VW has just launched Passat 8.5. In a market packed with over-inflated SUV’s, you could be forgiven for thinking the Passat was no longer with us. Truth is, it’s still an important model to VW and has been with us longer than the Golf.

This mid-sized saloon hasn’t had the greatest starts in life if you include it past DNA and in that I’m talking about the ill-fated 411 and 412. VW couldn’t let go of that rear-engine layout and as a result, made a car that was out of date before it even started back in 1968.

Europe was changing and it was all about engines at the front and luggage at the back.

VW fought back with the purchase of NSU and Audi. Soon the Audi 80 was badged as the Passat and in 1973 in an array of models similar to the Audi, the Passat was born. Unlike the Audi, the VW had a fastback look about it in a hatchback configuration.

In 1981 the B2 MK2 Passat was born. Unlike its stablemate from Audi, the B2 80 had been born much earlier in 1978. What VW was to do was to take the style of the 80’s sporty sibling, the GT coupe and turn it into their new Passat. Somewhat cheeky it has to be said but what this meant for the VW driver was a car that looked like the Audi Quattro rally weapon with all the practicalities of a Golf. The hatchback body remained and was only available as a Volkswagen.

Fitted into this Passat and here for us to look at today is the 5 cylinder 2-litre engine. This 1988 GL5 model was packed with innovative ideas made it top of the range. The 5 cylinder, fitted with fuel injection meant performance and power. It developed 115bhp at a thundering 5400rpm. Torque was a useful 164Nm at 3200rpm. And this figure would plague you because this all-conquering model was mated to a 4+E gearbox. 

The Audi That’s A Volkswagen

This gearbox was Volkswagens attempt at making the car economical on a run. 4th being an overdrive and 5th being even more of an overdrive lowering the engine revs to an all-time low. This really did make 5th a gear a cruising gear. And it worked. On the urban cycle, it would return a normal 25.9 miles per gallon. Absolutely nothing to shout about but at 56mph you could get 47.1mpg and that meant you could travel some great distances on one tank of fuel. 

Sadly you wouldn’t get close to that figure for one reason with that 5 cylinder engine up front. Forget the screaming sounds of V8’s or the silky feel of a V6. The straight 5 in the VW sounded like a budget Audi Quattro. The same Audi Quattro that you would hear on BBC’s Grandstand rally reports spitting fire. It was a sound that blew you away and in the Passat GL5, it blew you away even if it didn’t go quite as fast or spit fire from the exhaust. You see, it sounded fast. The engine felt amazing and it made you feel great.

The drive and handling were set more for a luxury liner than a sports car. Spirited driving wouldn’t give you the full point and squirt of the Quattro and this is where your Quattro Passat ends but it’s also where Passat starts. The Passat GL5 was about distance cruising and it managed to do that well. Back to back with German cars of the time, this Passat has a distinctive French feel about it. It floats and cossets you like a Citroën. There is a massive amount of Germanic harshness missing. Its like has never been seen again from Volkswagen. 

Was it expensive in that way Volkswagens were in the ’80s? Considering its relatively scarcity back then, it really wasn’t any more costly to buy that the top sellers in the market. For your £9356 you could save a grand and buy a Vauxhall Cavalier GLS or for about the same money, buy a loaded up Ford Sierra Ghia. Now, this was the problem for the Passat GL5. CAR magazine told you to buy the Cavalier. They said it was the better car but we all knew the GLS was the tops. It even came with alloy wheels and tinted glass. The Sierra rubbed its horse brass in your face with the badge of Ghia. A badge that stood for the top of the range. 

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Introverted German Style

VW didn’t really shout out about their conservative Passat. The only car they did shout about was the Golf GTI and even then that didn’t quite get the fanfare it was worthy of. Volkswagen liked to keep it quiet, almost introverted. In the words of a Victoria Wood burger sketch from her one-off show, An Audience with…, “the introverts burger, it’s just a serviette but they don’t like to say anything”

This was VW’s way. And a shame because despite the lacking of glitz and glamour, the inside of the Passat GL5 was steeped in plush velour everywhere. The carpets had a quality shag about them and it felt solid. And the inside niceties didn’t stop there. You had all-round electric windows with ergonomically challenging switches on the door or centre console. Fitted like an afterthought, the switches were at least taken from the modern VW switchgear. The rest of the switchgear was dated clicky switches from the last generation of Volkswagens. 

The Passat has continued to shine as a product for VW and all generations have retained some element of DNA from this very model. The one thing, thankfully, they haven’t taken is the awful offset steering wheel. Perhaps that’s why VW didn’t want to shout about the Passat?

All photos Stuart M. Bird

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