Sometimes it all comes together, doesn’t it — right before it all falls apart. Lightning in a bottle. Never as good before, never to be equaled afterwards. Duane Allman crashes his motorcycle, the sunburst Les Paul yields to the “Les Paul SG”, the perfected Honda VFR800 Interceptor is replaced by something that looks like the Nostromo’s escape pod, the woman you desperately love goes desperately crazy and desperately calls your wife, that kind of stuff.
The family sedan, too, had its high-water mark, its ’59 ‘Burst, its At Fillmore East. The G.O.A.T. The Greatest Of All Time. Once in history, all the tides converged. The resulting car was fast, spacious, full-featured, affordable, safe, economical, gorgeous, desirable. Hmm. We’re missing one quality, aren’t we? We’ll get to that later.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the G.O.A.T.: the 1998 Volkswagen Passat GLS 1.8t five-speed manual. Yes, I had one.
It was late 1997 and I was looking for a sedan to replace my soon-to-be-off-lease 1996 Taurus. My wife and I looked at pretty much everything under thirty grand, from the Camry XLE (couldn’t see myself driving a poverty-wedge Toyota, didn’t plan to own it long enough for the build quality to be an issue) to the Acura 2.5TL (apparently the result of one drunken Honda employee reminiscing about the original “aero” Audi 100 over a static-filled international phone line to another drunken Honda employee who wrote down the specs as gospel and then chose to make the dream come true using an Accord sans front clip). What I really wanted was an Audi A4, of course. Everybody wanted an Audi A4 in 1998. The car had appeared out of nowhere and simply blitzed the brainstems of the nation’s twentysomethings. The cars were so freakin’ cool that Audi was able to paint them in eye-watering shades of yellow and blue, call them “Cool Shades” in completely non-ironic fashion, and still watch ‘em fly out the door to young architects, recording engineers, and university professors.
The Passat, according to Car and Driver, was a long-wheelbase A4 with more room and even more impressive exterior design. Although VW would later on Pimp Ze Ride and create the unfortunately garish 2001 Passat from the same body shell, that doesn’t diminish the fact that an original ’98 Passat, complete with plain yellow side markers, remains probably the cleanest-looking sedan in modern history. There isn’t a single unnecessary line, flare, swoop, or crease on the thing. It’s perfectly proportioned and it slips through the air silently. It made the A4 look like it was trying too hard to justify its price premium.
The two cars shared the same base-model powertrain, too: the VW Group’s twenty-valve four-cylinder with light-pressure turbo. The mild 150-horsepower rating attached to this mill didn’t begin to describe how quick the car felt when compared to its competition. Having driven A4s equipped with this turbomotor and the optional V-6, I already knew that the silky thirty-valver was no faster in the real world than the 1.8t, and it cost seriously more money in both Audi and Volkswagen variants of the “B5″ platform.
The color rags were unanimous in their long-lead praises of the Passat, and at the time I didn’t understand just how little that meant, so we took a test drive in the bright-blue demo unit assigned to Midwestern Auto Group as soon as the car was available. The advance demand for the Passat meant that this particular car had been ridden more often than Pamela Des Barres, and in similarly careless fashion — as I recall, we got our shot in Week 2 of the Passat’s stay at the dealership and the car already had over 2500 miles on it. We weren’t in any way convinced. The interior didn’t look as nice as it had in C/D’s lovingly-lit promo photographs and the seats wobbled in their mountings as I attacked an on-ramp with what I believed to be a club racer’s worth of aggression. It even smelled weird.
A month’s worth of test drives in the Japanese competition, plus a brief visit to the BMW dealer to spec out a 318i, brought us back to VW. This time, there was an undriven unit available for us, in Royal Green. Three hours later, that car was in our driveway. Maybe it was the power of suggestion, maybe it was car-shopping ennui, maybe it was the prospect of paying $575 a month to drive a four-cylinder BMW with wheel covers, but the Passat absolutely convinced us on what Shalamar would call the second time around.
Immediately, we took the Passat all around the state: to the in-laws’ up in Cleveland, to the outlet malls and unusual restaurants, to Hocking Hills to enjoy a mostly ice-free winter romp down those infamous two-lanes. Everything about the car was even better than we’d hoped. The stereo was pretty good. All four seats were comfortable for the long haul. As noted above, it was silent on the freeway, which means a lot more to driver fatigue levels than most of us want to admit. We averaged well above thirty miles per gallon in mixed use, which seemed amazing given the ferocity with which I flogged the sleek sedan from every stoplight.
The Passat wasn’t just satisfying to drive; it was satisfying to have. It was forcefully tasteful, and when one is in one’s twenties that sort of thing matters. We pushed the Lexus ES300s and BMW E36es out of the left lane, laughing at their outmoded window glass and awkward proportions. There was simply nothing better out there. Anything available at the same price was pathetic; anything costing more was just wasteful. Our only concern was that we wouldn’t find anything nearly as good to replace it.
That turned out to be the case; about twenty-six months into our time with the Passat, I traded it for a 2000 Golf 1.8t GLS five-speed hatchback. The idea was that my wife would have a slightly smaller car to drive to work. The reality was that the Golf was worse at everything, including conserving fuel. The lady of the house wanted her Passat back. We went to look at the 2001 Passat, which as noted above was rather frightful-looking and cost considerably more for no good reason. Finally, I had a bit of a quarter-life crisis occasioned by the fact that I was nearly thirty years old and hadn’t yet purchased a new BMW, which is how we came to have a 2001 BMW 330i Sport five-speed in the driveway in the Golf’s place less than eight months after said Golf made its first appearance there. The BMW, Mrs. Baruth told me, “was pretty much as good as the Passat.” Since it had cost nearly forty-three thousand dollars against the Passat’s $21,495 or thereabouts — two to one! like Surf City for suburban strivers! — I didn’t take a lot of comfort in that mild approbation.
The Passat which replaced the “B5″ was very much the Gibson SG to the B5′s sunburst Lester, or perhaps “5150″ to the B5′s “1984″. It looked cheaper and cost more. Just like that, the best sedan in history was gone. Meanwhile, the remaining examples of that “best sedan” were busy showing their owners just how VW had been able to sell a car like that for a price like that. The interior bits rubbed shiny and then fell off. The electronics went maddeningly dark. The engines died with numbing regularity. Some of them even rusted. The ’98 Passat didn’t exactly deliver the hammer blow to the face of VW’s millennial renaissance — that task was easily accomplished by the “Emm Kay Eye Vee” Jettas with their list of failures that seemingly owed equal allegiance to Robert Bosch and Hieronymus Bosch — but they turned a lot of True Believers into Toyota Owners.
Five years after our Royal Green Passat wandered out of our lives, I drove my wife back to Midwestern Auto Group to take delivery of our new 2005 Phaeton. The sticker said something along the lines of eighty-one thousand dollars. This time, our comparison set had abandoned Camrys and Acuras for the W220 S-Class and the frowny-faced Siebener Bimmer. I insisted that she drive the car home — it was really a gift for her, for sticking with me through the hard times into the limitless paradise of our middle-class prosperity, ever after and forever. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were at our high point, too. We were the Allman Brothers, I was Duane, and I was about to go shopping for a motorcycle. We pulled out of the dealership’s massive underground garage and the sunlight flashbulbed the Phaeton’s spare-no-expense interior. The big V-8 purred and the seats adjusted to our whims in eighteen different ways while blowing cold air up the back of my Marol casual shirt. I was quite impressed with myself. “What do you think?” I asked her.
“It’s pretty nice. I mean, it’s really nice. It’s about as nice… as my Passat.”