Attention to detail, power are bred into Volkswagen's Passat

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Except it's almost too stylish to lump in the midsize group with the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Those are safe choices anybody could recommend - to a relative, perhaps.

The Passat is more of a driver's car, still, and for those owners who give a look back at their beloved wheels after locking up.

This is a versatile midsize car. The last generation started out with a four cylinder, added a V-6, all-wheel drive, then a V-8, which was overkill, but an attempt to raise the public's impression of VW.

With each new generation of car, VW debuts a four-cylinder model, and, as before, this one seems plenty strong.

But there always will be those who want more, and I hear the 280-horsepower VR6 model is a tire smoker. The four-motion all-wheel-drive system will be offered on VR6 cars and wagons, which debut later in the year.

The 200-horsepowered turbocharged four-cylinder models should be well-received, given the price of fuel.

Two models of the four-cylinder Passat come with a six-speed manual transmission or optional six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission.

The Passat Value Edition 2.0T with six-speed manual transmission has a starting price of $23,565. The "value" is in the simplicity of its checklist of features: less chrome, fewer upgrades - no sunroof, power mirrors or front reading lights - and just the basic eight-speaker, single disc CD audio.

What it does have is a leatherette interior, remote locking, air conditioning with pollen filter, power windows with one-touch up-down, power heated mirrors, tilt-telescopic steering wheel, eight-way manually adjusted front seats, split folding rear seat back with ski pass-through, electric parking brake and a nifty umbrella storage slot in the door - but you provide the umbrella.

The 2.0T model has a starting price of $24,515 and can run to $31,565, as did my test car. It was as well-finished as a modest luxury sedan.

For those Jetta owners who were waiting to move up and don't like the tubby sides of the new Jetta, the sleekness of the Passat might be the obvious move.

This sixth-generation Passat is 3 inches longer and wider than last year's car. Legroom in the back seat is 37.7 inches - about 2 1/2 inches more, which means there's decent adult space even if the front passenger seat has been moved back. A tall exhaust tunnel compromises foot room in the center position, though.

The new chassis is much stiffer with the use of more high-strength steel and lighter (more expensive) materials. That helped the engineers give the Passat a supple ride.

It also encourages enthusiastic driving, though the suspension can easily outperform the stock all-season tires. Upgrading to a touring tire would help.
The cabin is well-soundproofed, except for some noise transfer from the tires on concrete highways, which might be filtered out by a touring tire.

The trunk is wide, flat and expandable with the split folding seat back. There's a full-size spare under the floor.

Inside, the Passat is attractive and roomy, with an array of integrated storage areas, including large door pockets (front and rear) and that compact umbrella holder.

The materials are of good Euro-looking stock, and the panels have well-aligned edges and corners. The design should remain contemporary for years. The nighttime gauge illumination is still blue.

The front center armrest is height adjustable, with storage below, but it can be a finger-pincher until you get the hang of raising and lowering it.

And neighbors will be entertained by the big VW badge on the trunk lid that doubles as the release. Push on the top and the badge tilts inward, like the special book on the shelf at the haunted house that reveals a hidden staircase.

Passat received Double Best Pick honors from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, earning top ratings in head protection, injuries and structural design for side impact and frontal tests.

The supporting cast includes six air bags, including a head curtain, and a $350 option for two rear side bags. The belts have pretensioners, force limiters and emergency locking retractors. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes, which is important for proper driver fit, control and safety.

Electronic driver aids include an electronic stabilization program with brake assist and the four-wheel disc brakes (with ABS) have a disc-wiping feature that taps the discs to keep them dry and responsive.

Another useful driver aid is the hill-holder function with the manual transmission. When stopped on a hill with the clutch depressed, the car won't roll backward.

The six-speed Tiptronic automatic, a $1,075 option, provides manual-shift ability and a Sport mode that is truly aggressive in holding gears and downshifts.

But even the automatic-equipped Passat is a brisk performer, and there is just a slight hint at takeoff that there's a turbo under the hood.

There is little torque steer from the front-wheel drive and acceleration in the 50- to 70-mph range is particularly sharp. Fuel mileage with the Tiptronic is 22 mpg city and 31 highway (23/32 manual). VW recommends premium fuel for max performance, but the engine adjusts to 87 octane, too.

It used to be that Americans would balk at paying $31,000 for just a four-cylinder sedan. But now, with the price of fuel such an issue, Passat offers a champagne experience on a white-wine budget.

2006 Passat 2.0T

Body style: Midsize, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger sedan

Engine: 2.0-liter, 200-hp, 207 foot-pounds torque, turbocharged four-cylinder with double overhead camshaft and variable intake and exhaust cam timing

Transmission: Six-speed manual or optional six-speed Tiptronic automatic

Acceleration: 0-60 mph, 7.4 seconds (6.9, manual)

Fuel Economy: 22 mpg city, 31 highway (23/32 manual)

Fuel tank: 18.5 gallons; premium recommended but not required

Wheelbase: 106.7 inches

Length: 188.2 inches

Curb weight: 3,344 pounds

Trunk room: 14.2 cubic feet

Front head/leg/shoulder room: 38.4/41.4/55.7 inches

Second row head/leg/shoulder room: 37.8/37.7/54.6 inches

Standard equipment: Remote locking, air conditioning with pollen filter, cruise control, trip computer with compass, power windows with one-touch up-down, power (heated) mirrors, tilt-telescopic steering wheel, center armrest with storage, rear armrest with storage and cup holders, power recline and lumbar for driver's seat, split-folding rear seat back with ski pass-through, illuminated front visor vanity mirrors, front and rear reading lights, remote releases for trunk and fuel door, electric parking brake, front and rear floor mats, in-dash single CD audio system

Safety equipment: Front air bags, front side bags, side curtain head bags, electronic differential lock, anti-slip regulation, anti-lock brakes, tire-pressure monitoring system

Suspension: Four-wheel independent; front struts, rear multilink

Steering: Electro-mechanical power assisted; 35.8-foot turning circle

Brakes: 4-wheel discs with ABS and Brake Assist

Tires and wheels: 215/55 16-inch H-rated all-season Goodyear Eagle LS on alloy wheels

Base price: $24,515, including $615 destination charge; price as tested, $31,565

Options on test vehicle: Package 2, $2,825, includes power sunroof, satellite radio, leather comfort seats, 4-spoke multi-function steering wheel, leather shift knob and heated front seats; navigation system with 6-disc CD changer in glove box, $1,800; 6-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission, $1,075; Dynaudio sound system, $1,000; rear side air bags, $350

The competition: Buick LaCrosse, Honda Accord, Mercury Milan, Mazda6, Mitsubishi Galant, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Kia Amanti, Hyundai Azera, Saab 9-3, Subaru Legacy, Volvo S40

Waranty: 4-years/50,000 miles basic coverage with roadside assistance

Where assembled: Mosel, Germany

PLUSES: Attention to important details. Lots of power with fuel economy. Attractive inside and out.

MINUSES: Tiptronic automatic doesn't allow Sport mode and manual shifting together. Front height-adjustable armrest can be a finger-pincher until you get it figured out.

Mark Maynard is driving in cyberspace at mark.maynard@uniontrib.com.

© Copley News Service

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