Volkswagen's Passat has aged with remarkable grace, progressing from an awkward, compact-sized youngster to a mature player in the mid-size sedan market. Comparing this newest Passat to photos snapped back in 1990, when the fledgling Passat took its first tentative steps, makes it hard to believe the two vehicles are related. Rarely has a car evolved so far so fast.

The driving influence in the Passat's development occurred when VW hired Audi to school its chassis, a curriculum some argued turned the Passat into more of a "Passaudi." Of course, the Passat's nominal entry price of $21,450 and superb quality quelled any further debate. For the money, the Passat best sedan on the market.

For 2001, Audi's tutoring services have been retained and the new Passat looks more Audi than ever. Though based on the previous B5 platform, the new car has received a fairly substantial facelift that leaves it looking more like an A6 than its true A4 sibling. With the exception of the roof and doors, every panel has been re-worked or re-trimmed and VW claims the new Passat boasts some 2,300 new parts.

Hartmut Warkub, Volkswagen's chief designer described the new Passat as "modern but not modish." Apparently the use of chrome qualifies as modern design, something you'll find on the new Passat, inside and out. That's right, there's lots of chrome on the new Passat (the first customized 2001 Passat will no doubt have the chrome color-matched to the body). There's nothing wrong with chrome--my first Schwinn Stingray was dripping with the stuff. I just cannot understand why VW's design team felt it was necessary to "confidently celebrate a stylistic renaissance through the use of chrome trims" (that's straight out of the press book). Now, this is completely subjective, but what I see here is change simply for the sake of change. The last incarnation of the Passat had a beautiful, gorgeous tear-drop shape that reeked of tasteful restraint. The new design has this wedgy-thing going on, sort of like the "pinched" look of the current Volvos. Ultimately it makes the car look more mature, even older. If that was VW's goal, it succeeded. To be fair, however, I've always been resistant to change, especially in cars I think are really good. In 6 months I'll probably fall in love with the new Passat...probably.

In contrast, the exterior lighting treatment has been augmented with progressive-looking clear lenses (we aren't getting the bi-xenon headlamps) and foglamps built into the lower bumper; the rear tail lamps have also been redesigned with integrated lenses. An especially nice touch is the green-tinted glass throughout that lends a sort of monolithic persona to the car.

The interior has moved upscale with three new trim packages augmenting the base car: Comfortline--two extra drink holders and velour seats; Trendline--sport seats, a three-spoke steering wheel and brushed aluminum accents; and Highline--all of the above plus leather, wood and chrome. Trim materials range from high-quality synthetics and brushed metals to rich burlwoods.

The instrumentation also has been redesigned and tastefully trimmed with (here's that stuff again) chrome bezels. Volkswagen's interior designers have completely reworked the central tunnel console between the seats, so every Passat will feature an adjustable armrest that doubles as a sizable storage bin (jumbo box) augmented with dual cupholders.

The Passat's bodyshell has been strengthened for a 10-percent increase in torsional rigidity. Reinforcements have been made in the sills, the B-pillars, the tunnel longitudinal members, the side impact members and the inner wheel housings. Both the fwd and 4Motion versions gain some 150 lb. Each model is motivated by a either the 150-bhp 1.8-liter turbocharged four or 193-bhp 2.8-liter V6. Both engines remain largely unchanged.

Front and rear track for the fwd Passat has been increased about 1/2 in., and both the wagon and sedan versions have been lengthened by a little less than an inch.

Although my time in the new Passat was but a few hours, it instilled a lasting impression of refinement and luxury. The interior is as good as it gets, and although the revamped center console hampered my right leg in spirited driving, its utility will no doubt be appreciated by the Starbucks crowd. The new gauge cluster is both elegant and functional, and the three-spoke steering wheel is among the most handsome on the market considering there's an airbag lurking inside it. This cabin is ideal for quick trips across town or marathons across country.

Saddled with a curb weight in the neighborhood of 3,500 lb, the 1.8t is challenged to move the Passat with much authority--the four-banger gets the job done, but unless it's kept on the boil, its sporting sense is uninspiring. (It would be nice to see VW tap into Audi's 180- or 225-bhp versions, but the boys down the river in Ingolstadt need some advantage over VW's incursion into its market segment.) The 2.8, however, was very nice, providing the same silken punch I remember from our long-term Audi A4.

VW has retained the brilliant multi-link suspension and chose spring and shock settings accordingly. Were it not for my having to work the manual transmission, I might have fallen asleep (it could have been jet-lag). The new Passat is big on comfort--huge even. If you're in need of a conveyance to shuttle clients, kids, parents, whatever, you'd be hard pressed to find a more perfect vehicle than the new Passat. I wouldn't want to go and carve the local canyon in one though. It just doesn't seem to fit that scenario any longer.

Dr. Piech's grand design to move Volkswagen up market, attracting an older, more affluent buyer, has never been so evident as with the new Passat. I put it on par with offerings from BMW, Audi and Mercedes. VW claims the price should be virtually the same as before, maybe a few hundred dollars more. With the New Beetle, Golf and Jetta handling the younger set, Volkswagen hopes to reach into former Audi territory to the tune of some 100,000 North American sales. Considering Passat sales have increased 75 percent over the last 5 years, it appears VW's forecast is conservative. Now it's up to Audi's revised A4 to again distant itself from those upstarts in Wolfsburg.

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