkswagen Passat (2001 – 2005)

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A better drive and better equipped than the previous Passat. Comfortable and has more status than, say, a Ford Mondeo.

A Ford Mondeo outdrives it in every respect and is cheaper to buy. Not immune from leaks and reliability problems.

Volkswagen Passat (2001 – 2005): At A Glance

Some refer to this 2001-2005 Passat as the Passat B5.5, still longitudinal front wheel drive.

There is no doubt that VW improved its 2001 model-year Passat over the Passat it replaced. The body structure is 10% stiffer. Equipment levels are higher. Prices are down 10-15%. But the question was how good could it be compared to the Mk III Ford Mondeo that shifted class goalposts into the next county.

Happily, for VW fans, it became a much better car than it was. On most versions much of the overlight deadness of the steering had been eliminated, the handling and roadholding was more secure, the fit and finish was of even better quality than before and the two new diesel engines knocked the old ones for six. VW believed they were the most thermally efficient car engines in the world, converting no less than 43% of the thermal energy in fuel into power. What had happened, though, was that VW's VAG parent put more distance between the 2001 Passat and the Audi A4 than between the previous versions. Whereas the new A4 was very classy, the new Passat was simply the new Passat, an improved version of the old Passat. Not the serious Mercedes Benz C Class rival the 2001 A4 was clearly intended to be.

VW Passat 2001 Road Test

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What does a Volkswagen Passat (2001 – 2005) cost?

List Price from £25,620
Buy new from £19,024
Contract hire from £211.01 per month

What's the Volkswagen Passat (2001 – 2005) like to drive?

I tried four versions of the new Passat, all saloons. The four-wheel-drive V6 4Motion doesn't get the same 225bhp 3.0 litre V6 engine as the new A4. Instead it has to make do with the same 193bhp 2.8 it had before. And this engine does need to stay on cam to give its best, which can mean a lot of gear changing with the none-too-precise lever. It handles a lot more capably than it did before though, feeling nothing like as remote. A fast driver can make very quick progress in this car. But why would he choose it over and above the TDI PD 130?

In terms of usable grunt this is actually a better car because the wallop is more available from lower revs. Its driving characteristics are actually very like those of the Audi A4 PDI 130, and the example I tried had a slightly better but still not completely foolproof gearchange. If Chrysler can come up with a snicky-precise cable-change gearshift for the PT Cruiser, why can't VAG for its A4 and Passat? But the spread of power is so great you don't really have to worry. Leave it in third in traffic and you will rarely need another gear. After all, its 228lb ft of torque at just 1,900 rpm is phenomenal for an everyday diesel. The V6 4Motion actually develops less, just 199lb ft, and at a much higher 3,200 rpm. VAG have also got the gearing right on the TDI PD 130. Every 1,000 rpm in top gives you over 30mph on the speedo. So at 90mph the engine is turning over at less than 3,000rpm and quite possibly giving you well over 40mpg. What more could you reasonably want?

The other huge benefit of this car is its relatively low CO2 emission of 154g/km, which puts it in the lowest-benefit tax group of the new company car taxation rules, even after the ridiculous 3% diesel penalty. Combine this factor with the car's lower price (£16,310 for the S) and it would be illogical for a user-chooser company car driver to go for anything else.

On to the 1.8T, which has the same 150bhp turbo engine that I took to 140mph on a closed-off section of Autobahn during the 1997 Passat's launch. This one felt tighter, punchier and much smoother than I remember in previous Passats. And with the vagueness taken out of the steering, it was a much more confident car to drive.

Last of all, I took out the TDI PD 100bhp, which replaces the old TDI 90. It was much noisier than the PD 130, but TDI engines have always varied one to another in this respect. It actually drove very well, so anyone nervous of going from an old TDI 110 to a new TDI 130 would probably be happier saving some money and going for it instead. (There is no TDI PD 115 in the new Passat line-up.)

A future addition to the range will be the flagship 3.7 litre 280bhp W8 4Motion which VW hopes to be able to offer at under £30,000. This will have a six-speed gearbox, 258lb ft of torque and be capable of 0-60 in 6 seconds with an electronically limited top speed of 155mph.

Finally, to answer the question I posed at the beginning, is the new Passat better than the new Mondeo? It gives the impression of being slightly better built, and from slightly better quality materials, than the Mondeo. But it still doesn't steer, handle or change gear as well, the wind noise is worse, it isn't fun like the Mondeo can be, and, though prices are as good if not better than those of the Mondeo, you don't feel you're driving a bargain. But you are driving a Volkswagen rather than a Ford, and if you're not prepared to cough up the extra for an Audi A4, you will still feel superior to Roger the Rep in his Mondeo.

That shouldn't be the reason for chosing one car over another, but in the car snob society VW caters for so well in the UK, it will be.

What have we been asked about the Volkswagen Passat (2001 – 2005)?

Every day we're asked hundreds of questions from car buyers and owners through Ask Honest John. Our team of experts, including the nation's favourite motoring agony uncle - Honest John himself - answer queries and conudrums ranging from what car to buy to how to care for it as an owner. If you could do with a spot of friendly advice before buying you're next car, get in touch and we'll do what we can to help.

Ask HJ

Will my 2001 Volkswagen Passat pass the MoT test if the engine warning light is on steady and not flashing?

Will my 2001 Volkswagen Passat pass the MoT test if the engine warning light is on steady and not flashing? It has been on for several years with no effect on the car.
The engine warning light is an MoT fail, but only for newer vehicles. Diesels that were registered before July 2008 and petrols that were registered before July 2003 are exempt from this rule.
Answered by Dan Powell
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