by Jim Kenzie
Was this Volkswagen worth the “W-eight”?
Half-Moon Bay, California – Let’s get one thing straight about Volkswagen’s new Passat W8. It’s a mistake.
The pronunciation, I mean.
It should be “Double-Vee”, not “Double-You”, because the engine is essentially two Vee-four engines mated onto a common crankcase. The letters U and V have been confused in various Latin-related languages since before Year Zero – remember all those V’s on Roman buildings where there should be U’s? The new Passat just adds to the confusion.
Eight cylinders, 275 horsepower and a fifty-grand-plus price tag may not be typically associated with the VW badge, but the eight-pot Passat sedan and wagon are already arriving in VW dealerships.
Those Vee-four engines are from the fabled VR6 family, which feature pairs of cylinders alternating at a fifteen-degree angle within each of two blocks, which themselves are arranged at a 72 degree angle. The resulting engine is extremely short, allowing it to fit, albeit snugly, under the Passat’s comely hood, designed for nothing larger than a V6.
The W8 has a “flat” crankshaft, meaning the throws are 180 degrees apart – i.e., all in the same plane – rather than radially dispersed at 90 degrees as in most eights. VW says this helps low-end torque.
Flat cranks also generate a characteristic engine note, which VW didn’t mind at all, and a tendency to vibration, which they did mind, since refinement was, along with bottom-end grunt and compactness, among the main design objectives. So a pair of counter-rotating balancing shafts was added.
Click image to enlarge
Chain-driven double overhead camshafts per bank of cylinders, with infinitely-variable timing on the intake cams and two-stage variability on the exhausts, plus 32 valves, make this one busy piece of hardware. I have seen a mechanical cut-away of this engine, showing how the pistons go up and down, the crankshaft goes round and round, and the music comes out here. But I still have no clue how they make this all work.
275 horsepower isn’t a great accomplishment from four litres – Jaguar gets 290 from their much older and simpler design of the same displacement. Likewise maximum torque, which at 272 lb.-ft. falls below the Jag’s 290. The low-end criterion is well-served – the VW’s torque peaks at a low 2,750 r.p.m. versus the Jag’s 4,300.
Currently, the Passat W8 is available only with a five-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic manual override; a six-speed manual, available in Europe since the car’s launch last year, will join our party this fall as part of a “Sport” option.
All W8 Passats use what VW calls 4Motion four-wheel drive but which is really Audi’s quattro system, with a Torsen (torque-sensing) centre differential nominally dividing driving force equally front-to-rear, but automatically and mechanically locking up if differences between front and rear wheel rotational speeds are detected.
There are few things more pretentious for a writer than to quote himself, but when I drove this car last summer in Switzerland, I said, “those expecting a traditional American-style V8 punch in the kidneys will wonder what all the fuss is about…” That’s because the W8’s off-the-line launch was decidedly less-than-spectacular, abetted not at all by the fact that the four-wheel drive eliminates any hint of wheelspin, which equates to “acceleration” in most peoples’ minds.
Worse still, my spies tell me that the North American dealers who drove the car over there almost refused to consider taking it if something couldn’t be done about this.
Since the car was primarily aimed at North America, something would have to be done, and it was – the final drive ratio was shortened from an Autobahn-friendly 2.91:1 to a more drag-racing oriented 3.50:1, an exceptionally large 20 percent numerical increase. This single change has reduced the 0 – 100 km/h from 7.8 to 6.5 seconds, and the car is much more eager and responsive in all driving conditions.
Top speed is reduced too, but that’s electronically-limited anyway, not to mention irrelevant over here. Fuel economy also suffers a bit, but if you’re paying this much for a car, who cares?
Engine aside, the eight-cylinder Passat is remarkably unchanged from the fewer-cylindered versions. VW could have used a stretched-wheelbase body like they use in a Skoda-badged Passat clone in Europe, to give the W8 more room and more presence. But Stefan Krebsfanger, of VW of America’s product planning department, said that while they could make a business case for a new engine,
crash-testing and certifying a different body would have been too expensive for a low-volume car like this. “Four inches is a lot,” he said. I’m not going to touch that line.
So your neighbours will be hard-pressed to know you’ve spent this much on a VeeDub; apart from discreet badging, four chromed tailpipes, gas-discharge headlamps, and unique alloy wheels with slightly larger tires, the Passat W8 is pretty much identical to the GLX variants of the refreshed-last-year four- and six-cylinder cars.
Brownie points if you (or your neighbour) spots the integrated “diversity” radio antenna, headlamp washers, and the wagon’s chromed roof rack rails. Same deal inside too, other than additional chrome accents and a standard trip computer. VW may be a down-market badge, but you give up nothing in fit, finish and materials quality.
Sprightlier acceleration aside, driving the Passat W8 is pretty much the same as the lesser models too. The W8 engine doesn’t weigh much more than the V6, and chassis settings are very similar, so ride and handling are similar too – namely, excellent. The engine is extremely quiet; when pushed hard, that distinctive exhaust note is just nicely audible.
In fact, the entire car is beautifully refined. If the front seats were a bit longer in the cushion for better thigh support, there’d be almost nothing to complain about.
So it all comes down to price, and that badge. The sedan is $53,400 and the wagon $54,575. The cars are so fully-equipped that the fact that a trunk-mounted six-CD changer is not standard is a shock; it’s a dealer-installed option.
Also conspicuous by its absence is satellite navigation. European Passats get this, but apparently that system isn’t compatible with our electronic architecture, so we will have to wait for the next-generation Passat for this feature.
If you can conceive of a Volkswagen as direct competition for a similarly-sized BMW 5-Series or Mercedes-Benz E-Class – if you drove the cars badge-free, that wouldn’t be a stretch – then the Passat W8 is a huge bargain. Both competitors when equipped with a V8 are twenty grand more expensive. Buy a Passat W8 AND a Golf.
The Bimmer doesn’t offer four-wheel drive at any price; it’s an extra three grand on the Merc. Then there’s VW’s corporate cousin, the Audi A4. Based on the same platform, it is actually shorter in wheelbase, has less interior room, offers only a 3.0 litre V6 as its top power plant, and when comparably equipped (i.e. loaded), is about the same price.
Doesn’t that sound like a mis-match in the VW’s favour?
Maybe. But VW marketing staff say only about four percent of VW shoppers look at Audi, and vice versa. Obviously, not enough of them are reading this column – they could save themselves some money. Then again, both Audi and VW are selling at near-record rates.
Will the market accept a fifty-five grand VW, regardless of how good it is? We’ll see. Some say it’s a non-starter. But a lot of people said VW couldn’t compete in the mid-size market with a car like Passat at all, and it has done very well.
The Passat W8 is also a step towards the W12 Phaeton which VW launches this year in Europe, next year here.
If VW can take on the E-Class, why not the S-Class?
- Lowest-priced eight-cylinder German car you can buy.
- Outstanding interior finish.
- Strong combination of performance, ride, and four-wheel drive handling.
- Seat cushions too short.
- A few missing bits of expected equipment.
- A $55,000 VOLKSWAGEN?