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.
“but a combination of marketing factors, pricing, and other factors soon made Passat wagons passé”.
Gee what could those “other factors” be?
Could one of them be ,per chance, reliability? Or lack of it.
Beautiful car, except for the motorized belts and grille-less face. Never understood that design motif. Was VW reliability circumspect as it is now?
The current-gen Passat wagon is a great deal as it nears the end of its life – for around $27k it comes loaded except nav/dvd….
I’m biased against this and other modern Volkswagens because I worked on them at a dealer for a number of years, after the B3 was old and gray, fixing myriad bullshit problems for rather peculiar owners.
When running right, and when you could get into the driver’s seat because the door handle hadn’t fallen off, these were nice cars to drive. With the 16v engine, they were peppy enough, in a way newer engines with turbos and/or models with variable valve timing would not understand. The faster you rev, the more power you get, in one nice, smooooth arc upward on the graph. These engines did not start wheezing at 4k rpm like so, so many others. The 5-speed transmissons had agreeable ratios, but were not especially durable, many needing torn down to repair the weak reverse idler gears. Clutches engaged near the top of pedal travel as a matter of habit, and you never could tell how close one was to dead until it was.
The interiors were roomy, but because of the narrow cabin, they still felt cozy, even personal. Instrument clusters were busy looking, until they burnt up and were no longer busy at all. Seats were comfortable in an Americanized velour/German hybrid sort of way, and you felt as at home on the interstate as you did going to Kroger for some milk.
Models with the automatic transmission went about their business well enough, but they didn’t have the same sense of lightness as the manual models. This car preferred an interested driver to one just along for the ride.
I guess I have a certain respect for the B3 Passat in that the actual driving was fun, but they were so, so flawed in execution, I could never recommend one. The B4 was just a B3 with a beer belly and less eccentric details, but was no more reliable than the B3, and 8 valves went missing from the base engine to boot! The ONLY thing worthwhile about a B4 was the TDI/5-speed, and it made the car feel almost like a B3 with something blocking the intake.
There are those who love the VR6 versions of either car, but it had its own issues, and made the car nose-heavy….
My best buddy went into VW lust in 1990 and bought a lightly used 1990 Pasaat sedan. I drove it a lot; really a nice car, excellent balance, great power, space utilisation that could not be compared with anything on the market, brilliant ergonomics, too.
And as soon as the 24 month warranty was up, the car self-destructed. All the electrics stopped working one by one. Bits fell of, the aforementioned door handles broke as fast as they could replaced and the crowning glory was a broken timing belt at 60,000 which resulted in a $5000 repair bill. In 1998 he practically gave the thing away and then, get this, bought a Dodge Neon, which promptly self-destructed, too. Took him until 2003 to buy a Japanese car, and since then he has never gone back.
I have my own VW horror stories surrounding twin 1986 Jettas, but this will have to be saved for a future date.
I never realised reliability was such an issue on these cars. I always thought it was the sad face that held them back.
I find it interesting that the design language for this car was tested already in 1981, with the Auto 2000 concept car. I actually found it remarkable at the times when the B3 Passat debuted in 1988 that it had taken seven years for the design language to break through. And I wonder why it didn’t take hold, because no other car in the line up continued it. Ferdinand Piech was an Audi man, and he became CEO of VW in 1993. I guess he just thought it ludicrous that the company would have two individually developed mid size cars, because, as said, when the B5 debuted it was Audi based.
I’m amazed at the similarity between the lines on this car and the one’s on an Ford Escort wagon.
I picked up a ’93 Passat with the VR6 and 5 spd in ’95. It was a blast to drive and very comfortable. The interior was cavernous…kept it 3 years.
Prior to that, I was the happy owner of a ’90 Jetta GLI with the 16v, recaro seats and BBS wheels…great Teutonic driving characteristics. This car was stolen, sadly.
(I suspect from the people I had recently purchased tires from. Turning your keys over to service people can be a leap of faith.)
Total of 8 years of enjoyable, trouble free VW ownership. I guess I was lucky.
We had two of these, the first was a ’91 wagon 5-speed that we bought nearly-new and kept for 12 years and 280K kms. There were a few oil leak issues at first, but after those were fixed under warranty the car was quite reliable. The timing belt was done at about 180K km, and it had an alternator and fuel pump during its life, as well as one window regulator. It had leather and sport wheels (40-series tires), which, along with the manual transmission, made it quite a nice European sport wagon. Sold it at auction… and the purchaser was the dealer we bought it from 12 years earlier!
The second was also a 91 (a sedan) which I picked up for my son to drive the year he graduated. It had the autobox, but I still liked driving it so much that I’d let him take my Grand Cherokee about half the time. That Passat was extremely reliable, even though it was 10 years old (but with low kms) when we got it. We kept that for 4 years, and the only significant issue was the central door lock unit, which I replaced with one from a wrecking yard.
I have great memories of driving these cars, and I always liked the grille-less face. There were lots of these cars around Vancouver until about 2 years ago… now I seldom see them. I guess the Hondas and Toyotas from that era, which are still very much evident, are a better bet when they get long in the tooth.
Thankfully, we never had the motorized belts, knee pad and recessed steering wheel hub in Canada. Our versions were much more like the European ones. Canadian buyers even got an all-wheel drive “Syncro” version in 1992, of which about 250 were sold, and are quite sought after by enthusiasts.
I sell cars and my rules of thumb, if you must own a VW, is to either buy it new and sell it when the warranty expires or buy an old one with no power options whatsoever because they WILL break.
So a Bug or 1st gen rabbit?
I’ve always been leery of used VWs for this reason. My wife has experessed interest in a VW Eos, and while I’ll consider it the next time we’re car shopping, those would be the terms–*must* be certified pre-owned with warranty and it’s out the door the second the warranty expires.
The car shown must have a really short driver; look at how close the front seat is to the dash.
It gets spanked by a modified Altima, but the B3 VR6 engine sounds very good (ignore the idiots driving and the ricey Altima. May be NSFW due to language).
To be fair, the stock Altima had a pretty strong 2.4 with a good power curve. So getting beaten by a modified one doesn’t make a VR6 any less excellent.
Great cars, these, the streets used to be flooded with them over here in the Netherlands. Popular as they were here, in Germany one could find one of this literally at every corner, right next to its largest rival, the Opel Vectra. A friend of my dad’s who lived in Germany for 10 years recalled that this Passat was as common as a Golf elsewhere in Europe. Although they’re rapidly disappearing over the last few years, this one gained some sort of cult following, many funky bodykits exist.
My parents bought a 1993 wagon (Variant) in ’94, a 5-speed manual 1.8, the standard engine in Europe. One of the last ones, with some extra add-ons to sell the ending model cars. Power windows front and back, power sunroof, white indicator lamps at front and dark ones at the rear, nice upholstery, special colour. Not the cheapest car ever, but one that lasted and quite a move forward from the ’87 Opel Kadett Caravan we previously had. The enormous space in the back was very useful as my sister and me grew up.
Over the 10 years my parents (after the divorce: my dad) owned it, it never had any big issues, must be said it was reasonably well maintained. While spending a weekend at the seaside, we had one highly annoying problem: one of the power window mechanisms broke, and the window wouldn’t close, obviously when were about to return home. My dad gave me my first driving lessons in that car, fond memories.
In 2004, my dad sold it with 270.000km on the meter, replacing it with a brand new Toyota Corolla Verso, a so far perfectly functional and practical but utterly boring car.
Although the Passat wasn’t perfect, it certainly had a bit more character, and it was quite entertaining to drive. It didn’t need to be revved up enormously to move, beating sporty Alfas in the first metres at the traffic light, and calmly did 160km/h on the Autobahn.
Too bad this was one of the last unpretentious VWs, since then, all of them got even more expensive and upmarket, while the quality took a dive since. One could say it’s about time Wolfsburg starts to remember what made these so good, but then, as sales figures are at an all-time high, at least in Europe, why would they?
With 260.000 km., second owner. Both owners treated carefully. (With love).
It is a SYNCRO G60.
Serviced properly, evrything works perfectly, electric windows, central locking, heated head lights washers, transmission included, (minor repair to 5th gear synchro).
More reliable compared to many other cars owned from 1979.
Glader changed twice, evry 120.000 km., the third one is improved edition. (No drama with it).
Engine works perfectly tuned to 200 hp+. (Chip + smaller compressor roller, 62 cm). Oil consumption 0.1- 0.2l/1.000 km.
Unique, handsome, figure on the road, unparallel handling and stability under any circumstances, perfect ABS & EDL performance, roomy, no 2wd can compare to its off road/snow capabilities.
“To boldly go where no 2wd has gone before”
Canadians didn’t suffer the motorized belts, nor airbags. 5 years ago, Picked up a 5 spd ’91 wagon with the 16V engine, cheap. Had over 300 k kms, but engine ran like a charm, used little oil, and less fuel than my ’91 BMW 318iS. Instrument cluster failed due to spiking alternator, fuel distributor had to be replaced, so I eventually sold it to mechanic. Unmatched practicality: seats fold completely flat for camping, etc. Wish I could find a better one. Couple years later, found a ’93 Passat Diesel CL sedan (manual windows, seats, no sunroof, no airbag). 1.9 litre turbo diesel (not TDI) AAZ code engine, apparently Canada only. Was supposed to be winter beater car, but it’s become a full restoration. Great highway cruiser: 5.2 l/100 km ~ 54 MPG (Imperial) With only 75 HP/ 100 ft./lbs, slow off the line, but pulls long grades in the mountains surprisingly well. Think they understated the torque, or the turbo is really working at 3000 RPM.
It may have helped if VW had decided to offer their Syncro AWD system(s) beyond the Quantum and Vanagon in the US. Once those two were gone, so were AWD VW’s until the Touareg. I can’t fathom a good reason why the featured Passat should not have been available in the US with AWD, seeing as I believe it was in Canada. Same with the normal Golf and Jetta, especially in wagon format.
VW had the know-how, they had the pricing, they even had the target market, they GAVE the market to Subaru and to a lesser extent, sister-brand Audi (price notwithstanding)
You described these cars perfectly; last of the old-school H20-coolers. Good thing they weren’t more popular, because most of them were basket cases within a few years of ownership. From 16-valvers not idling right, to weak gearboxes, to flake-y electronics… I could go on. Powertrain refinement was nothing to write home about either, even if performance with the stick was satisfying.
But there was a definite German attitude about the car; obviously European for starters, but firm in a Teutonic way; none of that heavy feeling which characterized later VWs and Audis, either. My mom loves cars like this; perhaps good taste is genetic.
It’s 1990 and I want a wagon. I can buy a Passat, with sketchy reliability and a lousy dealership experience. For a couple grand more, I can get the tried-and-true Volvo 245.
I’m going with the Volvo.
Looking over the posts, I see a pattern: Europeans rave about it, while many N. Americans got burned. What gives: different factories, perhaps? Or is it merely sample bias?
It is this mixed testimony which scares me away from German cars, which I otherwise like.
FWIW, these were all made in Germany.
Americans have always expected cars to be more reliable and less fussy than Europeans, and by the 80s and 90s, the Japanese had shown how to meet those expectations. VW hadn’t.
I was a big fan of these from the moment they arrived on the scene. Loved the styling; what other car married “square” and “smooth grille-less 90’s” so well? Very space-efficient too. VW did miss out by not offering them with Syncro though, true. I suppose their plan of action at that point was to leave the Audis as the awd option, considering Syncro didn’t return to the Passat (as 4motion) until the B5.5 cars. Which were lovely, and have aged well, but I digress.
In my humble opinion they made a huge blunder when moving from these cars to the B4. By adding a grille and sloping the nose, they took away something taut and distinctive and replaced it with something pudgy and bland. Same with the restyle of the tail–it just didn’t work. And the center section remained mostly unchanged, but lost its distinctiveness wrapped in such forgettable ends. Really one of the least successful restyles of the era–a family resemblance certainly came back, in that it now looked like the Golf’s aging, overweight uncle.
My sister has long been a VW diesel girl. In the early 90s, she went looking to replace her Jetta diesel. The Jettas were selling reasonably well, but she was told that for every so many more popular models a dealer wanted, they had to take a Passat. There was a 5 speed Passat diesel sedan that had been sitting there for awhile that she wound up buying for pretty much the price of the smaller Jetta. She was quite happy with it, and put quite a few miles on it over around 4 years before she traded it on something else.
I drove it a couple of times, and remember really liking the way it drove – it had that typical VW “all business” feel to it, firm but very agile.
I’ve never been a fan of the Passat (Rabbit, Quantum, Santana, etc.) the Golf, or the Scirocco (Corrado). They were all good looking cars, but they were front-wheel drive, which cars that exciting should not have.
You are missing out by dismissing much of the market merely due to their being front wheel drive. There are many fun and interesting cars out there that are FWD. Maybe you’ve never driven a good one.
Youve plainly never driven a decent handling FWD, hint; dont try to keep pace with a Peugeot on twisty roads in something like a BMW coz they cant.
You’ve never driven an Acura TL obviously.
On the beach.
Two more points:
1)In Russia, B3 is top seller in the used cars market, because they consider it as a very reliable car.
2)According to IIHS, PASSAT B3 is the safest car between the old cars without airbags and safer than PASSAT 5, (2001-2004), and GOLF 4, (same period), which have airbags of course, and much safer than a lot of cars with a lot of airbags, because of it’s lower death rate.
Please have a look:
B3 : 24
B5: 35 (with airbags)
Golf 4: 45 (with airbags)
Unfortunatelly platform here does not allow me to post the IIHS documents.
An example from the same document:
Chevrolet cavalier: 150 (2001-2004, with airbags).
See, if that’s just a raw number drawn from U.S. accident reports, it’s not necessarily revealing because the B5 and Golf Mk4 are a lot more common in the U.S., as was the Cavalier (which was ubiquitous as a rental car for quite a while). For the 2001–2004 numbers, for instance, that chart indicates that there were nine times as many Cavaliers on the road as Golfs, so to just say, “Oh, there were three times as many deaths!” without qualifying that is misleading.
I thought the previous generation VW Quantum wagon, was a much better looking car.
Were also much more renewing then its successor.
I will admit to being very biased towards this car. I like the looks, but if I am going to own a quirky (unreliable) vehicle I rather own a Plymouth because for one thing the repairs are not as expensive.
They were nice cars, but seemed to have more than their share of problems. Especially the Vr6 with automatics. The 5 speed 16 valve wagon, base without sunroof or power windows or locks, if you could find one, would be a good car as long as you replaced the timing belt at specified intervals. I remember seeing a sedan, totally base without even AC for $10,995 new in 1992 at the dealership I worked at in Southern California. It sat for a long time, I wonder what it finally sold for, no AC in a new car there would be a tough sell. A base Diesel 5 speed would also be a nice find,
Found a base (CL) 1993 diesel sedan here in Calgary couple years ago. After bit of research, found 1993 was only year for diesel B3 in North America, and only in Canada, not USA. Sedan only, no diesel wagons. 1.9 litre turbodiesel (75 hp/ 100 ft/lbs) Indirect injection, not TDI. Engine code AAZ usually noted as “Canada only”. Mine was tired, so eventually had engine rebuilt, new turbo, injection pump rebuilt, so now I have to drive it next 10 years… Excellent hwy cruiser, 50+ mpg (Imperial). Very comfortable cloth seats.
Test drove one from a collegue coz’ I was to get a new company car.
The black, BLACK interior, the hard seats, the rather poor roadholding.
The Renault Laguna had just arrived on the market.
Choose the Laguna; everybody in the company was green with envy.
The Laguna had this nice typical French Ca va vivre interior, a nice dash and drove like a bat out of hell. .
And even today here in Northen Europe you’ll see Mk1 Laguna’s on the road as a daily driver, these Passats have become very rare indeed.
B35i interior day and night.
I had a 1991 sedan in that weird and typical VW purple color, absolutely loved the car, blast to make miles with,and never let me down for the year I used it. Only thing that kept breaking were the electric window motors.
So here we are:
Passat B3: top between the cars without airbags, and much better than many cars with airbags.
And the comparison to 2001-2004 vw models, (and many others).
IIHS 2001-2004 data:
“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.”
I’m not so sure about that. The B5 Passat was a big hit out here in Calif., whereas the B3/4 was always just a footnote. The B5’s roominess was a key selling point and it was way roomier than an A4. This space is what made the B5 so popular with hip, young moms, who buy Subarus now.
All the above IIHS data, are not “raw” but with the science of statistics weighted and adjusted, in order to be absolutely comparable, between the various kind of vehicles, drivers and eras.
Paul – you may want to add a parenthetical note to the second sentence that it was only in Europe that they got the B5 in 1996 – it didn’t hit US shores until 1998.
Unexpectedly drawn into this discussion: I had a ’96 US VR6 wagon and it was a great car (sadly totaled in a 2002 collision). For me it was the first VW that treated its occupants with due respect and affection–the interior was Spartan by today’s standards but you had everything you needed or really wanted and a bit more. The VR6 was a beautiful engine, fuel consumption aside. I never hit any big reliability issues in those six short years, except for a couple of coil packs. It was the second of four VWs I’ve owned, and the next two are still on the road.
they get american to buy and speed in audi’s/vw and act like there gods gift to earthenhesimen. ”look at this utterly over engineered unreliable overly complicated gift for you, because it is sooooo overly engineered and comes at expense of reliability it is superior, nigh nigh nigh nigh nigh youst arest dee superious hausenkoffenheimsheisenhiesterhitler….ah herm… excuse me, but yes yes you buy our superior overly engineered german engineering and you are the third r(e)ichest man in america”
gotta love audis/vws, overly engineered in germany, hand assembled in the poorest regions of mexico
No reliability problems with b3:
And it is made in Germany, Essen.
Correction: not Essen but Emden.
“…known for reliability…”
“Those who believe that long-term cars only come from Mercedes, should look at the cross-engine Passat times more accurate. Many of galvanized body panels and the robust VAG-technology make the VW Passat 35i type for silent marathon runner.”
Most probably the ugliest Passat ever being made in Wolfsburg.