The origins of today’s Volkswagen Passat go all the way back to 1973. Until that time, VW had relied primarily upon the technology developed for the Beetle to underpin its cars. The rear-engine, rear-drive platform developed for that iconic automobile underpinned a minivan (VW Type 2), a four-door fastback (Type 3) and updated variations of that four-door fastback, designated Volkswagen 411 and 412.
By the 1970s, it was becoming evident further development of the rear-engine/air-cooled design would reap no additional cost-effective benefits. Plus, emissions regulations were making it more and more difficult to keep that powertrain legal in many parts of the world.
Fortunately, Volkswagen had purchased Audi in 1964. With that company’s front-engine/ front-wheel drive technology available to it, VW started developing cars to replace the Beetle-based products upon which it had been relying. The first Volkswagen-badged product from that marriage to emerge was the 1973 Passat; following closely on its heels was the 1974 Volkswagen Golf and Scirocco. These cars were based on the Audi 80 model and opened up a new era at Volkswagen, one that continues to this day.
The first Passat to traverse the Atlantic Ocean and arrive on American shores landed in 1974, badged as the Volkswagen Dasher (although it was called the Volkswagen Passat everywhere else in the world). The name Passat goes back to the period of Volkswagen’s history when all of its cars were named after prominent winds. Passat is derived from the German word for trade wind. Golf, is derived from Gulf Stream, Jetta is derived from Jet Stream, and Scirocco is derived from the Italian word for a hot desert wind called a Sirocco.
While Passats have existed since the early 1970s, the Passat model designation was withheld from North America until 1990. The car it arrived with employed an unconventional grille-less design and was the first Passat to be built on a Volkswagen developed platform, rather than one developed by Audi. In many respects, that Passat was little more than an enlarged Golf, as the two cars directly shared many components. That car ran until 1993, when it got a facelift to include a grille to bring its styling more into line with the other Volkswagen products of the period.
The changes didn’t help much, that car never sold well on the North American market.
The car most people today envision when the hear the word Passat was introduced to North America in 1998, and that is where this article will start charting the changes to the model line over the past fifteen years. There have been three generations of the Passat offered here since 1998.
1998 - 2004 Volkswagen Passat
For the version of the Passat Volkswagen brought to North America in 1998, the company went back to its Audi subsidiary for the platform and much of the running gear. In essence, this version of the Passat was an Audi A4 in disguise. In fact, even though Audi developed the platform, the A4 using the design wasn’t offered for sale in Germany until two years after the Passat employing the platform had already been on the market.
Light-years better than the car it replaced, that Passat also had another thing going for it in terms of sales. 1998 was the year Volkswagen reintroduced the Beetle, attracting a wave of new interest to its showrooms. When people flooded VW showrooms and inundated the Volkswagen stands at auto shows to get their first peek at the New Beetle, they also found the handsome new Passat sparkling under the spotlights.
Offered in three iterations, GLS 1.8T, GLS V6 and GLX; the Volkswagen Passat offered a spacious four-door sedan (more roomy than the Audi A4 actually) along with those highly desirable German driving dynamics at a relatively affordable price point. Two engines were offered; a 150-horsepower, 1.8-liter turbocharged inline-four, generating 155 ft-lbs of torque; and a 190-horsepower, 2.8-liter V-6 making 206-ft-lbs of torque.
A wagon variant was also offered.
Five-speed transmissions conducted power to the front wheels in all models as standard equipment. A five-speed automatic was available as an option. Other standard features included fog lights, keyless entry, traction control, ABS, power windows and door locks, cruise control, air conditioning, and a tilt and telescoping steering wheel.
Options included the V6 engine, heated front seats, leather upholstery, and a power moonroof. If you opted for a GLX-trimmed Passat, you got all of those features included in the price of the car as standard equipment. Meanwhile, the GLS V6 carried the standard equipment feature-set of the turbocharged GLS, but offered the V-6 engine instead.
No significant changes were made to the 1999 Volkswagen Passat from its 1998 version. The GLS V-6 wagon was not offered for the 1999 model year.
The most significant development for the 2000 model year was the advent of all-wheel drive Passat models in North America. Offered only with the V-6 engines in either GLS or GLX trims, the 4Motion system made the Passat even more desirable for drivers in climates where inclement conditions predominated.
As before, Passats came quite generously equipped; ABS four-wheel discs were standard on all trim levels, as was an independent front and rear suspension system, and power rack-and-pinion steering,
Comfort and convenience accoutrements included; air conditioning, cruise control, one-touch power windows, power locks, remote keyless entry, a remote trunk release, a full-size conventional spare, side airbags and heated exterior mirrors — on the base model.
The upscale GLX trim added the V-6 engine, a sunroof, heated front seats with adjustments memory for the driver's seat, leather upholstery for the seats and door-trim, variable intermittent wipers with heated jets, and an auto-dimming day-night mirror.
The GLS V6 wagon was brought back, along with all-wheel drive and a GLX version of the wagon was offered for the first time. Passat wagon’s equipment offerings mirrored the sedans.
There are two different versions of the Passat designated as 2001 models. A mid-year update for the car (designated 2001.5) introduced new styling features, changes to the interior and an uprated four-cylinder engine. Some of those changes were on 2001 model year cars too, including front and rear side curtain airbags, steering wheel controls for the audio system and cruise control (optional for GLS, standard on the GLX) and an inside trunk release.
The engine upgrade endowed the 1.8T with 170 horsepower and 166 ft-lbs of torque. The new interior looked more upscale, thanks to chrome trim for the gauges in the instrument panel. The center console was redesigned to offer a wider front armrest, integrated cupholders and its storage area was compartmentalized. The armrest in the backseat incorporated a cupholder and additional storage.
For 2002, eight-cylinder power was implanted under the hood of the Passat for the first (and to date, only) time in its history. Residing imperiously at the top of the 2002 Volkswagen Passat lineup, the Passat W8 incorporated all of the features of the Passat GLX and added Electronic Stabilization Program with BrakeAssist, vented disc brakes all around (as opposed to solid discs in rear), xenon headlights with washers, wider sixteen-inch tires, an upgraded trip computer, and additional chrome trimmed highlights throughout the cabin.
The W8 also boasted all-wheel drive, a leather interior, a premium Monsoon sound system, a sunroof, power adjustable and heated front seats with memory for the driver; variable intermittent wipers with heated jets; and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
The “W” designation arose from the configuration of the engine block. Cylinder placement was staggered, as if two V4 engines were fused together. Viewed from above, it looked as if there were four pairs of cylinders placed somewhat side-by-side in the block. This design made the engine shorter so it would fit in the Passat’s nose.
Offered in the Passat wagon as well, opting for the W8 automatically got you a five-speed automatic transmission and VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive system.
To keep the Passat competitive in price, Volkswagen’s product planners decided a new lower-priced version; designated GL was to be offered. This brought the grand total of 2003 Passat models to four; GL, GLS, GLX and W8.
The GL featured four-wheel antilock disc brakes, traction control, cruise control, side and head curtain airbags, a driver-seat height adjuster, a CD player, power windows and door locks, keyless entry, fifteen-inch steel wheels, a full-size spare tire, and heated power –adjustable exterior mirrors. You could add stability control (ESP) with brake assist, a premium sound system and a dealer-installed CD changer.
To that feature-set, the GLS added a sunroof and alloy wheels. The optional kit of the GL was also available for the GLS, in addition to seat heaters and leather upholstery.
If you didn’t want to be bothered with checking a myriad of boxes on an order form to equip your Passat, the GLX rolled with all of the above as standard features—except ESP and the CD changer. Plus, GLX models came with power seats, rain-sensing wipers, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and sixteen-inch wheels.
Standard kit for the W8 included 4Motion, ESP, four vented disc brakes, and xenon headlamps. Buyers could opt for a tighter handling W8 by specifying the optional W8 sport package, incorporating a firmer suspension system and seventeen-inch wheels.
Turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder Passats finally got 4Motion all-wheel drive in 2004, the V-6 GLS model was dropped, a diesel engine was added to the lineup, and the high-end Monsoon audio system trickled down from W8 and GLX to GLS.
The diesel engine, paired with a five-speed automatic transmission, was a 134-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, which developed 247 ft-lbs of torque. In essence, the GLS TDI, as the model was designated, replaced the GLS V6 in the overall Passat universe.
The W8 was discontinued.
2006 - 2010 Volkswagen Passat
For model year 2006, an all-new, significantly larger Passat was introduced. With it, came a new model nomenclature scheme as well. For 2006, Volkswagen Passats were designated Value Edition, 2.0T, 3.6, and 3.6 4Motion.
The Value Edition featured sixteen-inch steel wheels, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, leatherette vinyl upholstery, air conditioning, an eight-speaker MP3/CD-based audio system, cruise control, power windows and door locks, keyless entry, power heated mirrors, and a trip computer.
The 2.0T replaced the Value Edition’s steel wheels and wheel covers with alloy wheels. A 10-way, power-adjustable driver’s seat was standard as well for the 2.0T. The 3.6 delivered seventeen-inch wheels, an in-dash CD changer, satellite radio, and a power sunroof. If you added all-wheel drive to all of that you had the top-of-the-line 3.6 4Motion.
The 2006 Passat’s options list included a sunroof, leather upholstery, an upgraded Dynaudio sound system, and a navigation system. To keep the 3.6 elevated above the others, it also offered eighteen-inch wheels, a sport-tuned suspension system, adaptive bi-xenon HID headlights, automatic dual-zone climate control, twelve-way power adjustable front seats, and a choice of wood or aluminum for the interior trim.
The 2.0T’s turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine produced 200 horsepower and 207 ft-lbs of torque. The 2.0T engine was offered with a choice of a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. The 3.6-liter narrow angle V6 (that’s VR6 in VW-speak) made 280 horsepower and 265 ft-lbs of torque. The six-cylinder engine could only be paired with a six-speed automatic. Further, the only way to get all-wheel drive was with the 3.6-liter engine.
The all-new wagon was offered late in 2006, as a 2007 model.
The 2007 VW Passat wagon was offered in base, 2.0T, 3.6L and 3.6L 4Motion trims — with equipment largely mirroring that of the 2006 sedan. However, if you’re reading closely, you’ll note the emergence of a model designation that wasn’t mentioned in the description of the 2006 models; Base. This designation was applied to sedans as well and signaled a bit of reshuffling in terms of the way Passat models were equipped.
For 2007, the Volkswagen Passat lineup consisted of Base, 2.0T, 2.0T Wolfsburg, 3.6L and 3.6L 4Motion. The Value Edition was dropped and the Wolfsburg designation was added.
The Base feature-set was comprised of sixteen-inch steel wheels, a tilt-telescoping steering wheel, leatherette upholstery, air-conditioning, a CD/MP3 player with an auxiliary input jack, and iPod compatibility. Cruise control, power windows and door locks, remote keyless entry, power heated exterior mirrors and a trip computer were included as well. If you wanted seventeen-inch alloys, a CD changer, satellite radio, heated front seats, a power sunroof, and fog lights you could get them all together in the Passat 2.0T Wolfsburg.
For 2008, Volkswagen got creative with the Passat’s model designations, renaming them Turbo, Komfort, Lux and VR6.
The Turbo model netted sixteen-inch alloy wheels, faux leather upholstery, a power driver seat, a telescoping steering wheel, air-conditioning, a CD-based stereo system with an auxiliary audio jack, cruise control, full power accessories, heated outside mirrors, a trip computer, and sunshades for the rear seats.
Passat Komfort offered seventeen-inch wheels, a sunroof, an in-dash CD changer, satellite radio, upgraded interior lighting, and double-bladed sun visors. To that feature-set, the Lux package blended automatic headlights, leather upholstery, a power front-passenger seat, memory for the driver’s seat, heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, and front and rear parking sensors. The VR6 got all of that, plus eighteen-inch wheels, adaptive bi-xenon headlights, sport seats, and an upgraded Dynaudio sound system.
For 2008, you could specify a nav system as an option regardless of which Passat you chose. You could get the high-powered DynAudio system on lowly Komfort and Lux equipped Passats, but if you wanted smart cruise control or all-wheel drive, you had to go with a VR6. On the wagon side of the Passat’s house, if you got a VR6, it would be all-wheel drive — period. There was no front-drive VR6 wagon offered for ’08.
After all the madness accompanying the 2008 model year's new trim designations, Volkswagen pared the Passat’s offerings all the way back to one model for 2009 — Komfort.
The 2009 Volkswagen Passat Komfort featured seventeen-inch alloy wheels, heated windshield washer nozzles, a sunroof, air-conditioning, a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, premium leatherette vinyl upholstery and power-adjustable, as well as heated front seats. The six-cylinder engine was dropped, and along with it all-wheel drive.
The sound system’s eight-speakers were fed by in-dash six-disc CD changer, as well as any device plugged into its auxiliary audio input jack, or by its satellite radio.
The wagon featured all of the above — plus chrome roof rails.
A nice set of seventeen-inch alloy wheels, an iPod adapter, and a hard-drive-based touchscreen navigation system with a USB port, an iPod interface and 20 gigabytes of memory available for digital music storage comprised the options list.
If you wanted all the lux gear available on previous versions of the Passat, you had to buy the considerably more expensive Volkswagen CC.
The six-speed automatic transmission was replaced with Volkswagen’s six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission. The radio was replaced and Bluetooth handsfree connectivity was added.
There was no 2011 Volkswagen Passat. The all-new 2012 model was introduced in 2011.
Current Model: 2012 Volkswagen Passat
All new for 2012, Volkswagen made the Passat larger, even while reducing its price. An integral part of VW’s goal to become one of the biggest selling automotive nameplates on Earth, the 2012 Volkswagen Passat is produced in a brand-new factory near Chattanooga, Tennessee.
To lower the price point, some of the materials used in the current car aren’t as nice as previous iterations of the Passat, and its engine choices aren’t as broad as they were in the past. But dollar for dollar, the 2012 Passat is quite competitive in its market category.
From 1998 on, the Volkswagen Passat was one of the most distinctive family sedan offerings available in North America. Its handsome styling, exceptional road manners and broad array of standard equipment made it one of the favorites among automotive reviewers as well.
While there are no truly significant quality issues to report against the Passat, there have been some recalls issued for various versions of the vehicle over its model run. In terms of pre-owned Passats, we really recommend staying within the range of the 1998 models and newer, as that’s when the car really came into its own.
Before purchasing any pre-owned car though, you’d do yourself a good service by running a vehicle history report against the VIN of any automobile you’re seriously considering. You should also do an Internet search to find recalls that may have been issued for the model year of your preference. And — as always — you should definitely make sure you get the car in front of a trusted professional mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection before you commit to any purchase.