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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Passat - W8 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Quality, fit and finish, equipment, ride quality, refinement, grip levels
Room for improvement
Engine price premium, engine sound when cold, fuel consumption, rear seat support

Volkswagen logo28 Oct 2003

THE W8 Passat will be measured more in terms of what else you could buy for the money than its intrinsic qualities.

Where your regular Passat sits comfortably at the entry-level end of the prestige segment, the W8 ventures bravely into the luxury category. At not a lot less than $100,000, this is a very expensive Passat.

The W8 is, essentially, a unique engine in a familiar car. It is a Passat 4Motion using a cleverly conceived eight-cylinder engine that takes up much the same under-bonnet space as the smaller-capacity V6.

But $38,000 over the V6 4Motion Passat is a big impost for a bigger engine. Especially when the same money will buy you, for example, an E-class Mercedes or BMW 5 Series.

So what is this W8 engine anyway? Surely, it must be pretty good to justify the expense.

To understand this unusual powerplant it’s necessary to look at the narrow-angle V6 and V5 engines offered elsewhere in the VW range.

Pioneered in the Golf, the ultra narrow-angle engine comes so close to being an inline six-cylinder that it uses the same casting for the cylinder-heads on both engine banks. But the bores are staggered in a way that the overall length becomes more comparable with a four-cylinder engine than a straight six.

Conceived in the name of space saving, the VW design uses a 15-degree angle between cylinder banks where regular V configurations use anything from 60 to 90 degrees.

In the W8, two narrow-angle V4s are arranged next to each other at an angle of 72 degrees, driving to a common crankshaft and reducing the overall engine size to an almost ridiculous extent. The W8 is ultra-short at just 420mm but although it is quite wide and high, VW claims it is one of the smallest eight-cylinder engines ever built - and one of the lightest.

What all this really means to the driver is a little difficult to quantify. Certainly it’s smooth, and certainly it’s powerful, but you’d expect that of any contemporary 4.0-litre engine.

Maybe the fact it’s able to fit within a Passat engine bay, and maybe its short length and light weight, which minimise any weight distribution problems that may have arisen from the extreme forward mounting of the engine, are sufficient technical justification.

The complexities are considerable, particularly things like the routing of the exhaust manifolds on the inner sides of the engine. Maybe it’s a good thing that most of the W8 is concealed by the usual plastic under-bonnet cladding.

The payoff, for those who’ve paid the admission price, is difficult to come to terms with.

The impeccable overall fit and finish of the Passat is certainly appropriate for the class, and there’s not a lot missing from the W8 in terms of equipment.

It gets full-time four-wheel drive, every conceivable electronic safety aid including VW’s ESP (Electronic Stabilisation Programme), and an upgraded all-disc, all-ventilated braking system with four-channel ABS utilising brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution.

Indicating VW’s positioning of the car to appeal to the more conservative $100,000 buyer, there’s not a lot of show-off gear, apart from a set of 17-inch alloy wheels, a very discreet boot spoiler, Xenon headlights and a W8 badge on the rear deck.

Just about every options box is ticked inside too, where there’s plenty of leather and wood, plus climate-control air-conditioning and power adjusted front seats (with memory on the driver’s side) and a rear sunblind.

Audi A8-style, there’s also a standard solar sunroof that powers a ventilation system to keep the car moderately cool inside when parked on a hot day.

As you’d expect, there’s a six-disc CD stacker for the (eight-speaker) sound system, trip computer, cruise control and a basic satellite-navigation system minus the common on-screen map display.

As it’s based on a regular Passat, the W8 is not un-generous inside – it’s longer than an Audi A4, for instance – but is not as big as an E-class or 5 Series. Move the front seats back enough to accommodate a reasonably tall driver and rear-seat kneeroom all-but disappears.

The seats tend towards firm and offer good general support, but the rear seat could do with more lateral bolstering to better locate passengers. The boot is quite big at 400 litres, well shaped for easy loading and offers access via a central ski-port – although the spare is a space-saver.

And what is the W8 like on the road? Does the unique engine deliver anything special dynamically?

Well, the W8 engine may be light for an eight-cylinder, but it still adds to the mass of the Passat, combining with things like the all-wheel drive system to up the overall weight to slightly less than 1.8 tonnes. That’s approaching S-class, or Audi A8 territory, so the engine’s 202kW output, while helping the car cover the ground quite quickly, doesn’t create a rocketship.

About 7.2 seconds for zero-to-100km/h is more handy than frighteningly fast, although the all-wheel drive traction is certainly appreciated if the roads are wet.

The five-speed sequential automatic generally shifts smoothly and appropriately, although it will thump into an uncomfortably harsh low-speed downshift on occasions if the driver tromps the pedal too enthusiastically.

And you need to be careful with that accelerator for other reasons too - the W8 can be made to use fuel at an impressive rate. The 80-litre fuel tank is a necessity more than a handy, range-extending feature.

The W8 handles well - albeit a little slow in response to steering lock - and rides with a smoothness that confirms VW’s idea of who will be buying this car.

It’s very stable, and very predicable, but it doesn’t inspire you to deliberately seek out fast, winding roads. Pushed hard, it will not disappoint - it just doesn’t feel light and agile.

And does the W8 sound different? Well, apart from a strange, not particularly pleasant rasping when cold, the engine doesn’t feel or sound any different to any contemporary high-tech V8.

It uses a different ignition sequence to a V8, but this doesn’t seem have any audible influence. In the end, the W8 seems no more, and no less smooth than other, similar-size eight-cylinder engines.

Which brings us back to the W8’s positioning and the proposition that you should pay more for technology that no one else has.

That might appeal to some, but when that technology doesn’t deliver anything substantive, and when it costs $38,000 more than the nearest equivalent, it’s really a little difficult to see the point.

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