The cars we loved.

1981 -1988 Volkswagen Passat: From Bold to Bland


1987 VW Quantumn GLX



1973 (B1) Passat 2 door

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.


1976 (B1) Passat GTi prototype

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.


(B2) Passat 5 door sedan

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.


(B2) Passat 4 door sedan

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.


Euro market B2 Passat coupe

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.


(B2) Passat/Quantumn/Santana dashboard

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.


2016 VW Passat

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.




(B2) Passat in sporty GLX trim


3 comments on “1981 -1988 Volkswagen Passat: From Bold to Bland

  1. Wirewheels
    December 25, 2016

    I think you glossed over the b5 Passat, which while not as visually distinctive as the original model, absolutely followed the tradition of upmarket design and material quality established by the first two generations. It really was the zenith of the Passat’s trajectory into premium territory (only to be foiled by woeful reliability and a downturn of the economy).

    I also have to question the idea that distinction is what will be the saving grace for the Passat. The ‘dumbed-down’ North American models have sold much better than the their predecessors ever did, which is consistent with the trend across midsize sedans from all brands. One look at the best-sellers will suggest that it is not a segment that rewards innovation or excitement! If VW wishes to pursue volume, I suspect they would be better served spending on money improving the Passat’s reliability, and just as much then advertising it.

    But whatever the future holds, I agree with you that earlier Passats extremely charming cars!

  2. autopolis
    December 27, 2016

    Design distinction is what sells modern cars. If you assume quality is the same all around (and it is not with VW), design stands out in a crowded market. The Kia Optima is a prime example of how distinctive design have made that cars sales skyrocket since the 2010 redesign.

    • Wirewheels
      January 5, 2017

      I agree that good looks will help move the metal, but It shouldn’t be VW’s top priority right now for the Passat (along with it’s other volume models). They want to be a volume brand in the US, but history has shown that they are unable to achieve this by playing up the semi-premium Euro-styling angle.

      The Kia Optima added a great design on top of the aspects it had already been fostering in order to grow its brand in the US. It had long offered great feature content and warranty, while undercutting the segment leaders in price. It had it’s fundamentals down, leaving it in a position to fine tune the remaining details.

      We know that VW can build good-looking and fun-to-drive cars, but they have never been able to offer those qualities in a car that’s as inexpensive to own (and maintain) as its competition. Ideally, the next generation Passat would be outstanding in all aspects, but I doubt VW can afford to build such a vehicle. If they must choose a few areas to focus on, I believe styling has to be one of the lowest priorities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: