The dawn of the new millennium coincided with the arrival of our first child. What does a car guy do when he needs to carry a pack and play, diaper megapacks and a stroller? He gets a stick-shift station wagon with some pep.
Every new parent quickly learns that children completely upend your life. Sleep? So long, Charlie. Dinners out? Good luck. It’s a whole new world. One of the ways, as I discussed in last week’s COAL, is the need to move a whole lot more stuff just to get around – let alone visit family or friends. Up until the arrival of our son, my wife and I had been driving stick shift small cars – a 1993 Mazda Protege that we owned and a 1998 Honda Civic that we leased for work travel. Both were zippy, fun cars to drive that were great on gas. But neither were known for their capacious storage. Holiday travel to see family guaranteed we would have a completely full trunk and other gear packed around the car seat in back. A few trips like that convinced us that our small car days were numbered. But what to get?
I believed then, and still believe now, that the station wagon is one of the best choices for balancing all around drivability, size and storage. (One could argue that all CUVs are essentially station wagons, proving my point.) At the time, in 2000, there were still some popular wagon choices on the market and I test drove a few of them. Subaru, Saturn, VW, Ford, Volvo and Saab all made wagons at various price points. Moreover, this was going to be our first new car purchase and we weren’t working with an unlimited budget. Of the affordable options, I test drove the Subaru Legacy (newly updated), the Saturn LW2 (new that year) and the VW Passat (new since 1998). For me, the choice was clear – Passat.
Now, I had always thought VWs were cool in an off-hand kind of way. As a child of the 70’s and 80’s, my reference point was less the VW of the Beetle/Karmann Ghia/bus era, but the Rabbit/Scirocco/Dasher/GTI era. They seemed to embody cool design and functionality at an affordable price. True, VW went through some tough years in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but by 2000, the company got its mojo back – the Golf, Jetta and Passat all won accolades from the car press for being well engineered and fun to drive. Also, VW was building cars that offered the style and performance of its uplevel Audis at a more reasonable cost.
The Passats of this era (B5 for VW junkies) mimicked the Audi A4 and were built off of a similar platform. The 1.8 liter turbo four offered good performance and torque with solid economy. The interiors felt substantial and the doors shut with a solid Teutonic thunk. And it all could be had with a stick shift. It was like the best of all worlds – German sporty car meets family mover. Test driving the Passat wagon in the backroads of upstate NY (where we lived at the time) put a grin on my face.
The Passat proved to be an almost perfect car for us. (I couldn’t find pictures of our specific car, but the pics here show the same color and wheel combo.) We bought a very basic equipped model – steel wheels with covers, stick shift and standard stereo. The only option was a 6 CD changer in the back end – the kind you loaded with CDs in a cartridge and forgot. Yes, I know VWs of that era were known to have many reliability issues. However, for whatever reason, we never suffered from them. I know that’s not a common experience. The black cloth interior stood up to all manner of kid mess without showing a lot of wear. And the back seats flipped down to allow us to load up for Home Depot runs. The stick shift, front wheel drive layout also handled Midwestern winters without much effort. (Snow tires would probably improve that.)
I recognize the Passat appealed to a relatively narrow family car demographic. The writing was on the wall for crossovers and SUVs as the 2000s went on. As I wrote last week, eventually, we did outgrow the Passat once we needed to carry more people, as well as stuff. It was never a cheap car, by popular standards, and it also had some Germanic quirks. My not so favorite one were the cupholders that popped out of the dashboard with two flimsy shallow spots. Not helpful for a sippy cup. I guess the Germans never really approved of the American habit of dining while driving. Also, the car always beeped when the temperature dropped to 37 degree which always struck me as strange and, if the back hatch wasn’t latched, the red pixelated information screen under the speedometer would say “Boot open”. So, VW wasn’t willing to make all that many compromises to suit American tastes (at least not yet – the current Passat notwithstanding).
The Passat lasted 8 years and carried us from upstate NY to Minnesota, brought my second son home from the hospital and smartly handled daycare drop duty. It met an untimely demise when I misjudged traffic at a stop sign near the local school and hit a passing car. The impact bent the frame and the insurance company totaled the car. I was not ready to say goodbye. I collected the last few items from the car, including the CDs left in the changer in back, and said goodbye at the body shop to our faithful European friend.