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Volkswagen Passat 2001 Road Test

Tue, 16 Jan 2001

There is no doubt that VW has improved its 2001 model-year Passat over the Passat it replaces. The body structure is 10% stiffer. Equipment levels are higher. Prices are down 10-15%.

But the question in the minds of people like me was how good could it be compared to the new Ford Mondeo which shifted class goalposts into the next county.

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

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.

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