Junkyard Find: 2003 Volkswagen Passat GLS 1.8T Sedan

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

After all these years of writing about junkyard-found vehicles (15 years, to be exact), I'm trying to fill in some of the thin spots in these automotive history lessons. I've caught up on some of the post-1980s BMWs I'd neglected, I'm trying to add more SUVs to the mix, and now I realize that I haven't paid much attention to discarded VW Passats built since we called that model the Dasher or the Quantum over here. So, I decided to document the very first Passat I found in a junkyard with a manual transmission (just to make the search more of a challenge), and that turned out to be this '03 GLS.

As we learned back in January, the very last North American-market Passat came off the Chattanooga line this year, after a decade of decreasing sales. Car shoppers elsewhere can still buy a new Passat sedan, but those hail from a from a new generation that we never saw on our streets.

In 2003, the Passat was available here in wagon and sedan form. It's a close cousin of the Audi A4, which tells us that it's a machine that's nice to drive when it works and expensive to get repaired when things go wrong.

American Passat shoppers could get the '03 sedan in one of five versions, with the GLS 1.8T the second-from-cheapest version at $22,885 ($37,315 in 2022 dollars). A 2.8-liter V6 and 4.0-liter W8 were available in the more upscale Passats, but the 1.8T made 170 horsepower with its turbocharger and 20-valve cylinder head.

I've seen quite a few 1.8T-powered cars on race tracks during my years working for the 24 Hours of Lemons. Nearly all have suffered engine failures early and often, which contrasts sharply with the scenes of checkered-flag glory predicted by online 1.8T zealots.

Volkswagen didn't build this car so that it would outlast a Suzuki Esteem or Dodge Neon SXT on the race track at age 17, though. It built it to take the money of car shoppers who might otherwise get a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, and the 2003 Passat with 1.8T and five-on-the-floor manual looked better and was more fun to drive than either of those two similarly-priced machines.

You could get a manual transmission in a new Accord here through 2021, while the Camry held on until 2011 (some say 2012 but I am very skeptical about that). However, the 2003 Accord sedan was available only with the four-cylinder engine if you insisted on a three-pedal rig, and the last year for any Camry with a V6/manual combination here was 2001. The Passat with 1.8T beat the four-banger Accord by 10 horsepower and the Camry by 13.

This car ends its career with a straight body and fairly clean interior.

The combination CD/cassette radio was in its last moments of mainstream relevance in 2003, though I've seen a few later vehicles so equipped. This car came with the optional Monsoon audio package that also went in plenty of GM cars of the era.

How many miles? Without powering up the ECU, there's no way to tell.

The beautifully crafted Passat. You'll want to keep it that way.

Your future self— probably not calling your flip phone from 2022, but maybe 2009— will thank you for getting the Passat. And avoiding Becky.

[Images by the author]

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Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin

Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.

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3 of 16 comments
  • Pianoboy57 Pianoboy57 on Aug 23, 2022

    I liked my 02 B5.5 very much. Yes, it costs about 1k a year to keep it going. Youtube videos helped me keep it running. I owned it from 2014 through 2020 and parted with it because we had too many cars. Some renovations were in the plans but I never got to them. I thought my Passat drove and handled quite well and I always found it to be comfortable front or back. If the car had been a TDI wagon I would have done whatever it took to keep it around. I do confess the Corolla that replaced it put my mind at ease when my wife was on the road.

    Someone in my area is still driving one that I suspect is a W8 considering how it sounds.

    As for wagons I recently got a 2019 Outback.

  • MattPete MattPete on Aug 23, 2022

    A6 platform, not A4.

    • Peekay Peekay on Aug 24, 2022

      No the Audi A4 and Passat were both on the B5 (and later the B5.5) platform. The Audi A6 was on a larger platform.

  • Ajla I'm going to whine about it. It should have a V8 available. Preferably a new one but at least offering the old one as a mid-level option. That this brand new engine outperforms something introduced 2003 and last updated in 2009 doesn't impress me. Also, journalists seem to be unaware that it is possible to add forced induction to a V8.
  • Calrson Fan I'll say it again, terrible business model doomed to fail. If your gonna build an EV PU the only market that makes sense to go after is fleets. How many other BEV companies are making money pushing only truck type vehicles?
  • Kcflyer Well it's a better waste of my money than the 1.5 billion sleepy joe's handlers gave away this week to pay for gender studies tuition.
  • Dukeisduke SK Siltron - they make blank wafers, so this isn't really a semiconductor factory (wafer fab). Siltron just polishes wafers sliced from silicon carbide ingots. Sometimes these plants are located close to fabs, sometimes they're halfway around the world from the fabs.Wafer fabs take those wafers and run processes on them (photolithography, etch, deposition, etc.) to produce finished wafers. Those finished wafers go to an assembly/test (A/T) site, where they go through probe and other testing, they're cut up into individual chips and inserted into packages with lead frames. After testing on the finished chips, then they're ready to sell.
  • Argistat If China invades Taiwan (becoming even more likely thanks to DT's isolationist rants) , then the US is completely screwed. If someone tried to list all the manufactured items and manufacturing equipment that contain semiconductor chips, the list would be so long you'd never complete it. Finally a real effort to help bring this into the US.