By Jil McIntosh
Photos by Jil McIntosh and Paul Williams

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2006 Volkswagen Passat
Photo: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

Way back in the days when the earth’s crust was still cooling, Volkswagen meant only one thing: cheap cars that didn’t change. The company even poked fun at itself, with a television ad that unveiled the Bug with the voiceover, “Announcing the new 1956..1957-1958-’59, ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, ’64 Beetle!”

But times change and so does Volkswagen. And so has the Passat, which has been completely re-worked for 2006 and is the sixth generation of this “near-luxury” midsize sedan. It’s now slightly larger than its predecessor, 57 per cent higher in static torsion stiffness, and offers a choice of two engines. I had the opportunity to drive it on a recent press launch in Boston. Normally such launches are done well in advance of a vehicle actually hitting the showroom floors, but Volkswagen held off on this one, waiting until both engines could be made available to journalists even though one is already on sale.

The base engine is a 2.0-litre inline four-cylinder turbocharged gasoline engine that features an efficient FSI direct fuel injection system, an intercooler, and drive-by-wire throttle control. It produces 200 hp at 5100 rpm, and 207 lb-ft of torque at 1800 rpm, which represents a considerable jump over the 170 hp and 166 lb-ft that was served up by the base 1.8-litre turbo in 2005, and is actually more than the V6 made in last year’s model. It bases with a six-speed manual transmission that can be optioned up to a six-speed automatic with Tiptronic manual mode.

2006 Volkswagen Passat
2.0-litre inline four-cylinder turbocharged gasoline engine

2006 Volkswagen Passat
3.6-litre VR6. Photos: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

The larger engine is a 3.6-litre VR6, which uses Volkswagen’s revolutionary design that offsets the cylinders by 10.6 degrees, saving space and using only one cylinder head. It puts out an incredible 280 hp at 6200 rpm, and 265 lb-ft of torque at 2750 rpm. Compare that to the 2005 V6, which produced a relatively paltry 190 hp and 206 lb-ft. The six comes strictly with the Tiptronic-equipped six-speed autobox, and it’s also exclusively “ours”: it’s North American-specific, and isn’t offered in Europe.

The 2.0-litre is already in dealer showrooms, but you’ll have to wait a bit for the 3.6, which should arrive a little later this calendar year. Also coming later in the 2006 model year is 4Motion all-wheel-drive, which will be offered only on the 3.6. It’s a slip-and-grip version: built by Haldex of Sweden, it will be front-wheel biased, shifting torque to the rear wheels when it senses loss of traction. Other configurations from the 2005 model year will take a bit longer to come to market: a wagon is expected for 2007, and while Volkswagen officials wouldn’t give a firm commitment, a diesel should make its way here for 2008. The delay, it seems, is in the U.S.’s sluggish adoption of oil-burners: upcoming stringent emission and clean-fuel regulations should open up the market, and VW obviously doesn’t want to miss out with an engine it can only peddle to Canada and Europe.

2006 Volkswagen Passat

2006 Volkswagen Passat
Photos: Jil McIntosh. Click image to enlarge

The V6 is the nicer of the two engines, with immediate response, smooth power, and a wide torque band. But the 2.0 is a solid little engine too: it’s perky, with just a bit of growl under acceleration, and with the barest minimum of turbo lag. It also comes with a considerable price advantage.

The base Passat drops by $240 over 2005 prices: the 2.0 Base starts at $29,950 with a manual and $31,050 with the automatic. Available option packages include an $1,170 Convenience Package including premium stereo, chrome accents, heated washer nozzles and storage net; a Luxury Package, at $3,840, of alloy wheels, garage door opener and sunroof; and Leather Luxury at $6,200, which includes a partial power driver’s seat and dual-zone climate control.

The 3.6 starts at $42,090, while the 4Motion will begin at $44,990. You do get a lot of features, and it’s a very nice car, but behind the wheel, the price feels about $5,000 more than it should be. Add-ons include a $3,495 Sport Leather Package and $2,700 satellite/DVD navigation system.

2006 Volkswagen Passat

2006 Volkswagen Passat
Photos: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

The midsize market is crowded, and so VW is counting on advertising 120 standard or optional features to woo buyers into showrooms. Some of them are worth crowing about: six standard airbags (rear-seat thorax side bags can be added), brakes that periodically wipe any moisture off the rotors, a standard brake auto-hold that keeps the car from rolling back on hills, electronic stability program, an electronic parking brake that frees up console space normally used for the handbrake lever, and an adaptive front light system, a $1,600 option that includes swivelling headlights and fixed cornering lights for better visibility. Others may seem to be added more for bragging rights, such as a self-draining umbrella compartment stashed inside the driver’s door, a little perk formerly exclusive to Rolls-Royce owners.

The Passat’s seats are typically Teutonic-firm: they’re not cushy, but as with most German cars, it’s a trade-off for good support that makes for all-day driving comfort. My co-driver on the press launch is more than a foot taller than I am, and to the car’s credit, there was a good seating position for both of us, whether we had the manual or power seats.

2006 Volkswagen Passat

2006 Volkswagen Passat
Photos: Jil McIntosh. Click image to enlarge

The fob looks like the standard Volkswagen mini-brick, but it doesn’t have the usual pop-out “switchblade” key. Instead, you insert the entire thing into a slot in the dash and push it in to start the engine; to stop, you give it another push, then pull it out. There’s a valet key hidden inside it, but I never had a chance to ask the engineers what you’re supposed to do if the battery goes dead, or if the key fob develops an electrical gremlin, since I couldn’t find an exterior lock cylinder anywhere on the vehicle. All these technical gadgets are fun when they’re new, but they can have a tendency to drain the pocketbooks of those of us who buy one car and keep it until the bitter end, or those who buy them used.

The Passat’s interior is also typical Volkswagen quality, with excellent fit-and-finish and an attractive “floating” upper dash panel. The climate control system is intuitive, and the upper vents use a diffuser, which avoids a blast of hot or cold air directly to the face.

2006 Volkswagen Passat
Photo: Paul Williams

2006 Volkswagen Passat
Photo: Jil McIntosh.

2006 Volkswagen Passat
Photo: Paul Williams Click images to enlarge

Small-item storage is good, with a deep console box, driver’s side dash storage box, and huge door pockets with water bottle storage. The glovebox has two tiers: open it, pull a plastic tab and down drops a second compartment, sized to fit either the owner’s manual or a six-CD changer.

The larger interior also means more rear-seat legroom; it’s still not a segment-buster, but it’s comfortable enough, and the front seats are high enough that you can slip your feet under them for a bit more space. The trunk is quite large, and the rear seat comes with both a pass-through and folding seatbacks.

Like the equally-new Jetta, the Passat carries VW’s version of the Audi nose. Styling is subjective, of course, but I’m still not sold on it, especially when it’s mated to a dark colour and its wide chrome bars become much more obvious. The headlights have an attractive dip around the bulb, as do the LED taillights. A thin chrome body strip and chrome window surround break up the expanse of body colour and are rather elegant.

The transverse-mounted engine sends its power through a suspension that’s MacPherson struts in front and multi-link independent in the rear. The steering is electro-mechanical: it’s slightly lighter than a hydraulic system and uses no pumps and therefore, no fluid. One less fluid level to check and, as a Volkswagen spokesman pointed out, its lack of hydraulic oil makes it more environmentally-friendly. The trade-off is slightly less steering feel than some performance-oriented drivers would like, although the average commuter will be fine with it.

2006 Volkswagen Passat

2006 Volkswagen Passat
Click image to enlarge

Commuting is also made bearable thanks to a Dynaudio premium sound system, built by a Denmark-based company. It’s little-known in the North American automotive audio market, but it’s famous for studio equipment, and it does an impressive number here, with ten Passat-specific speakers and an impressive 600 watts of continuous power. My tester was also equipped with a navigation system that was fine when I was taking the scenic route through several New England fishing villages, but which wouldn’t zoom in close enough to provide street names when I needed to navigate some of the Big Dig-delayed routes in downtown Boston. In all fairness, that might have been my unfamiliarity with the system, which features two rows of unlabelled buttons. On the other hand, I’ve never used a navigation system that didn’t provide such essential information when dipped down to the smallest possible zoom setting.

2006 Volkswagen Passat
Photos: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

The heavy Boston traffic, and the strictly-enforced speed limits through the picturesque towns, meant no testing the Passat’s flat-out performance or slalom abilities. But most buyers in this category drive their cars exactly the same way I did, and for that, the Passat is an excellent performer.

Still, it has a lot of competition, and its stiff price in the upper range is going to be a hurdle for many buyers, once they shop it against cars like the Toyota Camry, the Chevrolet Impala and the Buick Allure. The Phaeton proved there is a limit to what people will pay for a car that bears the same logo as the Bug; hopefully, the Passat’s numerous features, comfortable interior and fine driving experience will convince buyers that they’re getting their money’s worth.

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