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(Volkswagen Photo)

VW's standard-bearer

Passat runs at top of company's line

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is fond of saying, "It is what it is."

For Volkswagen, the phrase might be adjusted: "It is what it has been." The company made its name in the United States with the original Beetle and microbus. Over the past 50 years, VWs have gotten bigger, better, and more powerful. Still, the company remains associated with "the people's car." The company's history attracts many VW buyers.

If the folks in Wolfsburg , Germany, had forgotten that, they were reminded of it when the V-12 VW Phaeton failed to gain acceptance in the luxury segment. The Phaeton's demise leaves the Passat as the flagship of the VW passenger car line. And it's a worthy standard-bearer. We'll wait one more year to be sure, but it appears that VW has solved many of the model's reliability issues. The Passat sedan and wagon have been redesigned for 2007, but they have been on the market for half a model year.

Usually, auto manufacturers send out test cars with all the available bells and whistles, including the bigger engine options and top-end trim packages. That's what they want to sell and where there is the most potential for profit.

Not this time, today's test model, a 2007 Passat Wagon 2.0T, is second from the bottom in the four-tier Passat lineup that starts with the Value Edition and moves up to a pair of 3.6-liter V-6 models. VW's 4-Motion all-wheel drive is available on the top-of-the-line 3.6.

But we'll stick with the one we drove, thank you. It has a $26,175 base price, but an option package (sunroof, sound system, leather heated seats, and trim) adds $2,825 to the price. A DVD navigation system pumps up the cost by another $1,800, alloy wheels $400, and rear side air bags tack on another $350.The sticker winds up at $32,180 -- a lot of money for a people's car.

It makes me wonder why Toyota and Honda abandoned their Camry and Accord wagons, both of which would have been worthy competitors in this mid sized wagon segment.

Overall, this Passat wagon is bigger and more powerful than its predecessors, adding 4 inches in length, 3 in width, and 30 more horsepower out of the four-cylinder version. Just wondering: Has any manufacturer touted a new model as smaller, narrower, and less powerful than its predecessor?

Handling is solid and reassuring. We had to perform a real-life emergency avoidance maneuver on Interstate 495, narrowly avoiding a driver who decided to change lanes not realizing we were alongside. The Passat handled it with ease and minimal body lean -- settling down far more quickly than its driver's heart rate.

The fit and finish was up to Passat standards, though the interior trim, especially on the dashboard, seemed more old-school GM than near-luxury VW.

The 2.0 four was plenty powerful, and we'd opt for the front-wheel drive, coupled as it is with an antilock brake system, electronic differential lock, and both anti slip and electronic stabilization systems over all-wheel drive. One thing we'll never wish for is winter snow, but we'd love to try this vehicle in bad weather.

Also weather-related, the brakes have a "wiper" feature that slightly applies the brakes in wet weather to keep the rotors dry for maximum braking capability. A button on the center console holds the car during a hill start, a feature several generations of student drivers would have loved as they struggled to find the "slip point" on the clutch. There's also an electronic parking brake. It's a strange feeling pushing a button to engage a brake, but the development is a natural progression, given the electronics involved in ABS and traction-control systems.

So what didn't we like? The six-speed automatic transmission loved up shifting (likely set for fuel economy) at the expense of performance. Coupled with a bit of turbo-lag, the 2.0 wasn't as sprightly as it would have been with manual transmission (not an option). Cure: Using the Tiptronic transmission's manual mode got the revs up quicker, though there still was some hesitation off the line.

It didn't seem to be enough of a performer to require premium fuel. Though our gas mileage (mostly highway) was 28.4 miles per gallon, we wonder if trying it on regular gas would hurt the engine or cut performance significantly.

We did like the fact that the electronic tailgate that swung so high even a 6-foot-6-inch person wouldn't whack his head. The cargo area features increased storage space -- thanks to the larger outside dimensions -- and also featured four tie-downs.

The bottom line is that this is a capable performer, though a bit pricey. If you're in the market for a wagon, take a look. You might also find the legendary VW "Fahrvergnugen" that we caught only in snippets.

Shop it against

SUBARU LEGACY/OUTBACK All-wheel drive is standard. Lower-than-expected fuel economy is the only drawback. A wide variety of trim levels. Priced at $22,000-$36,000

CHEVROLET MALIBU MAXX SS A more powerful V-6 is coming next year to a vehicle with good handling and interior room. Priced at $18,000-$24,000.

VOLVO V70 Move up to the XC70 and you get all-wheel drive with Volvo's legendary safety. Not as much a "driver's car" as the Passat. Priced at $29,500-$39,500.

(Volkswagen Photo)