By on July 30, 2012

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.”

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68 Comments on “Capsule Review: 1998 Volkswagen Passat, the G.O.A.T....”

  • avatar

    Every word is true. Shifting seats, peeling trim, sludgy PCV system, an average of $1000/year in suspension repairs…sniffle…yet still my daily driver.

  • avatar

    I’ll have to disagree. The D2 A8s were the best looking sedan ever. I just got done running one into the ground.

    • 0 avatar

      Every time I drive my D2 it puts a big smile on my face. Worth the exploding transmission and other issues and cost of ownership over past 6 years is about the same as a regular car. And yes I have a friggin solar sunroof like a Prius! Funny enough the electronics have been rock solid reliable, it’s the ultra complicated mechanical stuff like the $800 fuel pump and transmission that have given me grief.

      I’d buy another in a second, good mechanic and shite, have you seen the interior of any modern car, horrible. Test drove a 2011 328i, plastic crap inside. No thanks I’ll get another one of these for $10k and spend the another $10k keeping her on the road.

  • avatar

    Summed up my experience with our 2001 Passat Wagon. Our Legacy is good, and in some cases better than the Passat. However, the overall package just is not as good as the Passat, except of course the fact that I have never had a CEL or any other repair needed on our Subaru.

  • avatar

    Had an 04 Jetta GLS Wagon that I bought used with 35k on it. By that time, VW had worked most of the bugs out of the “emm kay eye vee” so I had no problems with it.. By then, I still loved the turbo power, the Audi-esque interior ( leather heated seats, moonroof, Monsoon audio.) I had done the ignition coils and got paid by VW for them.

    After a near weekly 600 mile commute for a year, I sold it with nearly 65k. It was shifting strangely and had begun its journey into being a creaky VW, the openness of the wagon structure not helping. Plus, I was offered the use of a terrible but free Pontiac G6 until it’s lease was up. Had I not been offered the “free G6”, I would have kept the Jetta for while, but I imagine it would not have been cheap.

    But nothing drove like it, it was one of the last of the small station wagons and it reminded me why some of us are willing to put up with the mechanical fiddliness from German cars. Most of the time, at least back then, they got the driving right. The mechanicals…

  • avatar

    Recent German and even many Japanese cars take the opposite approach of the computing industry; give customers less content at far higher prices (yes, yes, the new Amero-B7 Passat has a cheaper base price for those willing to row their own gears and do without what are standard amenities in competing vehicles).

    The thought of a ’05 Phaeton stickering for 80+ Gs is mind blowing still to this day, even though I’m fully aware of its underpinnings and motor that were the same as the Continental GT and Flying Spur (VW D1 platform).

    I almost pulled the trigger on a 2006 that had less than 25,000 miles in 2009 for $28,xxx, from a well known house of VW in the greater Chicago area, but discovering how difficult it would be to find a competent mechanic to work on what would be the inevitable electronic, electrical and mechanical issues in my neck of the woods scared me off.

  • avatar

    Totally agree. There are some cars they should just keep making–maybe pull a Chevy and just slap “Classic” on the fender next to the new one on the lot.

  • avatar

    I felt the same way about my 2008 passat wagon. It was clean, fast, spare, efficinent, cheap, and roomier than an A6 avant. It even addressed my two biggest pet peeves in that it came with a manual transmission, and the radio was devoid of the eleventy one buttons that other makers felt that I needed. For the $25k I paid for it, there was nothing else like it on the road and I adored it.

    After a careless driver plowed me with his SUV and the passat went away, the Jetta wagon that replaced it made me bleed agony from behind my eyelids and under my fingernails for better than 10 months before I confessed to my wife that the Jetta needed to go or I was going to drink grain alcohol in hopes I could light the resulting urine stream just to watch the Jetta burn.

    The Jetta was replaced with an A4 with stick, fancy headlights, sport package, sparkly black paint, and at a cost of $35k, argued down from a $41k sticker. My wife sometimes askes how I like it, and I tell her the same thing, I lvoe the A4 almsot as much as I loved the Passat.

    • 0 avatar

      ” … the Jetta needed to go or I was going to drink grain alcohol in hopes I could light the resulting urine stream just to watch the Jetta burn.”

      May I just say, sir, that THAT is the funniest single line I have ever read on this site?! I have been laughing and unable to do anything else for five minutes.

    • 0 avatar
      Mark MacInnis

      Wow… know how they have annual contests where writers churn out there best Hemingway and the best of the lot win an award?

      Maybe TTAC should have an annual Baruth award, where people submit their best reviews in the Baruth fashion. Your ‘grain alcohol’ line is my first nominee, mate. Brilliant.

  • avatar

    I had a 1999.5 early model MkIV Jetta for a year (I was it’s 3rd owner at about 155k km).
    As I recall, aside from a broken cupholder, which I replaced with an e-bay sourced replacement from a later model (that 1st gen design sucked anyways), and a propensity to consume motor oil at somewhat alarming rates, it was fairly reliable.

    Of course, mine was the cloth-seats, 5-spd, AM/FM/Cassette only model, so perhaps there wasn’t much that could go wrong (well, the heated mirrors had long given up the fight when I picked up the car, but that didn’t matter).

    Still, the car felt great (even with the ancient 2.0L gas engine), and was fun to drive, despite having a meagre 115hp or so to motivate all that heft.

    Still have fond memories of that (very forgiving) car, on which I really honed my manual driving skills.

    And I still think the MkIV Jettas were one of the best looking sedans to have reached the market – angular, clean, smooth, and with subtly-aggressive fenders that flared out just enough, and enough tires to give it a wide, athletic stance.

  • avatar

    I had one of the last of the VFR800s, a 2009. Ironically, I bought it at a significant discount, as it was a last year’s model and they wanted the way cleared for the ugly new 1200. In metallic white with black accents and frame, and the colour-coded hard bags (I supposedly got the last ones in North America), it was a beautiful bike. For an all-purpose motorcycle – it was my only vehicle – it was just about perfect. Comfortable, capable, reasonably efficient, and an engine that was music from idle to redline, with a nice tonal change when the VTEC kicked in, I loved it. Random people in traffic would call from their cars what a nice bike it was. This never happened with my Ninja 600R, TL1000S or the GSX-R 750 with an 1100 swap.

    No one, except maybe my insurance company – who reimbursed its full purchase price – was more upset than I when I totalled it with 4500 miles.

    • 0 avatar

      I know Jack has taste when he mentions the VFR800; I’ve got a 2003 and it is my third VFR. It is (was) a nearly perfect bike; reasonable for touring, you can flog it at the track and the V4 sounds nearly as good as the pre-VTEC gear-driven cam version. I cannot imagine that the current VFR1200 will ever be thought of as a good looking motorcycle; then again it comes from the “angry squirrel” school of motorcycle design likely founded by Chris Bangle after he ruined BMW. JuniperBug if you liked your VFR, you can still find plenty of low-mileage examples around which have been perfectly kept!

      Nice piece on the Passat, Jack. Like you, I think it’s going to be hard for VW to top that one.

  • avatar

    Great read!

    My 2000 Passat GLE was a good car. I loved the suspension feel ’till the day I gave it away at 219k miles.

  • avatar

    Are you SURE a 98 Passat is as nice as a Phaeton?

  • avatar

    I stayed away from VW’s for years due to their reputation for falling apart. In 08 I was looking for a new car for my daughter in college and decided to take a VW Rabbit for a test drive. I couldnt believe how good it was for 17K, so went home, brought daughter back to dealer, and 45 min later we had a new white Rabbit in the driveway. 60,000 miles later the Rabbit still drives as good as it did on day one, has no rattles, and has had zero malfunctions. It has done so well for us that I just bought a 12 Jetta Sportwagon TDI for my self. So far so good…the TDI is amazing.

  • avatar

    as my moniker suggests i own a red one that is still my daily driver. has it needed attention during its 218K miles? absolutely. i have replaced my share of brakes and cv joints and boot covers and the cruise stalk, and pcv systems, and the sunroof doesn’t work anymore and one of the rear seats will not fold down, and i just swapped a same colored drivers door over the weekend b/c the original one rusted a hole. but it was the first car i purchased new, i still like the way it drives, the seating position and the fact that it is a 5mt. it is uncluttered both electronically and aesthetically, which appeals to my minimalist self. Plus anything that replaces it will not get any better mileage (~23/33), allow me to shift and have near the room.

    my son wants it for his first car and if it makes it i will turn it over to him but will probably ask for visiting rights.

  • avatar

    We owned a ’99 B5 Passat GLS 1.8t, 5 speed, tan cloth interior, sunroof, 6 disc changer, dark blue exterior. Bought new for around $24K, it was the wife’s car for many years, then passed on to me when my commute doubled due to a new job. We traded my ’96 Eclipse for it after my brother raved about his ’98 Passat (chipped, aftermarket rims/tires).

    First off the car had great German engineering: fit and finish was above average, tight handling, solid feeling, trick stuff like windows that automatically roll up when you turned on the alarm, cool blue & red gauges at night – this car felt (and looked) like it should cost much, much more. Of course that’s because it WAS basically an Audi A4. Only gripes at first were a somewhat rubbery 5 speed, serious lack of interior storage (tiny center console, micro glove box and NO cup holders!), silly cruise control switch and squishy feeling brakes. However it had an impressive little engine – 150HP and 150TQ. That does not sound like much but this car would GO and still got 30 MPG thanks to the turbo. Great car for long road trips as it cruised smoothly, had comfy seats, accelerated quickly even in top gear (thanks to the turbo) and had a trip computer that calculated all sorts of info. We loved it! A true autobahn machine.

    Unfortunately time took its toll on this car all too quickly. The interior literally fell apart after about 4 years: I’m talking about peeling plastic and fabric sagging on the door trim and roof. Various parts simply broke off with no warning – including the glove box handle (WTF?!) and the power windows failed multiple times (typical VW problem). I’ve never seen an interior disintegrate like this: parts snapped or scratched like they were made out of cheapest, thinnest plastic on the planet. Not just interior parts either the passenger side turn signal housing just feel off one day and the windshield wipers gave up the ghost. It leaked coolant and any parts/service for it were way overpriced, a prime example: a replacement antenna cost $300 – guess that was one of those fancy Audi parts! At around the 8 year mark the trip computer display faded to point where you could only read it at night which was a real shame. Then the tie rods and suspension gave out along with the ABS system. Slowly more random parts broke, one day an large spring fell out from under the drivers seat. How does that even happen?

    By 80K (which took 9 years, this car was BABIED) the Passat seemed over the hill and begging to be put down, it looked like it had been trashed on the inside despite being garage kept, the exterior was still perfect however (flawless paint finish). Since there was nothing wrong with the engine (no sludge, no coil pack issues) I drove it to over 90K but that last year of ownership was down right painful as the car shook and squealed constantly as more interior bits crumbled to pieces. I refused to put any money into it, I just kept driving it, waiting for the day it died. Finally I could take no more and fittingly on the way to trade it in (for my Nissan 350Z) the cruise control stopped working and the sunroof controls fell off. I was so pissed off that yet another thing broke I wanted to drive it into a lake… and thus the wife sworn we would never buy another VW product.

    Shame since as JB mentioned the car had so much going for it, yet it wasn’t meant to last.

    • 0 avatar

      The springs, seriously what is that about. I have owned two VW (B5.5 Passat and a Jetta of the same generation) and BOTH drivers and passenger seats in BOTH cars vomited that same spring out from underneath them. Never could quite tell where it went and never did bother to replace them.

      • 0 avatar

        Not sure if you will come back to this thread… but I still own a 99.5 Jetta which I love. Somebody described how good it looked… I agree. It drives great. Ours is 5mt 2.0, no frills whatsoever including manual doors/windows. Engine is a champ and pulls strong at 120k. It still takes $1,000 a year to keep driving nicely.

        SPRINGS: ours spit the second last month. Asked our VW mechanic – he says they FACILITATE driver/passenger seat movement, so as long as the seat still moves back and forth and such, no need to put it back.

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Jaeger

      Not sure you do to your interiors, but I drove our ’99 Passat Wagon for 12 years and 300k and everything was still working fine. Minimal rust spots after 12 Canadian winters is amazing by itself, but I never had problems with windows, switch gear, or trim pieces.

      I have to agree with Jack on this one – this was by far the best car I am ever likely to drive on a middle class salary.

      I’ve replaced it with a GTI and that’s a sweet ride, too. But this version of Passat just had the elegance and road manners of a car that seemed to be in a different class altogether.

  • avatar

    I’m sorry, but the perfect VFR has a 750cc engine.

  • avatar

    Well I love Baruth’s writing but this is the first time I agree with him about EVERYTHING.

    I Bought a 1.8T 5M wagon in 1998 and LOVED it for 12 years. Check out For the story of how I rebuilt the engine myself @ 111k miles after a connecting rod punched a hole in BOTH sides of the block.

    I also wanted an A4. I was astounded when it became apparent that I could buy a larger version of the same car (without all the leather which I hate anyway) for about 21k! The VW was my G.O.A.T right up to the end when she became such a bitch it was easy to see her go. Same basic story with the ex-wife coincidentally. My kids still haven’t forgiven me for parting with either one.

  • avatar

    We bought a 2000 Passat wagon with 5 spd and 6 cd changer that was our first ever new car purchase. I called it my “no compromises” family car — after we had our first child, our Honda Civic was bursting at the seams with kiddie stuff. I loved — I mean LOVED — that car. We got a relatively good example — no major issues in 8 years and 90K miles of use.

    I wept salty tears the day it was totaled in an accident near my kid’s school 4 years ago. I doubt I will find another car that fit the bill on engineering, functionality and performance quite so well. Not as rock solid as many other family cars, but oh so much more fun to drive. VW hit the mark head on with this car, and then began to lose its way. I’ve looked at other VW models since — might even consider a Golf TDI — but have yet to take the plunge.

  • avatar

    I remember ogling the A4’s the Audi dealer in Farmington Hills on Sundays when I was in my late 20’s and living in the Detroit area.

    • 0 avatar

      Bill Cook, no doubt, right?

      I wonder if the salesmen there have managed to degrease themselves in any significant or meaningful manner (the ones I interacted with, at least), whether at the Nissan portion or Audi portion, where the volume of effluent and sheen rivaled the BP Gulf of Mexico blowout.

  • avatar

    Great post, Jack. I think these Passats are one of the best-looking sedans of all time. A thirteen year-old design that looks fresher (and certainly more aesthetically enlightened) than most 5-year old sedans today.

    One bone of contention: An E46 merely “as good as” a 1999 Passat? Maybe in style or interior quality, but these designs are roughly the same age and the BMW’s chassis is about a zillion times better and the hard bits will actually age well (not so sure about the electronics or the rear subframes, however). You get what you pay for. If your BMW 330i was too expensive, then I’d suggest that the ticking time-bomb Passat was perhaps too cheap.

  • avatar

    “…but they turned a lot of True Believers into Toyota Owners”

    Yep, after 3 years of hassle I traded my 02 B5.5 Passat V6 in for a new Scion xB1.

    In 3 years with the VW, I made about 12 unscheduled trips to the dealer. In 7 years with the Scion, I’ve made 1. It hasn’t been back to the dealer since 2006.

    One data point was all I needed to learn about VW.

  • avatar

    Never owned a Passat, but have owned 3 “emm kay eye vees”. The interior bits do wear, but in my case my cars are from 2000 and 2002 so the interior wear isn’t a big concern to me. The 2000 has crank windows, so no window clip worries there. The 2002 had dealer service so I’m hoping the clips got replaced on that one. I like VWs so much that I’m planning to buy a 2013 TDI Golf wagon probably in the spring.

    And for anyone that wants an ultra-rare B5 TDI sedan, check this thread out (not my car, but would love to have it if the wife would approve. But she won’t):

  • avatar

    I always remembered the comment in C/D’s initial road test: “Frankly, we have no idea how Volkswagen can offer this much car for $21,XXX.” What made it so conspicuous then was that in its context, you got the impression that it wasn’t hype, but the matter-of-fact actual impression of the tester.

    I guess now we know.

    In 2003, I was leading my own then-wife in shopping for her next car. She had a bias against any kind of station wagon, but I showed her the Passat anyway. The car matched up oddly well in price, mileage and effective size with the Honda CR-V. Of course, they couldn’t possibly have been more dissimilar in character. I wanted so badly to push her toward the VW. But the dealer was so bad and the car so untrustworthy (even before the subsequent revelation that these were the Passat 4’s that had the massive-scale ignition coil failures) that I just couldn’t stake my own credibility with her by urging her into the VW.

    The CR-V we subsequently bought has outlasted me handily, so she evidently decided I wasn’t credible anyway.

  • avatar

    I wonder how much you’ve spent on VW vehicles over your lifetime?

    Despite all the criticism they receive on the comments section here, that company must be doing something right for the Baruth family.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      In terms of actual transaction price for personally-owned cars between me and my wife from 1990 to 2009, not including maintenance, upgrades, et al, the best I can come up with VW-branded products is $188,200.

      Add Audis into the mix and it becomes slightly north of a quarter-million.

      I made an inquiry to Audi a while back about doing a new S7 in my infamous Lime Green color, which would have put the total up to about $340K. They didn’t bother to respond; as a favor to some VW bloggers they are now pretending that I am dead.

      Not counted: the first-gen S8 and second-gen A8L I had as company cars, because I didn’t directly write the check.

      I would have been better off spending all the money on a tabletop stacked with a mountain of cocaine, I think.

      • 0 avatar

        Mountain of cocaine?

        Jack Baruth in his greatest role as Tony Montana

        “Okay, Sosa. You wanna f*** with me? You f***ing with the best! You wanna f*** with me? Okay. You little cockroaches… come on. You wanna play games? Okay, I’ll play with you. You wanna play rough? Okay! Say hello to my little friend!

      • 0 avatar

        So Jack, what IS your day job that you can afford all these automotive toys? Somehow I doubt TTAC and the other sundry blogs you write for pay particularly well, and I doubt you are making beaucoup cash as an itinerant race car driver, ladies man extrordinaire, and guitar hero. Nosey minds are dying of curiousity!

        I agree with you on this one for the most part, the B5 Passat was something special. Though perfection, of course, is the B5 Passat Wagon. Sedans are just so very useless. I know a ton of people who have owned them here, and they held up quite well, as do MKIVs. My theory is it is climate – they don’t like heat, and Maine is quite similar to Der Vaterland in temperature.

  • avatar
    George B

    I seriously considered buying a 1999 Volkswagen Passat. Chose Honda instead. My boss bought a Passat used and enjoyed driving it up until it got totalled. 13 years later I don’t see these Volkswagens on the street, but I count 7 of the 6th generation Accords on the street as I walk my neighborhood in the morning.

  • avatar

    Drove to work this morning in our B5 A4 1.8T Quattro. 159000+ miles, looks like hell after I didn’t get the hail damage fixed ($1k deductible, 130K on car), but it runs well and other than rear wheel bearings and a couple CV joints (cracked/torn boots) hasn’t had problems. Just got through replacing the coil packs and ignition control module (all original) – at less than 1/3rd the dealer cost – and try to change oil – synthetic – every 5K or so. Why would I get rid of it? I know its vices and needs.

  • avatar

    I also miss my 2005 Passat (B5.5) TDI Wagon. Turned into the wife’s car and accumulated very low mileage. In its 5th year of ownership (@ 19,000 miles !) it was totalled and written off by a insurance company that was hesitant on fixing. The buyout was high enough to replace it with a 3 year younger, low mileage, Mazda CX-9 Touring. Even though I would have experienced higher maintenance with the VW, the driving expereince was vastly superior to the CX-9 (which, by the way, just feels so damn cheap – even the body panels).

  • avatar

    How can you call something “greatest of all time” when you admit that long term reliability was poor? A vehicle is a package of lots of things that need to come together for perfection IMO.

    I’ll admit the B5 Passat was a clean looking vehicle and several friends and co-workers did own them. They also have all been replaced after very expensive experiences with mechanical problems from engine sludge to just cheapness of build quality with parts failing and falling off. Meanwhile my ’99 Accord just keeps on going mile after mile without a problem ever outside of general wear items. Admittedly the Accord isn’t as well appointed or as clean design wise, but overall it’s a much better vehicle for what it is – transportation.

  • avatar

    A guy I used to know a while back bought a brand new ’99. The engine went after 10K miles. It was so bad they gave him a brand new one and it started to have various engine issues immediately although not as bad as to have it declared a lemon officially. I haven’t spoken with him for a while but last time I saw him he said “I’ll never buy VW again”. And he wasn’t the only one who said that by far.

  • avatar

    Agree COMPLETELY. Back in ’02 we bought a 99 Passat with around 30k on the odo. Loved everything about it. Then over the next few weeks one problem after another started cropping up, and disturbing noises were coming from the suspension. We were lucky enough to get out of the deal and took our trade in to Saturn where we got a virtually new ’01 L200 for less money than the used Passat. Granted it was much less car, but the deal was unbeatable and it proved very reliable. The Saturn dealer was a pleasure to work with and gave a lot more on the trade (mid 90’s Paseo w/ a thrown rod… was not my car).

  • avatar

    Several things…

    I’m astounded that the Baruths’ middle-class existence includes an $80k car. I used to think that I blow way too much of my money on cars, but it seems that I’m a cheapskate. I’ll have to keep in mind Jack’s example next time we go car shopping!

    I like the design of the B5.5 Passat better than B5. The lights are contrived compared to the B5, but the rest is very elegant. If the Germans made an Acura, that’s what it would have looked like.

    My wife and I once considered getting a new B5.5 Passat (1.8T 5MT), but we went with a Subaru Legacy GT (pre-turbo), so I think we dodged a bullet. On the other hand, after 12 months, the Legacy was wrecked when a Cherokee driver ran a red light and slammed into the Legacy’s B-pillar. So maybe durability wouldn’t have been an issue for a Passat! On the OTHER other hand, our injuries were limited to brief back-aches, so maybe the Legacy was an acceptable choice.

    • 0 avatar

      Given the true state of the economy, labor participation rates (near all time lows since WWII), the trend of wages and benefits and other macro and microeconomic trends in the U.S., it’s clear to see why the bigger-but-cost-decontented models that the U.S. is starting to see, like the VW Passat (with limo like backseat room) and Toyota Camry, are going to be the new middle class price point sweet spot for manufacturers.

      At a time when the average age of a passenger vehicle in service exceeds 10 years, the new cars that will replace these old cars are going to be significantly less expensive on a real inflation-adjusted basis than their predecessors.

      It was recently reported that the average transaction price of a new vehicle purchased thus far in 2012 was nearing 30k, but the average in this context is less revealing a statistic as the median transaction price, as there’s massive skewing of the average transaction price by the recent popularity of heavily optioned vehicles/CUVs/SUVs leased (where a lease is booked as a sale).

      The economic uncertainty is leading automakers like VW and Toyota, who want to aggressively grab market share in the U.S., to develop minimal platforms, and offer vehicles for sale that vary widely in price depending on the options ordered (the Passat is a great example of this, where a basic one can be had for about 20k OTD, while the highest end version can range up to 35k or so; so it is with the Camry, where the prices range from 20k or less OTD, all the way up to about 32k).

      Expect to see automakers that implement this strategy gain market share, while those that don’t lose market share at an accelerating pace.

      Does anyone beside me remember when the average span a new car buyer would keep their vehicle for around 3 years, back in the credit crack-up boom of the real estate salad days (about 2003 to 2007)?

      Everything has changed. Look for heavily subsidized leases for those who can’t afford to buy, and long ‘keep’ periods for those who can.

      • 0 avatar

        Does anyone remember when a new auto loan had an APR close to double digit percentages…and for someone with good credit?

        Cars today are pretty cheap considering today’s inflated dollars are worth a lot less than yesterday’s dollars. We also get a lot more with new cars. Lots of it is fed mandated safety, but the rest is luxury doo-dads. Overall I’d argue that it never has cost less to buy a new vehicle. Even a decontented Passat is still worlds better than a Celebrity or Taurus in the 80’s and on a inflation adjusted dollar I bet the cars in the 80’s were far more expensive.

  • avatar

    Had the exact same year, with a manual, Passat. Liked it a lot until the first time I went shopping with it and bought something my old GTI could have carried with ease but wouldn’t go into the Passat’s trunk or back seat. It was too long thereafter that I traded it in on another GTI.

    That Passat was a good to great car, just not suitable to someone that only had one vehicle and found themselves hauling bulky stuff around. I often think fondly of it now that I’m married and the wife has a minivan. It would make a great second car.

  • avatar

    The B5 Passat was truly one of the best looking cars of its time, or really any time. It still looks great today, better than its successors, because it’s the kind of design that’s really just too difficult to improve upon. It’s just such a pure and purposeful design, and it always reminded me, in that regard, of a W124 Mercedes. I liked the looks of the B5.5 too – not quite as pure, but certainly expensive looking.

    In 1996, having not owned a car for a number of years while living in NYC, I finally bit the bullet, impractical and expensive as it was to keep a car in Manhattan which wouldn’t be used all that much. I looked at the Passat B4, which probably had all the good qualities of the B5 except the looks, but I was scared off by the horror stories of reliability. So I leased a Honda Accord (short 27 month lease, super cheap – the garage payment was higher), which was perfectly fine, and had all the good traits that everyone always loved, but damn, it was pretty dull.

    In 1998, I looked at the Passat again, this time the B5, and loved everything about it, especially the looks and its incredibly stout feel (which evidently was limited to the doors shutting), but ultimately I couldn’t resist its cousin, the new Audi A6 (C5).

    The B5’s still turn my head, although many of them seem to be beaters now.

  • avatar

    98.5 A4tqms, original owner. 175Kish miles, and sure, some issues over the years, but still, as of the last road trip returning 29-30 mpg and 4000 mpq (91 octane and Mobil 1, respectively).

    It’s interesting that the interior, while not flawless (remember to lubricate that sunroof!), has been holding up very very well. Everything works, nothing is getting unglued/falling off. Maybe part of the Audi-vs-VW price difference went there, or maybe we just got lucky. Can’t tell on a sample of 1.

    [going slightly off topic now]

    We’re car-shopping for something that approaches 40mpg without the hybrid price/(un)fun premium (I’m lucky in that my better half also prefers MT), and that 14 year old B5 still spoils us enough that it makes a lot of the modern offerings look weak.

    It’s not that current models lack things. It’s mostly that they have way too many bugs masquerading as features. For example, this:

    There isn’t a single unnecessary line, flare, swoop, or crease on the thing.

    should be tattooed in fluorescent paint on the inside of eyelids of most contemporary car designers. Or get Chris Walken to remind them about how We (DO NOT) Need More Chrome. Just do something. Please.

    [and definitely off topic from now on, but I have to rant]

    But what’s even worse is packaging. Want one nice piece of optional equipment, must get a lot of negative-value crap with it:

    – not-really-optional navigation that’s lame compared to a 2 year old android phone.
    – not-really-optional “keyless entry” systems that are increasingly being exposed as the “steal me” security clusterfscks they are.
    – not-really-optional autotragic transmissions (MT mostly for poverty trims).
    – not-really-optional sunroofs: We’re in the Pacific NW, FFS, what sun?

    Now, to end on a positive note, if the US version of the F30 320d actually happens and offers the configuration flexibility of the 328i…

    • 0 avatar
      Mirko Reinhardt

      The American-market 328i has configuration flexibility? That’s news to me.
      Manual transmission Luxury Line wagon with sports seats, adaptive suspension and 19″ wheels then, please.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s all relative. We don’t get the configuration flexibility from BMW that you Europeans do, but we get one HELL of a lot more flexibility than the Japanese makes allow. The hole in the roof is standard equipment here on e91s, and I imagine it will be on F31s too.

        The F31 is not available yet here, but the e91 has disappeared off the BMWUSA website so I expect its imminanent arrival.

      • 0 avatar

        As krhodes1 said above, it’s relative. Configuring, for example, a F30 328i and a B8 A4 on their respective US sites is instructive. Let’s play “avoid the Prestige Package”!

        Incidentally, krhodes1: Was the holed roof mandatory on all E9x models? You can apparently have an uncompromised roof on the current 328i, but not on the 335i (sedans only, wagons not here yet). Same goes for expe- I mean, Xenon lights.

        Yup, relative :)

      • 0 avatar


        Panoramic sunroof was standard equipment on all US-Spec e91s. On the plus side, that pretty much negated the cost difference between the wagon and the sedan, when you look at what the roof-hole cost as a stand-alone option. On the other hand, I would have rather had the extra inch of headroom, as that would allow me to wear a helmet in the car. :-) With the sunroof, I have EXACTLY enough headroom, when I need a haircut, my poofy hair is well into the headliner.

        I successfully avoided the ludicrously expensive and prone to breaking Xenon headlights on mine. Nice idea in theory, but in practice not really worth the bother. I did get “Comfort Access”, I absolutely love not having to bother with the key. Walk up to the car and touch the handle and it unlocks, get in and push the button. $500 well spent, IMHO.

        I get 30-32mpg on trips, good enough for me.

  • avatar

    I had a 98. Black with gray interior and manual transmission. We had just moved from Europe where they been on sale for a while so it was a known quantity for me. Also had the upscale 1.8t engine compared to standard Euro 1.6 fare. When I first got it in March ’98, people did ask what it was and they were very rare on the roads (Westchester Co., NY). That changed by the end of the year after the car had won awards etc.

    The posts above bring back many memories; the cool blue and red gauges that were the same colors as used on an airport runway, the generally strange smell when the ac was on, the lack of any interior storage.

    We kept it for 4 years before trading it in for a Volvo XC70. After 3 years though we felt it needed company and bought a 2001.5 Passat V6 GLX in fresco green, again with manual. Now that was my favorite car of all time. Pretty nose heavy with the V6 but it genuinely felt like a luxury car.

    No issues with either car and went on to have 3 successive Audi A4s so obviously not scared by the VW empire.

  • avatar


    It might not be as well made as the original Les Paul but a lot of great guitar players used the SG. I think some of Zappa’s best work was when he was playing the SG.

    Also, I don’t know if it’s a clean design or not, but you and I both know that the Series III Jaguar XJ is the best looking sedan ever and always.

  • avatar

    I had a dark green ’99 Passat with tan leather interior and sun roof. I bought it new and could barely afford it. I traded in for a Saab 9-3 what a mistake. It was perfect. I still kick myself for getting rid of it for that GM Swedish lemon. I loved that VW.

  • avatar

    I owned a ’98 Passat with the 2.8 30v V6 and automatic transmission. Bought it used with 26,500 miles in November 1998.

    The car was definitely a love/hate relationship. I loved the styling, inside and out, and it was the smoothest and quietest car I’ve ever had. Friends would comment on how quiet it was and how it had a Euro feel. A previous girlfriend commented that the interior at night was like a “spaceship”. At the time, I believe it had one of the lowest aerodynamic drag coefficient values of a production car.

    The “hate” part was definitely the reliability and quality of pieces on the car. Honestly, I should have known not to get a “first model year after a redesign”. Here is a quick list of items that broke in under 80k miles of ownership:
    Door lock cylinder
    Exterior mirror controller
    Suspension control arms
    CV Boots (multiple times)
    Coolant overflow tank
    Coolant sensor
    Defroster Evaporator case, which required taking out the dashboard for replacement
    Driver’s seat belt mechanism
    Fuel gauge, which would read “F” for over 100 miles after fill-up

    Add on top of that the expensive regular maintenance of a VW, like the $1000 timing belt change and other various items. I sold the car in May 2006 at 106,000 miles for an Audi (I know, another VW product, must be a glutton for punishment). While I definitely enjoy my Audi, the Passat will be a car I’ll always remember, for all sorts of reasons.

  • avatar

    I purchased the first 1998 Passat sold by my dealer Oct 1997. The car was such early production it did not have blue dash lighting or a built in CD player. I used to joke that the car was job one but in reality it was more a beta test car. Not enough time to list all issues but through it all I loved this car. Probably got the most looks and stares than any other vehicle I have owned. Agreed that this space ship was way ahead of its time and was a joy to drive at a great price point.

    Loved the car so much I traded for a 2002 Passat with extra bling like Monsoon, Homelink and a sunroof. While no paragon of reliability, it has been much better than the 98. It is still in my personal fleet.

    Not sure if I would consider a new generation VW; something is missing in the new ones. My most recent new car purchase was a 2012 Ford.

  • avatar

    Had a good laugh on this one. Had some tickets for a combo Allman Bros./Grateful Dead concert, alas the week after he got plowed by the peach truck. GD still showed but I didn’t take enough drugs to last more than 2 1/2 hours. VFR, um, check, the fueling on their later ones sucked, just try a newish CBR to see the difference (or the pre fuel injection ones). VW turbo. Been there done that. 120k and throw it out. Missed the guitars and the dead marriage. Thank goodness.

  • avatar

    If anybody at VW reads TTAC they would get better info for free than all the J.D. Power consultants in the world could give them about what happened to their company. From the late 90s to the mid 00s, there were few cars on the market more appealing, or shittier after several thousand miles, than the Passat mk V, Jetta mk IV, New Beetle, and Touareg. Taken together those cars brought hundreds of thousands of new customers to VW, and VW kicked most of those enthusiastic new buyers right in the balls. Good luck getting any of them, or their friends, back to the brand, ever.

    • 0 avatar

      Very well put! I take it all those VW’s were part of the “Piech era”, as was Jack Baruth’s own Phaeton, and I only wonder: did the Phaeton suffer the same weak long-term reliability as the others? It seems like it’s the one VW that had exceptional build quality, and subsequently managed to dodge the aforementioned customer alienation bullet.

      • 0 avatar

        I own a 2004 Phaeton. I bought it used despite VW’s rep, hoping that as the top of their line, the build quality and reliability might be better. Short answer: nope. I’ve had everything from trim pieces falling off to roof leaks to transmission failure — even the radio failed. It’s been a terrible disappointment… and yet I still haven’t dumped it…

      • 0 avatar

        @noreaster for some reason the site isn’t letting me reply directly to your comment below.

        Sorry to hear your Phaeton has been a terrible disappointment – I guess there’s our answer. Hopefully there are still some redeeming qualities to the car (hence your continuing to own it).

      • 0 avatar

        @bortlicenseplate: I can’t reply directly to you either, but thanks! The good side of the Phaeton is it’s roomy, beautiful, and feels bank-vault solid on the road… when it’s on the road.

  • avatar

    It was the car that brought me to VW in 1998, and to “The Vortex [B5]” Black on black cloth ’98, 1.8T 5-speed.

    I truly did love it when it wasn’t being a pain in my ass. A base 1.8T that remains to this day, the car my wife refers to as “the nice car” nice being “fancy” in wife terms. It felt and drove more expensively then it’s $18.5 price would indicate.

    Ultimately, I was glad it was a lease and I could turn it back in because it gave me more trouble then any 3 year, 36k mile ownership experience should bring. I haven’t bought another VW since (as much due to the terrible local VW dealer as the car).

  • avatar

    This is wildly off topic, but having seen them perform live last night, I have to say that the Allmans, unlike the Passat, still have it. And while Derek Trucks isn’t Duane Allman, he’s a phenomenal guitarist in his own right.

  • avatar

    I had a B5 A4 Quattro, lamentably with the holdover 12 valve SOHC V6 from the Audi 90 rather than the 1.8T. If I could go back in time I would have a 99.5 1.8T with the sport package. Jack is completely right about the car, there was something great about it. It drove well, felt rock solid at high speeds, looked great, and exuded class. Everybody loved it, and it got much more attention than an equivalently aged E36 328.

    I eventually got rid of it after much deliberation because I loved the car, but its maintenance was eating me alive. In 2.5 years of ownership from 60-90k the following parts failed or were failing and needed replacement: AC evaporator, engine mounts, both front CV boots, front tie rod ends, and the valve cover gaskets. The front control arms were replaced under a recall because they had a habit of failing for no reason. I also had to pull out the instrument panel to replace the bulbs as half of them burnt out. The climate control unit that would intermittently decide that certain buttons shouldn’t work anymore; it was generally the temperature down one in summer, and the temperature up in winter. And I had a phantom sunroof vent feature, where it would halfway to the vent position with no input.

    I think I put $4500+ into maintenance and the above repairs over less than 3 years. And I didn’t own the car long enough to reach the inevitable ABS and SRS module failures. If I had the 1.8T I really wanted, I would have had the privilege of dealing with intermittent CELs from the turbo and vacuum system issues too.

    As much as I loved the car, that ownership experience has made sure I will never own a VAG product again for the rest of my life. But I still miss it.

    • 0 avatar

      Just shows how hit and miss VAG quality is.

      I bought a low miles very early (June 95) 96 A4 Quattro in 98. Owned it for over 10 years and put 160,000 miles on it. I assume this was one of the first A4s that was brought into the US.

      At around 90,000 miles I started doing my own maintenance due to my personal finances. I did replace the evaporator by myself around 120,000 miles. Most of the other stuff was simple, however I never needed to replace the clutch.

      Best car I ever owned and , sold it to a local guy and still see it occasionally.

  • avatar

    Great read, I laughed out loud as I read this. Its sad but true how cars change and lose value over time even when its the same exact make and model. Thanks for sharing!

  • avatar

    Late to the party, but I had to chime in about my B5 Passat 1.8T 5 speed. What a fantastically great, simple, fun to drive car. The little motor had a heart of gold. I mastered double clutch downshifts in her and even managed to fake a little 4-wheel drift on the on-ramp to work.

    I had the chance to driver her yesterday. My wife uses it as a spare in her small business. The interior smells exactly the same the 35 year old Cessna I once rented. She was complaining about how there was water coming in through the front floor vents. For what had to be the 4th time over 12 years, I pulled the battery, removed the mounting bracket, and cleared the drain hole of leaves, sticks. etc.

    What a wonderful car. Not nearly as smooth, comfortable, refined, or efficient as my new Passat TDI 6-speed, but much more tossable, forgiving, and fun to drive.

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