2003 Volkswagen Passat W8
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Story and photos by Greg Wilson

The merits of Volkswagen’s plunge in to the luxury class with the new Passat W8 and the upcoming Phaeton are hotly debatable. Is Volkswagen intruding into Audi territory, and if so why would a company choose to compete with itself? (Volkswagen owns Audi). Is there a market for a luxury Volkswagen when luxury buyers typically prefer luxury nameplates like Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz? And in the case of the Passat W8, will buyers plunk down an extra $10,000 to get an eight cylinder engine in a car that looks very much like a regular Passat?

All these questions percolated through my mind as I spent a week test-driving a 2003 W8 with the standard 5-speed Tiptronic transmission. Though the Passat, last updated in 2001.5, is probably the finest mid-size import sedan on the market even though it’s priced a bit higher than comparable Japanese models, the $53,400 price tag of the W8 seems difficult to justify, at least to me. Yet, I reminded myself, if the Passat W8 bore an Audi badge, the price would seem more reasonable. Am I just another victim of brand marketing?

Certainly, the Passat W8 has a lot to offer – starting with its 270 horsepower eight cylinder engine which has a ‘double V’ or ‘W’ configuration – hence its name. The Passat W8 comes standard with all-wheel-drive (4Motion), anti-skid system, and features unique high intensity discharge headlamps with washers, special 16 inch alloys and tires, and quad chrome exhaust tips.

2003 Volkswagen Passat W8
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Inside there’s standard walnut trim, automatic climate control, leather seats with seat heaters, a multi function trip computer, premium stereo with single CD, radio, cassette and 8 speakers, rain sensor for the wipers, and a rear sunshade.

Features to note: unlike front-wheel-drive Passats which have a semi-independent torsion beam rear suspension, the W8 with 4Motion has an independent rear suspension – and the W8 features vented rear disc brakes instead of solid rear discs.

A five-speed Tiptronic transmission is standard on the W8, but you can buy an optional 6 speed manual transmission which comes with a Sport Package with 17 inch tires and alloy wheels, and a sport suspension. This model is priced at $55,400.

My test car was a sedan, but it’s worth noting the Passat W8 is also available in a wagon bodystyle.


Interior

Passat interiors are well-appointed and roomy to begin with, so the W8 had a good starting point. The interior of my test car was black with walnut trim on the center console, gear lever and doors, and tasteful chrome on the doors, dash and shift gate. The fit and finish were very good, but let me warn you, the black finish and dark carpets are hard to keep clean!

2003 Volkswagen Passat W8

2003 Volkswagen Passat W8

2003 Volkswagen Passat W8
Click image to enlarge

The leather seats are of a sturdy quality and offer excellent lateral support when cornering. The power driver’s seat has a manual lumbar adjustment, three memory seat settings, and front seat heaters with five temperature settings.

The instrument cluster has unique, attractive silver-rimmed round gauges and a multi-function digital information display backlit in red in between them. The information display includes such info as radio channel, outside temperature gauge and transmission gear indicator, while the multi function trip computer offers info like trip time, trip length, average trip speed, average fuel consumption, current fuel consumption, outside temperature, and stereo displays.

The W8’s thick-rimmed leather-wrapped steering wheel with tilt/telescoping ability looks and feels good, but it can obscure the instruments in certain positions. The steering wheel includes stereo controls and cruise control buttons on the spokes.

In the centre control panel, an AM/FM/CD features a large digital display with black numerals on a grey background – very easy to see – and there are manual knob adjustments for bass, ‘middle’, treble, balance and fader. The stereo’s sound is good, but not quite what I would have expected in a $50,000 car. As well, a 6-disc CD changer is optional and it’s trunk-mounted. Boo!

Perhaps my biggest complaint was the lack of interior storage space. There are front door pockets, a small glovebox, a bin on the lower left dash and a small L-shaped covered bin between the front seats, but none of these are very large.

Rear passengers have generous legroom and the rear seat includes a folding rear armrest with built-in cupholders and storage. Behind the armrest is a pass-through (optional) to the trunk behind it, however the W8 doesn’t have split folding rear seatbacks. All Passats with the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system have a fixed rear seatback due to the design of the mechanicals.

Another quibble: the W8’s trunk, though adequate, is smaller than the regular Passat with front-wheel-drive – again, this is due to the design of the all-wheel-drive system and independent rear suspension.


Driving impressions

Whereas the Passat V6 has 190 horsepower, the W8 has 270 horsepower – quite an increase. The 4.0 litre W8 features dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing and two balance shafts. Horsepower is rated at 270 @ 6000 rpm while torque is 273 foot pounds @ 2750 rpm.

2003 Volkswagen Passat W8

2003 Volkswagen Passat W8

2003 Volkswagen Passat W8
Click image to enlarge

At idle, the W8 engine is virtually vibration-free, and under acceleration, it’s also extremely smooth as is the sweet-shifting Tiptronic transmission. Volkswagen quotes a 0 to 60 mph time of 6.5 seconds, an impressive time for a family sedan, and two seconds faster than a Passat V6 4Motion. On the freeway cruising in fifth gear, the engine does only 2200 at 100 km/h and 2600 at 120 km/h, and is very quiet and smooth.

Fuel consumption of 13.8 litres per 100 km (20 mpg) in the city and 9.2 litres per 100 km (31 mpg) on the highway ain’t great, but is pretty good for an eight cylinder engine.

I had some issues with the 5-speed Tiptronic transmission though. When it shifts into first as the car comes to a stop, it shifts with a noticeable bump. As well, I found a bit of shift lag when flooring the accelerator at about 30 km/h – it takes about half a second to shift down into second gear. In manual mode, the Tiptronic shifts up in about half a second, and is slightly quicker when downshifting.

The 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, which uses a Torsen centre differential that sends power in a 50/50 front/rear split is almost invisible to the driver on dry surfaces, but is very useful in maintaining traction and stability in rain or snow. As well the standard Electronic Stability Program helps prevent understeer and oversteer in slippery situations. The Passat W8 is a great all-season automobile.

The W8 has a smooth comfortable ride, with good rebound control and a tight body. A fully independent suspension (front four link suspension and coil springs/rear independent double wishbone suspension and coil springs) offers some lean in the corners but good control over uneven pavement.

The standard rack and pinion steering is not variable-assist and I found steering effort a bit high at slow speeds. As well, the car’s turning diameter of 11.5 m (38 ft.) is OK for an all-wheel-drive car, but not particularly tight for a mid-sized sedan.

The four wheel disc brakes are very powerful, but I found the pedal a bit sensitive. The W8 comes standard with the latest generation ABS Bosch 5.7 system, and an Electronic Stabilization Program with Brake Assist on all four wheels. The ESP can be turned off with a button on the dash.


Competitors

2003 Volkswagen Passat W8
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There aren’t many mid-sized sedans with a V8 engine, but possible competitors may include the Lexus GS430 ($69,500), Lincoln LS V8 ($47,645), BMW 540i ($74,400), Jaguar S-Type 4.2 ($72,950) and Mercedes-Benz E500 ($81,500).

All of the above are luxury brands, and most are larger and more expensive than the Passat W8. The Lincoln LS V8 appears to be the W8’s closest competitor, though it’s rear-wheel-drive.


Verdict

The most powerful and luxurious Passat you can buy, the W8 4Motion is quiet and powerful but a few glitches with the transmission and drivetrain left me feeling this wasn’t a $50,000 car.


Technical Data: 2003 VW Passat W8

Base price $53,400
Freight $555
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $54,055
Type 4-door, 5 passenger mid-size sedan
Layout longitudinal front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 4.0 litre V8, DOHC, 32 valves, variable valve timing
Horsepower 270 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 273 @ 2750 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic Tiptronic
Tires 215/55HR-16
Curb weight 1793 kg (3952 lb.)
Wheelbase 2702 mm (106.3 in.)
Length 4703 mm (185.2 in.)
Width 1746 mm (68.7 in.)
Height 1461 mm (57.5 in.)
Trunk capacity 300 litres (10.6 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 13.8 l/100 km (20 mpg)
  Hwy: 9.2 l/100 km (31 mpg)
Fuel type Premium unleaded recommended
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km

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