News center
We aim to offer the best products at the most attractive prices.

1999 Volkswagen Passat GLS Wagon: The Revival of Cool

Nov 25, 2023

From the Archive: Another charming resurrection of a species once left for dead.

From the November 1998 issue of Car and Driver.

Attention, trivia collectors! With the arrival of this cleanly sculpted vari­ation of Volkswagen's attractive mid-size sedan, Volkswagen-Audi AG now offers as many station-wagon choices as the Big Three.

It's true. Let's go to the C/D wagon scoreboard. Number of station wagons built by Chrysler: zero. General Motors: one, the Saturn. Ford: two, each with two brand names—Ford Escort / Mercury Tracer, and Ford Taurus / Mercury Sable. Domestic industry total: three. And that's the lot.

VW-Audi also has three—the Audi A4 and A6 Avants, and the new Passat—and any one of them provides more driver grat­ification than all their U.S. competition put together. For that matter, the same can be said for the Passat's former rivals from Honda and Toyota. In their recent redesigns, wagon models disappeared from both the Accord and Camry model ranges, and neither of their former offer­ings was as nifty or nimble as the new Passat.

So that leaves the Passat with few cred­ible competitors: The Volvo V70 is not only bigger and quicker in its turbo editions but also considerably more expensive. The Subaru Legacy GT packs a bit more power and space, plus all-wheel drive, for $23,990. The base price of our Passat GLS tester was $21,800. A $325 All-Weather package (heated front seats and washer nozzles) and a power glass sunroof ($1000) bumped the as-tested total to $23,125. The base five-cylinder five-speed V70 opens at $28,860.

Like the Audi A4 and A6 Avants, the Passat wagon is built on VW-Audi's B­-platform. Unlike some companies, how­ever, platform sharing at VW-Audi doesn't mean out-and-out cloning. Chassis and body dimensions for the three wagons are all different, with the Passat slotting between the two Audis. (Of course, the Passat is priced from $9165 to $16,394 less than the Audis.)

The Passat's new chassis is commend­ably stiff—a 35-percent improvement in torsional rigidity, according to VW—and its A4-derived four-link front suspension seems to do a better-than-average job of controlling toe and camber changes during hard cornering. The rear suspension—a trailing-arm and torsion-beam setup—is more mundane, but it at least keeps the rear wheels from contributing more than their fair share to the steering.

That steering gives the Passat a little more character than your average mid-size family hauler. Although on-center feel is a bit on the numb side and there's a tad more power assist than we like at low speeds, the ratio is fairly quick—2.8 turns lock-to-lock—and accuracy is very good indeed.

Suspension tuning is another major ele­ment of aggressive turn-in and prompt recovery in quick transitions, of course, and the Passat's Teutonic heritage shows to good advantage in these essentials of fun to drive (FTD). There's enough starch in the shock and spring rates to keep weight transfer out of the drama zone, allowing the Passat to straighten out snaky stretches with higher-than-average zeal.

This trait—and the power of the all­-disc brake system, augmented by a virtu­ally pulse-free Bosch 5.3 anti-lock brake unit—doesn't really show to advantage in our formal test results. Indifferent skidpad performance (0.75 g) iden­tifies the limiting factor, a set of 195/65R-15 Continentals. We have to pre­sume these tires were chosen primarily for ride quality, and probably price, because they whimpered at the first hint of ram­bunctious ramp running. They also sniveled in switchbacks and just flat howled in any kind of hard cornering. Less sidewall and a little more contact patch, as well as a tread compound less closely related to linoleum, would definitely enhance this car's abilities in the realm of driving for entertainment.

Acceleration is still another essential component of FTD, and here the Passat's performance rates so-so, at least when it's equipped with VW's corporate 1.8-liter twin-cam 20-valve turbo four. As we've noted before, Volkswagen's five-valve-­per-cylinder engine is no screamer. It reaches its 150-horsepower peak at 5700 rpm. With a test weight of 3180 pounds, we weren't at all surprised by its 8.5-second 0-to-60 time, even though our test car had the standard five-speed manual transmission.

On the other hand, the 1.8T has excellent torque characteristics, with al­most all 155 pound-feet of it on tap from 1750 to 4600 rpm. The big bene­fits to this exceptional torque band are snappy stoplight getaways and better-than-average fifth­-gear response in freeway cruising.

More snort will be available this month as '99 models start trickling in to showrooms. They'll have the option of VW's 190-hp, 2.8-liter V-6. The same goes for VW's all­-wheel-drive Syncro option and possibly the 1.9-liter turbo-diesel currently offered in the Jetta and New Beetle. At this writing, however, the only powertrain option for the Passat wagon is VW's manumatic five­-speed Tiptronic transmission.

Seating is another of the Passat's strong suits, as it usually is with VWs. Up front, the buckets lack some lateral support but otherwise offer a wide range of adjust­ments and include side airbags tucked into their outer edges. In back, there is an extra 1.4 inches of headroom and a bit more shoulder width. Behind the seats, the Passat can swallow 39 cubic feet of stuff; 56 cubes fit with those seats folded flat.

There are two interior shortcomings: a color scheme that seems to have been inspired by an hour or so in the dark depths of the Carlsbad Caverns—coal miners will feel at home here—and audio controls designed for folks whose fin­gertips resemble freshly sharpened pencils.

On the credit side of the ledger, the stygian interior decor is bright­ened at night by the neonesque instrument and secondary-control lighting—blue and red—­and the cabin is com­mendably quiet at most operating speeds. The engine emits a bit of buzz at idle, and exceptionally warty pavement will communicate occa­sional thumps through the suspension and into the ears of the occupants. But even though the coefficient of drag is, at 0.30, 0.03 higher than the sedan's number, wind noise is still close to Accord/Camry terri­tory. Which is to say low.

We all know why the popularity of station wagons has dwindled to almost nothing in the U.S. market, of course. They've been supplanted by minivans and sport-utility vehicles, the former for their greater capacity, the latter because they're perceived as cool, and also because they convey a sense of invulnerability and empowerment to certain drivers.

Well, okay. But in the realm of safety, we lean strongly toward vehicles with a high agility index, optimizing crash avoid­ance, rather than those that are likely to have an edge in total mass when the colli­sion occurs. And when we hear folks equating FTD with a high seating position, we're tempted to contact the Thought Police.

FTD is an amalgam of limited body roll, brisk transient response, precise steering, and a favorable power-to-weight ratio. With the 1.8-liter engine, the Passat wagon isn't spectacular on the latter count, but it's still livelier than 95 percent of the sport-utilities galumphing along out there. And it will leave any of them gasping for breath on a mountain road.

Add decent cargo capacity, smooth styling, long-haul comfort, and the best fit-and-finish quality we've seen from VW in many years, and you have an excellent reason to avoid the mountainous mass, ele­phantine responses, and heavy thirst of a mid-size sport-ute.

Thanks to Volkswagen, the station wagon is cool again.


1999 Volkswagen Passat GLS wagonVehicle Type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 5-door wagon

PRICEBase/As Tested: $21,800/$23,125Options: power sunroof, $1000; All-Weather package (heated front seats and washer nozzles), $325

ENGINEturbocharged and intercooled DOHC 20-valve inline-4, iron block and aluminum head, port fuel injectionDisplacement: 109 in3, 1781 cm3Power: 150 hp @ 5700 rpmTorque: 155 lb-ft @ 1750 rpm

TRANSMISSION5-speed manual

CHASSISSuspension, F/R: multilink/control armsBrakes, F/R: 11.1-in vented disc/9.6-in discTires: Continental ContiTouring Contact EcoPlus195/65HR-15

DIMENSIONS Wheelbase: 106.4 inLength: 183.8 inWidth: 68.5 inHeight: 59.0 inPassenger Volume, F/R: 53/44 ft3Cargo Volume, Behind M/R: 56/39 ft3Curb Weight: 3180 lb

C/D TEST RESULTS60 mph: 8.5 sec1/4-Mile: 16.6 sec @ 85 mph100 mph: 25.0 sec120 mph: 48.0 secRolling Start, 5–60 mph: 9.5 secTop Gear, 30–50 mph: 10.9 secTop Gear, 50–70 mph: 10.5 secTop Speed (gov ltd): 127 mphBraking, 70–0 mph: 200 ftRoadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.75 g

C/D FUEL ECONOMYObserved: 27 mpg

EPA FUEL ECONOMYCity/Highway: 23/32 mpg


Remembering Tony

50-Grand Gazelles: Luxury Sports Sedans Compared

1999 Mazda Protegé ES Is Better, Not Bigger

Little Land Bruisers: 1998 Compact SUVs Compared

1999 Honda Odyssey EX Is Bigger and Better

Tested: 1999 Saab 9-5 Sticks to the Formula

From the Archive: 1998 Isuzu Amigo V-6

1981 Toyota Cressida: The Most American Toyota Yet

1990 Nissan 300ZX Turbo Automatic: Tested

1985 Subaru XT 4WD Turbo: Embrace the Strange

Tested: 1982 Chevrolet Caprice Classic

Tested: 1980 Pontiac Firebird Turbo Trans Am

Watch Out Casey Jones: We Drive a Locomotive