2006 Volkswagen Passat Wagon 3.6 – A Country Squire for the Alpenstrasse

Latest in a slew of redesigned staple vehicles, the Volkswagen Passat hit the market late last summer, as part of a barrage of new product planned to counter plummeting market share. Along with improved iterations of the Jetta, Golf (soon to be renamed the Rabbit) and even a new New Beetle, the 2006 VW Passat was a marked cut above the previous model. The public approved, popping a parachute just in time to prevent sales-figure freefall. Shortly thereafter, a wagon-ized Passat Estate hit the market, offering even more utility.

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Our inaugural introduction to the new Passat is long past, and our initial impressions were indeed positive. We’ve now spent a week with the Estate edition, fully immersing ourselves into this new model, and remain impressed. Passats in general are well-built, luxurious automobiles; the Passat Estate has been a welcome addition to the station wagon genre. With this latest revamp, both have grown not just in size, but in overall appeal as well.

Contrary to our own experience with aging, along with the Passat’s new maturity comes enhanced “vim and vigor.” Base Passats get their thrust from Volkswagen’s venerable turbo four-banger, now displacing 2.0 liters and making 200 horsepower. Adequate it may be, but true speed junkies will always go for the optional motor–in this case, a new 3.6-liter narrow-angle V6 (commonly called a VR6). Power is rated at 280hp and 265 lb.-ft., of torque–and if that seems like an awful lot for a stately VW estate, well, it is.

Yes, the Passat 3.6 is fast–deceptively so. We managed 0-60 mph in 6.7 seconds, making this VW a match for the Mercedes C350 4MATIC, an Audi TT, or a BMW 325i. That kind of brawn makes freeway entrances and green lights into experiences to anticipate. Otherwise, however, the Passat–especially in Estate form–falls short, dynamically, of sports-car territory. Grip is not lacking, thanks to 235/40 rubber on 18″ rims, but this chassis exhibits more body lean than the potent powertrain would lead you to expect. The steering is relatively numb, and oversteer is prevalent. The standard 5-speed automatic is smooth and intuitive, however.

Keep in mind, though, that we’re not talking about a sports car here. This is a family wagon, and among its rivals in that segment, the Passat is very buttoned-down. We merely felt compelled to point out the incongruous nature of the Passat 3.6’s rip-roaring engine and sedate suspension. With such prodigious power supplying effortless speed, it’s easy to forget what you’re driving.

Actually, the Passat’s 6.7-second timeslip is also equivalent to the V8-powered Phaeton’s sprint. That congruence is itself peculiarly appropriate–in every aspect, the 2006 Passat reminds us of nothing so much as that uber-lux sedan. For one thing, there’s that ‘more luxurious than sporty’ personality.

The Passat’s resemblance to VW’s flagship is a happy occurrence when it comes to the interior. With aluminum accents and sporty red lighting, it’s more modern than the traditional leather-and-wood scheme, but it can be similarly well-equipped. Aside from the obvious accessories–power everything, sunroof, etc.–our Passat carried some intriguing gadgets, including the only auto-close trunk/hatch we’ve seen south of Mercedes-Benz. The first thing to catch our eye, though, was the key; there’s just a fob, but it’s not a “smart key” system per se. Instead, the fob itself is inserted into the ignition slot–and rather than turn it, merely pushing it in starts the car (push it again to cut the engine).

Volkswagen engineers were particularly considerate with regards to interior storage; cubby spaces lurk under the seats, above the console, and even in the lower dash to the left of the steering wheel. Their thoughtfulness is also evident in the driver’s door panel, which hides an innovative umbrella caddy. Just a simple round slot in the door, this clever feature avoids the need to bring a wet umbrella into the car. You’d think this would be more common; we can imagine Passats selling to denizens of Seattle and other precipitation-prone places on the strength of this convenience alone.

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Our Passat was also endowed with the latest VW navigation system. A lack of touch-screen capability tempered any enthusiasm we developed for this system, however. Still, it did score points with a comprehensive database and intuitive alphabet-selection. Plus, the VW version can be operated while the vehicle is in motion, which we really appreciate; however this too is mitigated by our example’s tendency to freeze now and again. In all, we’d rate the VW nav mid-pack.

Size-wise, the Passat Estate is closer to a Touareg than a Phaeton; it measures 185″ long, 59″ tall, and 69″ wide. Capacious in almost every dimension, the Passat’s 96.2 cubic feet of passenger space rivals the measurements of many high-end sedans. The Estate also boasts 39′ of cargo space behind the 60/40 split-fold seats–volume increases to 56.5′ with seats folded.

Certain aspects of the Passat experience proved less pleasant, however. Paramount among these complaints is the jumpy throttle–imagine almost imperceptible response in the first few inches of pedal travel, followed by abrupt acceleration from the next centimeter. This hair-trigger action made modulating our speed in the Passat an almost impossible proposition. A noisy power-steering system also manifested itself in our test car, although we’ve never experienced that issue prior to this.

Oh, and yet another area in which the Passat and Phaeton converge: fuel economy. Our lead-footed piloting is surely partly to blame, but the 15.3 m.p.g. we averaged in the Passat Estate was disillusioning to say the least.

One characteristic that the Passat and Phaeton do not share, however, is the price of admission. Where the Phaeton is priced on par with other German luxury sedans, the Passat in part profits from Volkswagen’s desire to differentiate its products from Audi’s. At $37,580, the Passat not only offers prodigious content, power and utility, but packs that perception of Teutonic substantiality and solidity as well.

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