2005 Volkswagen Passat GLS 1.8T
2005 Volkswagen Passat GLS 1.8T. Photo: Volkswagen. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

Discuss this story in the forum at CarTalkCanada

Find this vehicle in Autos’s Classified Ads

For years, Volkswagen earned the respect of both commuters and automotive journalists for building affordable cars that were practical, fun to drive and offered typically solid German construction at prices that many people could afford.

In the mid- to late-1980s, VW decided to move their product line upscale. The cars got a little cushier, a little faster and more expensive. Unfortunately, they forgot to make reliability a key part of the new definition of “the people’s car.” Not that Volkswagen was alone in this – German cars in general have always been hit-and-miss in terms of reliability. While VW pumped out some durable cars through the 1990s, things seemed to fall apart right around the end of that decade, unfortunately coinciding with the launch of “upscaled” versions of its compact Jetta, Golf and New Beetle and the mid-size Passat.

The Passat, which received its high-end makeover for the 1998 model year, is our subject this week. With its smooth exterior lines and stylish interior, the fifth-generation Passat looked like a worthy budget alternative to the BMW 3-series’ and Audi A4s that cost thousands more, even in base form. And a worthy alternative it was: the “B5” Passat – as it was known in enthusiast circles – was a sweet car to drive, with a smooth ride, good handling and enough interior space to make it a fun choice for small families.

But while VW got all the tactile elements right with the B5 Passat, they missed the mark in overall quality. Owners have reported a variety of problems, mainly electrical in nature, but also engine troubles, particularly related to the 1.8-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder used in base model cars. Seven recalls have been issued for the fifth-generation Passat to deal with issues ranging from faulty tie rods to loose vacuum hoses in the engine compartment. As is the case with many German cars, Passat owners will claim that their cars’ excellent handing and comfort help to offset any reliability woes, but to any sensible used-car buyer, a car with a litany of problems such as has affected the Passat can’t be considered a sound purchase.

2005 Volkswagen Passat GLS 1.8T
2005 Volkswagen Passat GLS 1.8T. Photo: Volkswagen. Click image to enlarge

Where the Passat excelled is in crash safety. With standard side airbags, this stout mid-sizer earned five stars for driver and front passenger protection in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) front impact tests, and four stars for both front and rear seat occupants in side impacts. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the fifth-generation Passat a “good” overall rating thanks to its performance in that organization’s frontal offset crash test.

Fuel economy is good, if not head-of-the-class spectacular: in 1998, a Passat equipped with VW’s 1.8-litre, turbocharged engine and a manual transmission was rated by Natural Resources Canada at 10.1 L/100 km city and 6.8 L/100 km highway. With the 2.8-litre V6, the fuel consumption increased slightly to 11.8 L/100 km city and 7.5 L/100 km highway. With the optional Synchro all-wheel-drive system – which was packaged with a five-speed automatic transmission, consumption went up significantly to 13.7 L/100 km city and 8.2 L/100 km highway.

2003 Volkswagen Passat W8
2003 Volkswagen Passat W8. Photo: Russell Purcell. Click image to enlarge

Later models offered similar fuel economy, though the new-for-2003 Passat W8 – with its oddball eight-cylinder engine – consumed 14 L/100 km in the city and 9 L/100 km in highway driving. That engine was dropped after that model year, however.

Price-wise, don’t expect any deals on a used Passat. Its new vehicle M.S.R.P. positioned it as a premium mid-size and high resale values have helped the Passat retain that title. Only 1998 models are worth less than $10,000 according to Canadian Red Book, with the top-of-the-line GLX valued at $8,525.

A base-model 2003 Passat GLS (with the four-cylinder engine) is worth $20,800, or about $400 more than a 2003 Toyota Camry LE V6. The Passat has more in common with Subaru’s Legacy, however, which is available at similar prices and in both sedan and wagon form but offers all-wheel-drive as a standard feature.

If a fun-to-drive, mid-sized car is what you’re after, then a used Passat based purely on its excellent on-road behaviour. It’s the amount of time Passats tend to spend off the road, however, that make them difficult cars to recommend to used buyers. The Passat does hold the advantage of optional V6 power with a manual transmission (the Legacy was available with a pricey six-cylinder option in 2001 and later years, but only with an automatic tranny) but the Legacy’s standard all-wheel-drive system and superior reliability at prices comparable to those of the Passat’s give the Subie the upper hand.

If you don’t need a wagon, the Camry is a similarly-priced, though boring, alternative. The Honda Accord is a slightly more exciting drive, and Nissan’s Altima isn’t the most reliable choice out there, but it’s fared far better than the Passat has.

The Passat hits all the right buttons in terms of looks and touchy-feely elements, but why subject yourself to the frustration and financial burden of constantly having to diagnose and repair problems with a car you’ve just paid so much for? VW’s attempt to move itself upscale certainly worked, but if resale values were based on reliability, Passats on used-car lots everywhere would languish at the prices they currently command.

Online resources

www.vwvortex.com – This place is like Mecca for VW owners on the web. The forums here cover a variety of makes, as well as several general interest categories, but it all started with VW, and it’s those sections that are busiest. The B5 Passat gets a forum section all to itself (as does the new sixth-generation version; all older versions are lumped in together) and it’s a busy one. There’s lots of info here about the problems affecting fifth-generation Passats, as well as lots of discussion about what dealers perform the best work and offer the best service. Membership is free.

www.passatworld.com – This site recently merged its popular forums with those at clubb5.com. PassatWorld.com is home to more than 20,000 members who post in sections related to just about every aspect of tuning, maintaining and repairing their cars. There’s also a busy off-topic section and regional forums, useful for organizing local Passat owner gatherings.


Transport Canada Recall Number: 1999195; Units affected: 4,900

1998-1999: On certain vehicles, the steering assembly tie rod seals do not seal properly. If moisture and/or dust particles enter the swivel bearing mechanism, the swivel bearing may wear over time to a point where the steering begins to feel “loose” and could diminish the steering control of the vehicle with the potential for a vehicle crash. Correction: Tie rods will be replaced on affected vehicles.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1999095; Units affected: 9,000

1998-1999: On certain vehicles, a control valve in the vacuum hose connecting the brake booster to the intake manifold may not open or close fully at temperatures below -4 degrees F. This condition could cause insufficient vacuum to be provided to the brake booster resulting in possible loss of power brake assist. Correction: A vacuum by-pass system will be installed on affected vehicles.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998126; Units affected: 1,437

1998: In the event of an engine backfire during cold start, an air screen which is loosely seated in the air flow meter could become damaged. Should this happen, screen pieces could enter the intake air flow system and could prevent the throttle plate from returning to its full idle position. Correction: a screen retaining ring will be installed and damaged screens will be replaced.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002103; Units affected: 3,868

1999: On certain vehicles the tie rods of the steering assembly may be inadequately sealed to prevent moisture and dust particles from entering the swivel bearing mechanism. If moisture and/or dust particles enter the swivel bearing mechanism, the swivel bearing could wear over time diminishing the steering control of the vehicle. Correction: Dealers will replace the tie rods.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2003106; Units affected: 1

2002: Does not comply with CMVSS 110. This vehicle is equipped with tires of the maximum load rating index 93H; however, it should have been equipped with tires with the load rating index 97H. Correction: Dealer will replace all four (4) tires.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004435; Units affected: 8,072

2004-2005: On certain vehicles equipped with TDI-PD (Pumpe-Duse) engines, the high-pressure diesel pumps were produced with improper fasteners. In rare cases, one of these improper fasteners may yield due to repeated cyclic loading and allow diesel fuel to escape from the high-pressure pump. Diesel fuel in the presence of an ignition source may lead to a fire. Additionally, due to the quantity of fuel that may be released, there is a crash risk posed to vehicles traveling behind the subject vehicle. Correction: Dealers will install a replacement diesel pump kit.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2000133; Units affected: 1,115

2000: On certain vehicles, sulphur in the fuel interacting with certain additives found in widely available fuel can become deposited on certain contact points on three sending units mounted inside the fuel tank. Low electrical resistance at contact points of any unit signals that the tank is full. The accumulation of sulphur deposits on contacts would increase the resistance and erroneously signal that the tank is filled with fuel while in fact it may not be full or could be empty. If a driver is not cognizant of the miles driven and the potential driving range of their vehicle from a fuel fill, the erroneous fuel level signal could cause the vehicle to become inoperable without prior warning. Correction: Fuel sending units will be replaced with redesigned sending units.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

Connect with Autos.ca