Fleet News

Volkswagen Passat W8

Volkswagen

Review

PICTURE this: Chris Tarrant asks, for one million pounds, which of the following German firms is not a luxury sector car maker - Mercedes, BMW, Audi or Volkswagen?

A relatively straightforward question some might think, but one that will get progressively more difficult with time if Volkswagen follows up the Passat W8, its first shot across the bows of the other three marques. Further shots are expected, with a new luxury saloon, off-roader and sports car apparently in the pipeline.

The new Passat W8 will be the top of the range, headline-making Volkswagen, with a 4.0-litre engine under the bonnet, four-wheel drive, all the 'exec expects' interior comforts, and a price tag around £30,000 when it arrives on UK soil early next January. At £30,000, the W8 is not a 'People's Car' in the true sense of the Volkswagen name. In fact, the firm is looking to sell only 300 in the UK, and 10,000 worldwide.

This new executive express is really a statement of intent that VW is moving up in the world, a statement signed personally by Dr Ferdinand Piech, chairman of the VW board of management.

'The Passat W8 will not remain for long the only model in the new Volkswagen upper range. We must make it possible, for all those who want to move up, to actually move up,' he said.

Piech has for the past couple of years stated his intention to pitch his company against the other German marques, and the W8 is the first step up a very steep set of stairs. The question is, can VW make it?

In many ways the W8 has many of the virtues to take the fight to BMW or Mercedes. There is no doubt it is engineered robustly and finished smoothly - the extra chrome and skirting, and four burbling exhausts allied to some spidery 17in alloys giving it a handsome chunky gravitas.

At its heart though, it is still a Passat, and badge snobbery, often misplaced, still thrives in the company car park. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with the thousands of Passats that provide sterling and faithful service throughout the world, but they do lack driving dynamism - the new Ford Mondeo has shown that up glaringly in the last year.

And if its car is beaten in that area by mainstream upper medium rivals, Volkswagen has lots of work to do to draw people from the rear-wheel drive, sporty executive BMW 5-series, Jaguar S-type and Mercedes-Benz E-class. The Passat's VW family sister, the Audi A6 2.7 T quattro Sport, even enters the frame at a shade over £30,000.

VW's main ammunition for this leap into the premier league is the Passat's engine - the 32-valve W8. Two V4 sets are intertwined to create an extremely compact and lightweight eight-cylinder motor, capable of 275bhp at 6,000rpm. Volkswagen has developed the W engine for the Passat because Audi's V8 will not fit under the Passat's bonnet. There will also be no diesel W8, with inadequate space for what would be a very large engine.

Inside, working on the theory 'if it ain't broke don't fix it', Volkswagen has done little to the Passat interior but make sure all the toys are available - satellite navigation, climate control, electrically-adjusted, heated leather seats, and refrigerated glovebox to name a few. UK specification has yet to be finalised, but expect most of the above, and spec of this level certainly inflates the price of apparent German rivals.

To boost safety, Volkswagen has fitted 4Motion four-wheel drive, an electronic stability programme, traction control, two front and side airbags and window airbags as an option. During my time with the car, I averaged 22mpg on some gentle sightseeing Sunday driving through the Alps, spiced up by a couple of concerted high-speed blasts down the motorway.

The performance of any 4.0-litre engine is unlikely to deliver many benefits under the new emissions-based company car tax system, and sure enough the W8 emits 314g/km of CO2 in saloon form and 317g/km as an estate. In real terms, drivers can expect to face a benefit charge of the maximum 35% of list price from next April.

Assuming a £30,000 price tag, that works out at an annual tax bill of £2,310 for a 22% taxpayer and £4,200 for a higher rate payer. Drivers might accept the cash shortage for the badge caché of a BMW or a Mercedes, but it is a large amount of money to be paying for a Passat.

So who will buy the W8? VW insiders believe it will be UK customers looking for understatement and quality, and company top brass who may not want to make too much of a song and dance about their success in front of their employees.

It is very difficult to slot the W8 into a table of executive saloons. A similarly-powered A6 4.2 quattro Sport costs about £40,000, but at the same time a 230bhp 2.7T quattro Sport, at £31,835 OTR is marginally more expensive but just as desirable, if not more so.

The W8 is at least a car that deserves consideration by customers looking at a price, power and equipment combination. Apart from its high tax cost - though no worse than the competition - the W8 might well make financial sense for a company, at £10,000 cheaper than 4.0-litre models from BMW and Audi.

At the W8 launch, there was much talk of 'bridgeheads' and starting new eras from Volkswagen people. And the W8 is just that, a start.

It is not the finished article - there are too many concerns about how it will compare with the other luxury brands in terms of image and driver reward, but there are plenty of fine attributes in levels of refinement and equipment to convert a few from the competition.

The real fun will start, however, when VW decides to try to turn that trickle of customers into a flood.

Driver appeal

ON test, the Passat whooshed along motorways with no fuss, little noise and an overall feeling that it really ought to be attempting a more testing route. Unfortunately, that proved to be something of a false dawn.

The car was launched in Switzerland, which meant that after the motorway came the sort of switchback climb up mountains that David Niven always seemed to be doing in E-Types in the Sixties. The W8 Variant (estate), with five-speed Tiptronic gearbox, is 65kg heavier than the saloon version at 1,730kg, and hardly sprinted up the mountain.

The engine never felt like it got going, perhaps let down by both the anodyne Tiptronic and automatic drivetrain, while a lack of feel in the steering made a lifeless climb out of what should have been a blast to the summit. At least the all-round disc brakes scrubbed off speed well when mountain goat laden precipices got too close.

The manual was far more sprightly, with six gears making better use of the engine's wide spread of power. Around the twisty roads, the W8 easily handled pretty much everything in second and third, and made short work of slow lorries on the straights.

But although the W8 has a stiffer body than standard Passats and revised suspension, it still has the feel of a cruiser rather than a dasher. It is a very good car, but faces a tough challenge to compete against rivals for which 'very good' is merely a par score.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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