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1998 VW Passat

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DIJON, France Brace yourself for a new international classic from Volkswagen.

It's the next generation Passat, and it's going to be hot.

I base this prediction on a 3,000 kilometre swing through France and adjacent countries aboard a Eurospec, diesel-powered Passat TDI.

It's the kind of touring this charismatic creation by Europe's No. 1 automaker excels at.

Sociopolitical aside: sure, trains, planes and TV have done their part, but people in fast cars using excellent roads to go and see "foreign" parts for themselves that’s what eroded ancient barriers and forged the European spirit.

Come to think of it, blasting through three or four municipalities in short order in Metro Toronto tends to put you in a Megacity mood.

The 1998 Passat is an important car for Volkswagen AG.

It launches the VW brand's charge upscale into Mercedes-Benz country, where profits are fatter. Wolfsburg sees its new mid-size, front-wheel driver as a worthy rival to the Mercedes C Class for less money.

The sedan (a station wagon arrives next year) goes on sale in Canadian showrooms in mid-October.

Look for a bigger VW with a V8 and perhaps even a V12 to arrive soon after the turn of the century.

And the mission for Audi, Volkswagen's premium marque? To battle BMW on all fronts for the favour of the affluent.

Passat prices start at $28,450 for a well dressed four-cylinder GLS model, the only trim level initially available. A V6 will take the price to $31,870. The top of the line GLX V6will start at $35,950.

Choosing your engine is simple, as there's also only one for now: a 1.8 litre, 150 horsepower, turbo charged four, sporting five valves per cylinder.

Regular unleaded is okay, Volkswagen says, but premium fuel is recommended for maximum performance.

A five-speed manual is the standard transmission, or you can move to a five-speed automatic box with the Porsche Tiptronic feature, which allows clutchless manual shifts.

You move the lever to the right and tap it forward for a higher gear and back for a lower one (the opposite arrangement would seem more intuitive).

The trick box is only available with gasoline burners; diesel jockeys will have to make do with a four-speed automatic.)

Volkswagen is particularly proud of the car's four link front suspension (it cuts torque steer) and 25 per cent improvement in the body's torsional rigidity.

Standard Passat goodies include air bags built into the sides of the front seatbacks, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, disc brakes all around with four channel ABS and a built-in dust and pollen filter.

Syncro, the VW version of the celebrated Audi Quattro all-wheel drive system, will join the option list down the road.

The Passat GLX model, with the slick 2.8 litre, 30-valve, 193-horse V6 offered in the Audi A4, is due early in the new year.

The TDI (for turbocharged direct injection) with a 1.9 litre, 90 h.p. four under the hood arrives about the same time.

I've never been a big fan of diesels, but my TDI tester, done in an elegant purple-blue, soon had me teetering. One spirted, 300 kilometre run up l'autoroute du Soleil from stately Dijon, the pride of Burgundy, to Paris made me a believer.

Its creators have teased amazing performance from the TDI's modest, displacement. Even with four on board and plenty of baggage, we never felt outgunned on autoroute or Autobahn, thanks to generous low-end torque.

The ride is smooth, controlled and confident. Steering isn't the world's sharpest, but it still tracks a precision line. The dreaded diesel clatter has been tamed to the point that you soon hardly notice it.

But you sure take note of the mileage this oil eater delivers.

Aided by a smooth five-speed manual, the gutsy little four averaged about 1,100 kilometres on a tank, with a needle still above empty at pump time. And that included plenty of slow dancing through towns and villages as well as high speed runs on the open road.

Fuel prices over here take your breath away. Diesel sells for around 4.90 francs a litre, or about $1.12, meaning a fill up from bone dry would cost close to $70.

To cut costs, Volkswagen has spun the fifth-generation Passat and the '98 Audi A6 off a common platform a stretched version of the entry-level A4, the +2 ,1 zaftig little four-door that turns yuppies' cranks.

To its credit, the company hasn't wasted time and energy trying to disguise this fact by giving the Passat and the A6 arbitrarily different sheet metal.

Instead, the stylists have penned a strong, coherent shape common to both and that stands out amid today's fleet of me too designs. The signature line is the arching roof reminiscent of the original VW Beetle.

(This domed lid will also appear, naturally enough, on the long-awaited successor to the Bug, due to debut next spring. The so-called New Beetle will be model No. 2 in Volkswagen's bid to climb the prestige ladder. So don't expect any giveaways when its price tag is announced at the Detroit auto show in January.)

Swoopy roofs sometimes come up short in rear seat headroom, but the roomy Passat avoids this pitfall. The architecture, combined with a low riding back bench, gives good clearance for those over six feet. And that includes the middle perch, even when a moon roof is fitted.

As you'd expect, the new Passat is significantly bigger all around than the old, which was no slouch in the dimensions department. Wheelbase has grown to 2,703 mm from 2,623 a ,40 ,1 gain of eight centimetres. The sides of the cabin curve to squeeze out extra width.

The Passat continues Volkswagen's rep for well-organized, distinctive interiors that seem a touch above their price point.

Materials appeared first rate. The generously contoured seats covered in sturdy gray cloth stayed comfortable long past the time when you would normally start to squirm.

Instruments and controls were a pleasure to use. Perfection was only missed because of a fan that failed to deliver a decent flow of cold air to the face at speed two. Powering up to three brought more air, but too much noise.

Life can be hard, n'est-ce pas?

A few other minor livability problems surfaced. We never mastered the art of adjusting the power front windows. Trying to open or close the glass a few centimetres more usually would send it hurtling all the way down or up.

And in the real world of touring, a couple of pouches for maps, brochures, juice boxes, etc. on the backs of the front seats are de rigueur. The Passat had none. (A nice deep cubby in the centre console also would have been useful.)

The truck lid required a mighty slam to close. Several, increasingly violent tries were often necessary. (Two gasoline engined Passats I later drove in Canada didn't have this problem.)

The car's deeply grooved, 15-inch Continental Eco Contacts knew what they were doing even when unreasonably pressed. The front pair was made in France and the rears in Germany. How's that for Euroesprit?

Europe is a movable feast for visiting auto addicts. Its roads serve up an endlessly entertaining mix of models not seen in North America. A few things that struck me:

The popularity of station wagons and smallish minivans, some with only two rows of seats (a star among the latter: the curvaceous Renault Megane Scenic). These body styles have a utility that just can't be ignored.

The abundance of mid-size and full-size vehicles. Sure, there's plenty of Lilliputian Fiat Cinquecentos hatchbacks, Mazda 121s (the smallest sedan I've ever seen) and the like scurrying around. But room remains the ultimate automotive luxury. Europeans with the where with all want it, no matter how jammed the streets get.

The snazzy models from brands that died off long ago in our part of the world, like Fiat or never arrived, like Seat, Volkswagen's Spanish line. You step into an automotive fourth dimension and there they are.

The sophisticated Fiat Brava was almost enough to make me forget my 1966 Fiat 850 Spider nightmare on wheels. And you can sign me up anytime for a Citroen Xantia or a Daihatsu Gran Move (how come we don't get nomenclature like that?).

The interesting European spins on cars known in North America in more prosaic form. Ford, for instance, markets nifty five-door Mondeos (our Contour/Mystique) and Escorts that Canadians deserve a crack at.

And Mazda has a voluptuous 323 sedan that would surely boost its fortunes in the True North.

Volkswagen AG's push to reposition the People's Car brand upmarket gets off to an impressive start with the '98 Passat. Competition among the mid-size segment's spiffier members is fearsome, but this Teuton has what it takes to prevail.

In fact, the car's allure may pose a problem for its maker.

What if the big Volks winds up stealing sales from the smaller, more expensive A4, particularly when the Syncro shows up?

Audi imagemeisters will have to be sehr sharp to defuse that threat.

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