2003 Volkswagen Passat Reviews and Ratings

Sedan 4D GLX 4Motion

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2003 Volkswagen Passat
John Matras and Mitch McCullough

Volkswagen Passat is the refined member of the mid-size class. It offers a high-quality interior and a high-quality driving experience.

Passat is a true midsize car, competing against the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima. Arguably, Passat offers more style and character than any of them, without sacrificing midsize practicality.

Its innovative, sophisticated engines are smooth and powerful. Passat is now America's best-selling German-built car. Six years ago, Volkswagen sold about 15,000 Passats annually; in 2002 Volkswagen sold 96,142 of them.

Volkswagen freshened up the Passat last year, with bolder contours and new lights front and rear. A stiffer chassis improved ride and handling as well as body panel fit. For 2003, VW has further expanded the Passat line, with a new base model called the GL; while the GLS now comes with alloy wheels and a power sunroof.

Model Lineup
Volkswagen Passat is available as a four-door sedan and a station wagon. Prices range from $21,750 to $38,700. Three engines are available: the turbocharged four-cylinder 1.8 T, the 2.8-liter V6, and the innovative W8. Passat is available with front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive.

GL sedan ($21,750) and wagon ($22,550) are well-equipped bargains. Powered by the 1.8-liter turbocharged inline-four shared by Volkswagen and Audi, the GL models come standard with air conditioning, cruise control, rear window and side mirror defrosters and a multi-function trip computer. A five-speed manual transmission is standard; a five-speed automatic with Tiptronic control is optional ($1,075).

GLS 1.8 T sedan ($22,885) and wagon ($23,685) add fog lamps, 15-inch alloy wheels and a power tilt-and-slide glass sunroof. GLS models also offer a few options not available on the GL, such as a Homelink garage-door transmitter ($130), and a leather upholstery package ($1,615) that includes a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls.

GLS V6 sedan ($25,385) and wagon ($26,185) get the 2.8-liter V6 rated 190 horsepower. They come with five-speed manual or the optional Tiptronic automatic. V6 models come with real wood trim.

GLX sedan ($28,750) and wagon ($29,550) add leather upholstery, electronic climate control, Monsoon audio, heated and powered driver and passenger seats with memory, heated washer nozzles, rain-sensor automatic wipers, power flush-folding side mirrors, and 16-inch alloy wheels with 205/55HR16 all-season tires. Five-speed manual gearbox is standard, Tiptronic automatic is optional ($1,075). GLX buyers can also choose Volkswagen's 4Motion all-wheel drive ($1,750), but only with the automatic transmission.

W8 sedan ($37,900) and wagon ($38,700) come with the 4.0-liter eight-cylinder engine rated 270 hp and virtually all amenities. Tiptronic automatic and 4Motion all-wheel drive are standard. An Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP) is standard. W8 also adds 215/55HR16 tires, a more comprehensive trip computer, and a self-dimming rearview mirror as standard equipment. More lavish interior brightwork, special grille badges and four chrome-tipped tail pipes help the W8 stand out. Rear brake discs are vented rather than solid. An optional Sport Package ($1500) includes firmer shocks and springs and 17-inch alloy wheels with 225/45HR17 tires.

Major options include a Cold Weather Package ($325) that includes heated seats and washer nozzles to Passat GL and GLS. An upgraded Monsoon audio system is available ($325). ESP ($280) is available for all models.

Passat is covered by a four-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty that includes wear-and-tear items and adjustments for the first 12 months or 12,000 miles. The powertrain warranty was reduced last year to five years/60,000 miles, but is now fully transferable. Passat owners are also covered by a four-year/50,000-mile 24-hour roadside assistance program.

Passat's styling is distinctive, but understated. Its arched roof and six-window side glass stand out in a parking lot full of look-alike sedans. Last year's alterations to the front and rear made Passat's avant-garde design bolder. The chrome-accented grille is sharply raked and smoothly integrated into the bumper.

All Passats come with halogen headlamps under clear polycarbonate lenses; all but GL have projector-beam halogen foglamps integrated into the front bumper. High-intensity gas-discharge (HID) headlamps and headlamp washers enhance the W8.

Unique rear lamps with stacked round lenses integrated a body-hugging shape highlight Passat's crisp rear styling. The effect is vintage and futuristic at the same time, handsome and charming.

Volkswagen Passat offers the best, highest-quality interior in the mid-size class. Volkswagen is a leader in interior design and interior quality, and it shows here. The attention to detail is just wonderful. Where other manufacturers use cheap-looking plastic, Volkswagen uses very high-quality materials that look so good it's a shame to call them plastic.

Even the base Passat GL features high-quality cloth seats that are comfortable and great to look at. The cloth seat fabric is a high-quality cloth. Some of the interior surfaces are finished in a special soft-touch paint that's aesthetically appealing. Our only concern is that some of the light-colored fabrics that are available may show dirt over the long term.

Front seats in all models are firm and comfortable for long drives. Driver and passenger get fully adjustable seats. A hand-crank recliner knob offers infinite variation, but seems awkward and takes time to adjust. Height adjustment is accomplished with a lever that acts like a jack to raise or lower the seat. Another adjustment changes the angle of the seat. The console between the front seats offers adjustable cup holders and a large storage compartment. GLX and W8 come with eight-way power-adjustable seats.

Dash and seats are cleanly designed and handsome, harmonizing well with the exterior styling. The arched hood over the instruments echoes the roofline, and the soft curve of the dash matches the exterior sheet metal. Speedometer and tachometer flank two smaller gauges, all with the look of precision instruments. At night they illuminate in a cool blue (indigo) glow. A multifunction trip computer calculates time, distance, average speed, average fuel consumption, instantaneous fuel consumption, miles to empty, and outside temperature. There's even a light for low washer fluid.

Getting in is easy, with a silicone-damped assist handle over each door. Central locking is standard, and a valet key keeps the guys at the parking garage out of your trunk. The center dome light, with time delay, is complemented by two reading lights front and rear. There's also a light in the glove box.

Standard safety equipment includes the requisite frontal airbags, plus seat-mounted side-impact airbags, and side-curtain airbags designed to protect both front and rear seat passengers. All side airbags are not the same. Unlike the more common side airbags that protect occupants' chests, the curtain-style airbags in the Passat provide head protection, and that's important. Doors lock at 8 mph (but can be reprogrammed by the dealer) and unlock for occupant rescue if the airbags deploy.

The rear seats are comfortable and offer lots of headroom. Two adult males will find adequate room in the back seat, but three will be a squeeze and shouldn't be contemplated for more than a short ride. Volkswagen must see it this way because three-point seat belts are provided for the outboard passengers only. Cup holders for the rear seats are located in a fold-down armrest that provides some storage.

The trunk in the base sedan is big, with a flat floor extending the full distance to the seatbacks. The result is an impressive 15 cubic feet of cargo capacity, which is more than Honda Accord, less than Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima. Articulated trunk-lid struts don't intrude into the trunk like goose neck hinges (and they are chromed, a nice touch). The rear seatback on front-wheel-drive models splits 60/40 and folds down to extend trunk space. Opt for 4Motion all-wheel drive, however, and you lose a full one-third of the trunk's capacity to the extra mechanism between the rear wheels. Nor do the rear seats fold down. You have to make do with an armrest-sized pass-through.

Passat wagons offer 39 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats in place, 56.5 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down, more than a Land Rover Freelander.

Driving Impressions
Volkswagen Passat provides a smooth ride and taut handling, regardless of model. It feels extremely stable at high speeds and connected to the road, yet the suspension filters out most of the unwanted road vibration. Best of all, it feels like it's carved out of one solid piece, and lacks the chassis flex of many sedans.

Volkswagen and Audi share the 1.8 T engine. Although relatively small, this 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine uses double overhead camshafts with five valves per cylinder, and a turbocharger and intercooler to produce a prodigious 170 horsepower. All of that stuff is about breathing, and it means the 1.8 T can pump a lot of air (and fuel) through to produce lots of power. Its broad torque band, with 166 pounds-feet available from 1950 rpm all the way up to 5000 rpm, means it responds whenever you step on the gas. One downside of the 1.8 T is its thirst for 91-octane unleaded premium. Passat 1.8 T is rated 22/31 mpg City/Highway by the EPA. A Honda Accord EX gets better fuel economy.

We love the 1.8 T when paired with the manual transmission. It's incredibly smooth and quiet, but step on the gas and the car takes off, no matter which gear it's in. At first, we hated this engine with the automatic transmission. The transmission is quite sophisticated, but does not always seem to understand what the turbocharger is trying to accomplish. As a result, the transmission hunts back and forth, particularly annoying around town. Also, it can get caught out just when you need power: Jump into a clear lane in stop-and-go traffic, step on the throttle and it can hesitate for a moment as if it's trying to figure out what it's supposed to do. Meanwhile, an 18-wheeler is barreling up in the rear-view mirror. But familiarization improves it and most of the time it works just fine. Like the engine, the transmission is incredibly smooth. When cruising on the highway or when standing on it, it works very well and the Tiptronic allows the driver to shift manually. That said, we still think 1.8 T works best with the manual transmission, while the automatic works best with the V6 engine.

Passat 1.8 T is quicker than a Honda Accord EX or a Toyota Camry SE. The 1.8 T with a manual gearbox is quicker than the V6 with an automatic. W8 is the quickest Passat with a claimed 6.5-second dash from 0 to 60 mph.

Raw numbers aside, we like the eager feel of the 1.8 T with the five-speed manual. It has a solid punch down low, thanks to careful tuning of the turbocharger, but really sings in the upper rev range. This engine truly enjoys its work, and working it is especially enjoyable. So car and driver are happy. The shifter slides effortlessly from gear to gear, contributing an operational delight of its own, with a feel of quality material shaped by careful hands.

Passat GLX and GLS V6 models offer excellent throttle response and quick acceleration performance. GLS V6 ($26,460) is an excellent choice for someone who wants a responsive sedan with an automatic. The 2.8-liter V6 engine develops only 20 more horsepower (190) than the turbocharged four-cylinder, but produces a healthy 206 pounds-feet of torque (verses 166 for the 1.8 T). Torque is that force that propels you away from intersections and up steep grades and the V6 has plenty of it. According to Volkswagen, Passat GLS V6 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 7.3 seconds, while Passat GLS 1.8 T takes 7.9 seconds, when both have five-speed manual. (With the automatic, it's 8.2 for the V6, 8.8 for the 1.8 T.)

We drove a Passat GL with the manual transmission on winding roads in the red clay hills north of Atlanta. And we drove a Passat GL with the five-speed automatic in the desert country of Southern California on back roads between Palmdale and Santa Barbara. We were impressed by the Passat's ability to accelerate away from slow corners with little drama from the chassis. The Passat shows none of the squirreliness suffered by many front-drive cars, due in large part to its sophisticated front suspension.

Cornering is balanced front to rear, with little understeer. The four-link front suspension uses coil springs and an anti-roll bar, while the rear suspension relies on VW's trusted and true torsion beam axle with trailing arms, coil springs and an anti-roll bar. (4Motion models ride on a fully independent, double-wishbone suspension at the rear, which helps explain what happened to the trunk space.) The chassis absorbs bumps and potholes like a damp sponge on spilled milk. The Passat is solid, with no shakes transmitted through the steering column or the chassis. Want confidence? It comes bundled in the base Passat.

In fact, it's a good thing cruise control is standard, as it can help drivers avoid tickets in this superb sedan. Passat's competence at high speeds springs from its upbringing in Germany, the home of the Autobahn. Passat cruises lazily at any legal speed in the U.S.

Volkswagen's Anti-Slip Regulation (ASR), a traction control system that comes standard, reduces wheel spin and improves stability under acceleration. Also standard is an Electronic Differential Lock, which helps apportion torque between the front wheels, again for improved stability, less wheel spin, and quicker acceleration. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, along with anti-lock braking (ABS). Steering is by power-assisted rack and pinion. The turning circle is a not especially tight at 37.4 feet curb to curb.

W8 offers a lot power, but its power is masked by its smooth delivery. The W8 responds to the accelerator pedal with a no-fuss/no-worry whoosh. The 4Motion all-wheel drive mutes any residual histrionics as the Passat is whisked to surprising velocities in a remarkably short period of time. On winding roads south of Half Moon Bay, California, we had the opportunity to let the W8 scamper. Significantly, we left the Tiptronic gear lever in full-automatic mode. The engine's torque was so smooth and the shift programming sufficiently clever that we didn't feel the urge to improve upon it.

Non-technical folks might want to skip this paragraph, but we think the gearheads in the audience will enjoy a little exploration of the W8's anatomy: W8 isn't an entirely new engine, being based on two Volkswagen VR6 engines, minus two cylinders each. The VR6 is a narrow-angle V6 with an enclosed angle of 15 degrees and a single cylinder head. VW engineers originally joined two VR6 engines to create a running W12-powered concept car. In the W8, two VR4 engines are joined at 72 degrees on a common crankshaft. Offset crank pins produce an even firing pattern, but the whole unit is not dynamically balanced, and requires twin counter-rotating balance shafts. But the result is a compact eight that makes more horsepower than an engine squished into that small of a space has a right to make. The W8 produces 270 horsepower at 6000 rpm with a strong 273 pound-feet of torque at 2750 rpm.

Volkswagen is rightfully proud of the distinctive engine note of the W8. It sounds good both inside and outside the car, especially when accelerating. There's no harshness, just a distinctive warble from eight even-firing cylinders. That said, the Passat W8 does not possess a particularly sporty personality, but rather one of a long-legged touring car. The W8 is speed-limited to 130 mph (ungoverned, and with a different final drive, it will go 145 in Europe) in deference to softer tires used in America where top speed is academic anyway. Passat W8 weighs about 800 pounds more than the front-drive GL, and its city mpg drops below 20, and that's on premium fuel. Highway mileage is very respectable, however.

Road noise is noticeable in all Passat models, especially over tar-and-chip type pavement, and there's wind noise at 80 mph, but it's not significantly noisier than a Honda Accord.

Volkswagen Passat is the refined European member of mid-size sedans. It's slightly smaller than its competitors, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, among them. Passat also tends to be priced higher than comparably equipped models. Passat's value is the refinement and quality it offers. Passat also comes loaded with features that are options on other sedans, so there's no real need to order extra-cost options. This is the car to get if you appreciate quality and attention to detail.

Passat GL with five-speed manual ($21,750) is our choice. It's fun to drive, relatively affordable, and beats the V6 by several miles per gallon. Yet it delivers the Volkswagen quality. GLS V6 with the automatic ($26,460) is an excellent choice for someone who wants a responsive, well-equipped sedan with an automatic. Spring for the GLX sedan ($28,750) if you want a real luxury car.

Passat W8 ($37,900) will place you in an exclusive group of drivers. There is no other W8 engine in the world, nor is there likely to be one, and owners of a W8 can expect to explain the difference between it and a V8 many, many times. It probably won't garner the cachet of, say, a Mercedes C320 sedan, but you'll be driving an excellent automobile and will gain respect from enthusiasts. Its features make the W8 a good deal for the money, even if it is priced higher than any previous VW. Volkswagen plans to sell only 5,000 W8s per year, which makes it something of a halo car for the Passat line.

Model as tested
Passat GL ($21,750)
Basic Warranty
4 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in
Emden, Germany
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
Monsoon Sound System ($325); Electronic Stabilization Program ($280)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
Sedans: GL 1.8 T ($21,750); GLS 1.8 T ($22,885); GLS V6 ($25,385); GLX V6 ($28,750); GLX V6 4Motion ($31,575); W8 ($37,900)<P>Wagons: GL 1.8 T ($22,550); GLS 1.8 T ($23,685); GLS V6 ($26,185); GLX V6 ($29,550); GLX V6 4Motion ($32,375); W8 ($38,700)<P>
Safety equipment (standard)
ABS, ASR traction control, electronic differential lock, dual front airbags, front side seat-mounted airbags, side curtain airbags, seatbelt pretensioners with force limiters, rear-seat head restraints, LATCH child safety seat anchorage points
Safety equipment (optional)
1.8-liter dohc 20-valve turbocharged inline-four
5-speed manual

Specifications as Tested
air conditioning, two-speed variable intermittent wipers, immobilizer anti-theft system, cruise control, rear defroster, floor mats, multi-function trip computer, remote/central locking, front and rear reading lights, glove box light, illuminated vanity mirrors, power outlet in trunk, 8-speaker AM/FM cassette/CD audio, reclining front seats with adjustable lumbar and angle, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, HVAC with pollen/dust filter, power windows with one-touch automatic feature

Engine & Transmission
1.8-liter dohc 20-valve turbocharged inline-four
Drivetrain type
front-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
170 @ 5900
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)

Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc with ABS
Suspension, front
Suspension, rear

Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear

Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight

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