COAL: 2001.5 VW Passat Wagon – Living Large?

At the dealership for unscheduled service on my ’97, I don’t quite know what came over me. With around 80,000 miles and this unwelcome mechanical problem, I began to question its long-term viability. Walking over to the row of brand new VWs, without hesitation, I pointed my finger toward a blue GLX wagon, similar to the old one that was now in the shop with an undiagnosed malady, and said to the salesperson that one. What just happened?


Negotiations began. Leasing seemed like the better alternative to acquire the car. Not at my home dealership, the service experience here, nearer to my office, was not as favorable as the one at home. There, the service manager, with whom I had become friends, would regularly go to bat for me against Volkswagen of America, saving me many hundreds of dollars on repairs for things that really shouldn’t have broken. I knew the new car would be going to the home dealer for service, so they became involved in negotiations based on an unseen but identical car on their own lot, but just missed out on this transaction.

Only a year earlier I was living in a rented one room studio on the coast. By no means extravagant, listening to the waves, overlooking the ocean and watching sunsets suited me well for about twenty years. Although perfectly happy with that stage in my life, I felt privileged with more responsibility at work and to be moving into a brand new house.



The car, with a suggested retail price that felt like quite a splurge, was driven home to our family residence, shared with my brother and his wife. The ’97 was repaired, restored and sold to the daughter and son-in-law of friends. Neither research nor test drive occurred before the impulse buy on the new VW, I had been so contented with the old one that I just bought the same exact model in the next generation. Life was comfortable; traumatic, life-threatening family upheaval had given way to stability and normalcy; things were running just fine.

The 2001.5 station wagon, noticeably heavier with additional features and a tiptronic automatic transmission, took a little time to get used to. It was a good car for taking clients out for lunch or on press checks, and, sublimely comfortable on long trips. The powerfully silken 2.8 dual overhead cam, 5-valves per cylinder, 190 horsepower V6 was rated for 0-60 in 7.3 seconds, with 206 pound-feet of torque, performing the quarter-mile in 15.6 seconds, at 92 miles per hour. Motorweek dubbed the Passat a top pick family car, somewhat justifying the hasty purchase of a more expensive automobile than what was really needed.



As vacation time neared, the National Parks seemed like a good destination; an aunt and cousin accepted invitations to go along. The only other time I had toured with Aunt Margaret was when she needed to move from her home in Santa Fe into assisted living on the west coast. Experiencing vision loss from macular degeneration, she wanted to become acclimated to a new place that offered an elevated care regimen, ahead of inevitably going blind.

Back on that trip, we left New Mexico in her white Toyota Corolla 4-door a day late due to the movers’ delay, causing havoc down the road. With me at the wheel, the hours and miles were passed by listening to recollections about my aunt’s travels to interesting and exotic places during her calling as a medical missionary in Arizona and Thailand. For about twenty years she resided on a native American reservation near the Grand Canyon. There, a true pioneer and always intrepid, she purchased a manual transmission truck for mounting expeditions into the southwestern United States. Tale after tale seemed to involve mishaps, getting stuck, being faced with adversity and encountering obstacles. It sounded as if she never traveled without being tested for mettle and faith. I thought to myself, those types of things could never happen on this trip…  uh oh. 


Visiting us in southern California, circa mid-50s.



The truck and friends, Ganado, Arizona


After crossing over the border into Arizona, all hell broke loose. Driving into a wind & sand storm that toppled a semi, spilling its load and blocking passage up ahead, the highway was closed. With no alternate route, we off-ramped, along with all of the other traffic. Into the lobby of a nearby hotel, Margaret stood at the end of the long line of other stranded travelers trying to find lodging, while I went around the corner to use the phone to check availability at this same hotel. Down to their last two rooms, we were safe for the night. 

The next day seemed like a fresh, new beginning. But, things quickly went awry as we ran headlong into a blizzard. Exiting in Winslow, Arizona to purchase some new wiper blades and get gas, a trucker was asked about the weather ahead. Based on his response, the decision was made to stay put; we checked into a motel, the entire city now without power. Going to WalMart, which had back-up electricity, time was passed walking around to stretch our legs. Back in the room, periodic calls were made to the highway patrol to inquire about conditions. Margaret’s friends in Santa Fe had given us some road snacks, and as restaurants and drive-throughs were closed, their trail mix kept us fed. Calling again to check and being told about a brief break before the next wave of snow would hit, meant that we had to get out now. Driving was fine, and by the time we stopped for lunch the storm had abated; disaster over. Back into the car, milkshakes in hand, all was well again. More stories of survival for Margaret’s travelogue. 



For the proposed excursion to the National Parks of the southwestern United States, Cousin Verda flew in from Michigan. Together we aimed north to pick up Margaret, and then set off in the Passat toward Las Vegas for the first night, one of the last places friends and family would ever expect to find any one of us. We cruised the strip once, watched the fountains show from the car, and stopped to put a couple of coins from a friend into a one-armed money thief. This trip, fortunately, was uneventful. There was one moment when trouble seemed imminent as a deer lept out in front of us, but hard braking on the anti-locks averted mayhem. One highlight was lucking into a cancellation for overnight accommodations at the always-booked-months-ahead Zion National Park lodge. Ahhh the memories… relaxing out on our balcony in the still of the night, savoring views of dramatic rock formations, lush forests and the picturesque stream, underneath a most spectacular full moon. Another standout was the expedition into the slot canyons near the dam at Page, Arizona. The last time Margaret had been to the Glen Canyon, a regular spot for rafting and camping, the dam was only partially built, and Lake Powell just beginning to form. She told us of native American rock etchings that were to be lost under the rising waters, and shared other remembrances of glorious places that vanished under the surface of the human-made lake. 

Onward toward Wahweap Resort on the Colorado River, she was happy that we were able to locate the vintage stone cabins from her past. As we were then seated for a nice lunch, it was mesmerizing to think that decades ago, Margaret was right here, bouncing around the rocky terrain in her truck, shifting gears, reveling in the heat and dust and rafting down the river to camp, cook over an open fire, observe wildlife, photograph scenery, hike, and commune with her friends out in nature. Now in her 80’s, using a walker or cane, and with limited vision, being chauffeured in the tony VW, overnighting in hotels and motels, and dining in restaurants, if having a choice of which version of the trip she preferred, hands-down, it would be the river rafting one.  



The vacation included Zion, Bryce, and the Grand Canyon. We had an absolutely spectacular trip. The car was ideal, split rear seating comfortably accommodating Margaret on one side and some luggage on the other, with the bulk of our suitcases in the back cargo hold. Then state-of-the-art automatic climate control, heated & infinitely adjustable power leather seats, rain-sensing wipers, which worked incredibly well, heated folding exterior mirrors, steering wheel cruise and redundant buttons for audio and climate control, and six disc changer, were unnecessary but welcome extras. The car coddled us as we admired the beauty before us. A clever feature was being able to open and close the windows and seal the moon roof by using the key in the outside door lock. Easy way for opening up the car on hot days before getting in, or conveniently closing everything to lock and walk.  



The VW served everyday life and on other trips to visit friends and family. A favorite memory was going out on Christmas tree runs to drive home, look up through the moon roof, see the tree, and know that the holiday celebrations were getting underway. I was grateful to have what turned out to be a rewarding car to drive; the Passat would be around for about three years, without considerable troubles. When its time was over, it was purchased by my sister, remaining in the family, serving her reasonably well. 

To have transited a period when money was tight and material things few, I felt fortunate by all that had come my way, including the 2001 Volkswagen. It was the right car at the right time. Yet, as my life has now simplified, I would never again choose to own such a large, or even modest size home, and have no need for any such cushy vehicle. For me, excess material things hold no value. Now when spotting an old Passat like mine, it’s hard to imagine my previous station in life as it’s owner. Great as life was then, there is no desire to go backward now.

As we move forward, our needs and desires evolve. Old rituals and routines give way as our spiritual and emotional outlooks change and grow. And, if everyday living is analogous to being on vacation, I’d much rather be wearing a backpack than lugging around a steamer trunk. Don’t you think that Aunt Margaret would agree?