The cars we loved.
For long time car watchers, seeing a particular model evolve can be fun. For Volkswagen’s Passat, the current model would seem down right alien to anyone shopping for the bold looking quirky first and second generation models. For instance, the original car appeared in the early ’70s and was considered mid-sized at the time, a step up from the popular Beetle and the new Rabbit. Now the Passat is much bigger, more posh and considerably uninspiring to look at.
The original car’s attractive design, penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro came as a coupe, sedan or wagon. At a quick glance the earliest versions with round headlights resembled the Golf and Polo, only larger. The five door sedan and coupes featured a fastback design, suggesting more sport than it’s little inline four cylinder engines could deliver. Despite that, they were responsive and had crisp handling – all the things expected of a German car even back then.
The first generation, designated as B1 models were blocky and upright. It’s design as a coupe had a lot of potential. At one time VW even explored the possibility of making a GTi version of the Passat in 1976. Doing so would have made VW a contender in the near premium European coupe market. The Scorrico was doing a good job at that, so the GTi never happened. Instead the title would be lavished on the new Rabbit/Golf. VW continued to improve the Passat while maintaining a kind of refined (yet quirky) personality to them.
The next generation (B2) at the start of the ’80s, is where VW started to establish itself as a maker of near premium small European cars. The character lines of the second generation Passat began to take on the “German” design aesthetic shared by many Audi and BMW cars. In fact this was the beginning of a successful period for VW where it’s Passat was starting to look like a real player in the mid-sized family sedan market.
Passats were always front wheel drive, even when other smaller cars were still being pushed along by the rears. This generation introduced a four wheel drive system (different from that the Golf and more like the Audi 80). Eventually the all wheel drive models would be known as Quantum. The coupe was dropped for the American market, although it was still available elsewhere. Part of the reason for it’s absence may have been that it came too close to Scirocco territory in size and appearance.
As for the rest of the Passat range, it was becoming a more refined shape. It’s wedgey lines were now rounded at the edges much like the Scirocco. In fact the front half of the car resembled VW’s most expensive sporty coupe up to the ‘B’ pillar. This was the best example of a sedan coming from VW at the time. The smaller Jetta clearly looked awkward with it’s 3 box profile. The Passat represented a more evolved take on the standard four door sedan – although it could not be mistaken for an American or Japanese car.
In further setting itself apart from it’s American competitors, the Passat had a typically no frills German interior. Sport seats with graphic patterns were reminiscent of some sportier Golfs, while the instrument cluster was the typical button down ergonomics the Germans were known for. Even little details like the pop-out cassette tape holders were designed to be easily accessible while looking logically placed. WV’s from this era managed to look spartan on the inside, while still managing to have all the dials and readouts serious drivers needed.
Performance was improved with a range of four cylinder engines that were as big as 2.2 liters. A new top of the line model designated as the Quantum GL in America got a 5 cylinder engine similar to the one used in the Audi 80. In Quantum wagon form, this was perhaps the most attractive looking of all Passats and could be had with a 5 speed manual transmission. Even with all wheel drive, a loaded Quantum would weigh well south of 3,000 lbs., giving it sprightly performance and high efficiency (without the need for a turbo).
For much of the B2 model’s life horsepower ratings hovered around the 110 mark, even for diesel and 5 cylinder models. The top Passat would eventually become the V6 powered GLX or GLS models. While there was never a GTi version in America, the GLX/GLS would share the powerful 2.8 L VR6 engine with the Corrado and Golf GTi. It even used the same 14 inch aluminum wheels from the GTi and Scirocco. The VR6 powered cars would not arrive until the third generation at which point the Passat was well on it’s way to becoming a mainstream competitor.
The Passat grew larger and more bland as its design evolved. VW even acknowledged the issue and slipped a renamed variant called the CC into the range to liven things up. Like the Quantum before it, VW used another name in this case CC to take the Passat more upscale. With its sleeker Mercedes inspired sheetmetal, it left the homely standard car behind if only in the minds of the style conscious. The more ubiquitous standard car was still retained because it would ironically be the better seller.
Today the Tennessee built Passat for the North American market is miles ahead of the original car in comfort and overall quality. Unfortunately that which made the Passat unique, that kind of German design attribute of crispness in line is now gone. Until that kind of distinction comes back, the Passat will continue to be the bland sideline player in the tightly contested mid-sized family sedan market.
The Passat is already a great car, now it just needs some of the quirkiness that made the B1 and B2 cars so interesting.