Classic Curbside Classic: 1990 VW Passat Wagon (B3) – Practicality Über Alles

Since its inception, practicality and functionality were the dominant forces that defined Volkswagens. With the arrival of the B5 Passat in 1996, that took a decided turn towards a more Audi-esqe and upscale image, which soon manifested itself in the Phaeton and that other miscalculation, the Passat W8. That’s not to say that the B5 Passat doesn’t have its charms, although once its soft-touch “paint” that coats many of its interior pieces starts peeling away like a sunburn, a considerable part of that charm flakes away. No such issues with its B3/4 predecessor: it was as honest and unadorned as a shoebox; the last of the old-school VWs. And I briefly lusted after one, if one can actually have such feelings for such a practical box.

For followers of the VW brand, the B3 was quite a break with tradition. The B1 was really nothing more than an Audi 80/Fox with a hatchback grafted on. The B2’s body had more distinctive sheet metal, but it was still based heavily on the gen2 Audi 80/4000. But the B3 was all VW, with a transverse engine configuration borrowed from the Golf.

The primary goal of the VW developers with the B3/4 was to maximize space utilization, which they accomplished with typical German overkill. It was dubbed the Raumwunder (space miracle) by the German press, offering interior Lebensraum on a par that approached a long-wheelbase S-Class Mercedes. No middle class car had ever offered such rear seat legroom, and if memory serves me right, its successor B5 took some of that back.

At a time when vans, micro-vans, MPVs and other tall-boy wagons were mostly still non-existent in Europe, the new Passat made quite a splash indeed. And of course, it wasn’t just the wagon; the sedan had was equally well endowed with rear leg room. But there was nothing pretentious about the B3 Passat: its rear seat space was just the benefit of excellent space utilization, not some effort to make it appealing to the yet-distant booming market in China for stretched wheelbase VWs like the Skoda Superb and Audi 6 L.

That’s pretty obvious too from its exterior styling: the B3 was the German Taurus, with its grille-less face and Botoxed skin. That would never have gone over well in China, where the B3’s predecessor, the Santana was one of the pioneering VWs, and is still going strong there. As far as I know, the B3 may never have made it to China.

The face-less look fad soon got old in the Occident too, and the B4 refresh that appeared in 1993 featured the new VW family face-ade, as well as some retouches to its skin, a mild foreshadowing of the styling direction to come. And in 1996, VW finally deigned to offer its first TDI engine in the US, the old 90 hp 1.9 L four. And that’s where my interest perked up.

A father at our kids’ school had one, and I rode with him in it briefly on a class camping trip. The combination of the wagon’s practical roominess and throbbing diesel engine really spoke to my inner Kraut. Of course, the economics of a diesel engine in 1996 or so were pretty un-compelling, as gas prices were flirting with that magic 99 cent barrier.

This shot of the Passat with a Subaru wagon behind it tells the tale of what could have been. VW wagons were once a mainstay in markets like this, on the coasts and in foreign-car enclaves. Subarus, with their AWD and practicality stole the market wagons of this genre. VW had their excellent Syncro AWD of course, but a combination of marketing factors, pricing, reliability issues and other factors soon made Passat wagons passé.

The B5 Passat wagon went on to satisfy the ambitions of a more citified crowd, by being a slightly roomier and less expensive Audi wagon. But the B3/4 will be remembered fondly as one of the last of its kind.