CC/Driving Impressions: 2003 Volkswagen Passat – Cheap Thrills

(first posted 1/9/2017)    Some cars don’t have to be new, expensive, or even particularly special to be fun-to-drive. I was recently reassured of this in the most pleasantly surprising way when I drove this ’03 VW Passat wagon my clients traded in back from their house the day before Christmas Eve.

Every once in a while, the Massachusetts RMV’s computer system will not recognize the VIN of a new car, resulting in us unable to register the car at the dealer. It’s something that can be corrected with a quick fix, but unfortunately it requires someone going to an actual registry branch, waiting in line, and dealing with all the pleasantness the registry has to offer. It also means that should the customer be getting new plates, they cannot drive off in their new car until this is done.

As it happens, we were faced with this exact situation with the 2017 MINI Cooper S Clubman All4  this Passat was traded in for. My clients had just done paperwork for and were expecting to drive it home, and because our runner who normally goes to the registry was not available, guess who got to take a trip to the Mass RMV?

I honestly didn’t mind one bit though, as it was a slow Friday and my clients, Gitte and Rick, couldn’t have been more wonderful people throughout the entire process. I had first met Gitte almost three months earlier when she came in just to take a quick test drive of the new Clubman.

She and her husband came in several more times before they finalized their selections for how they wanted their ordered car to be built, and I spoke with her numerous times giving her updates throughout the process, so we felt like friends by the time their new MINI arrived in a very quick five weeks from Oxford, U.K. – the perfect early Christmas present. Their exact car is pictured above.

They were initially going to trade in their 2006 MINI Cooper S convertible, but two weeks before the car arrived, she informed me that they wanted to hold on to it and would be trading their daughter’s 2003 Passat in instead, which had been in their possession the past few months as an extra car.

Having seen the outside of this thirteen year-old, 152,000-mile, manual-transmission New England car closeup when she brought it by for a quick appraisal the week before, I was honestly somewhat nervous to drive it back from their home. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised.

(Off to deliver Gitte and Rick’s early Christmas present in proper festive style)

After about two hours to, at, and back from the Braintree RMV, I slapped the plates on their new 6-speed manual Thunder Grey Clubman, got it inspected next door at BMW, and was off to deliver it to Gitte and Rick at their home in the nearby tiny coastal town of Cohasset, a scenic half-hour drive which I hardly minded.

For non-South Shore residents, Cohasset is a very picturesque, upscale community, with many beautiful old homes and an enchanting main street that’s been used for filming in several movies set place in New England. This was the view several houses down from Gitte and Rick’s gravel U-shaped lower driveway, their contemporary-styled house perched up on a hill overlooking the harbor.

After exchanging keys and a few minutes of pleasant conversation, I was headed back to South Shore MINI, just as the Christmas lights were beginning to come on at all the beautiful homes that looked like they belong in a magazine. With a few seat and steering column adjustments, I fired the Passat up and nervously shifted into first, bracing myself for a rough and jittery gear change as I released the clutch.

Thankfully, it was remarkably crisp, and second and third were even smoother. I found the buttery soft clutch pedal to catch at the very same high point as in the new MINIs, so there was no searching for its sweet spot. It’s shifter was was also super slick, all combining for an excellent “shift-it-yourself” experience.

Truthfully, this was the best-driving older manual transmission trade-in I’ve ever driven. Likely on its second or third clutch at 152K miles, this car was obviously well cared-for from a mechanical standpoint. Most trade-ins this old and high-mileage we get usually feel like they’re about to croak.

The sticker at the top of the windshield indicated it was up to date on its service and not a single warning light illuminated in the instrument cluster. Now when can you say that about a 13-year old Volkswagen?!

With no appointment for the rest of the day, and the likelihood of walk-ins showing up given the day we’d been having, I decided to take the long way home by way of Jerusalem Road.

For those who have never heard of it, Jerusalem Road runs along the scenic coast, and is locally well-known for its breathtaking views, numerous multi-million dollar homes, and a number of famous residents. Through Jerusalem Road’s many winding turns and short but sometimes steep dips, the Passat handled them with Teutonic poise, even on its under-inflated tires.

Despite this Passat’s rather unglamorous, workhorse persona, its German engineering made itself well known through its compliant chassis, precise steering feel, linear power delivery, and overall sure footedness. Lacking any squeaks, rattles, or moans, it took the twists, turns, and bumps with remarkable composure.

Maybe it’s because I had such low expectations, but I really have nothing negative to say about this car. It did everything it was supposed to and was a surprising delight to drive. Despite being a 3,300-pound, front-wheel drive midsize wagon with the standard 170-horsepower 1.8L inline-4, and not the available V6 or W8, it was remarkably agile and responsive, something no doubt helped by the fact that it was a manual.

It’s hard to believe that this time last year I didn’t even feel confident driving stick out on public roads. It truly takes a car like this, which would likely be so very much less amusing to drive in automatic, to appreciate the joy driving manual can bring. I still don’t think I would ever want a manual as my daily driver, as sometimes it’s nice getting to be lazy. However, if I were to purchase an older “fun” car to toy around with, say an E36 convertible, it would have to be stick. This Passat gave me a truly humbling experience, one that I’m truly grateful for.

Photographed: Towns of Hingham and Cohasset, MA – December 2016