Piëch Practice – 1996 Volkswagen (B5) Passat

A mighty wind from Wolfsburg marked the Passat’s coming of age.

Image: autowp-ru
Image: autowp-ru

Before we were all persuaded to go and unlearn it, the term ‘Mondeo Man’ was late ’90s media shorthand to describe UK’s Mr. Average. However his German equivalent would have been more likely to have been polishing a Volkswagen Passat ‘of a weekend. Trouble was, outside VW’s home market, comparatively few else were. Volkswagen’s mid-liner sold respectably, but its image remained as studiously underwhelming as its sales figures.

Introduced in 1973, the VW Passat wasn’t quite the first commercially available front wheel drive, conventionally formatted Vee-Dub, (that honour goes to the NSU-developed K70), but it was close. By the mid-90’s the model line had established itself over three distinct series’ as a pragmatic, conservative and thoroughly rational choice of the middle-brow aspirant classes, if one devoid of much emotion beyond that of respectful admiration for a job well done. Even 1988’s radical Auto 2000- influenced B3 edition subsumed most of the visual allure derived from its aero-influenced styling into a resolutely industrial form language.

Compounding matters further was 1993’s B4 reskin, which reverted to the ‘don’t even look at me’ self effacement of earlier models, emphasising Passat’s position as a Cinderella car in the VW firmament. But that same year, two developments would fundamentally alter the wind direction over Wolfsburg. First was the ascendency of Audi’s Ferdinand Piëch as Chairman and CEO of VW Group and his appointment of Hartmut Warkuss as VW styling chief the same year – (which was probably no coincidence). Having cut his teeth at Ingolstadt where he had overseen the C3 generation Audi 100 model, Warkuss was tasked with altering perceptions of the entire VW portfolio with unambiguous instructions from Dr Piëch as to what was expected from him. Beginning with the humble Passat, VW would henceforth shed its sackcloth.

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While the B3/B4 series’ had diverged from its Audi origins to a Golf-based architecture, the B5 would once more borrow from Ingolstadt. Said to have been influenced by J Mays’ VW’s Concept One in its rounded roofline and soft forms, but with sheer, unadorned surfacing and design quality more associated with the four rings, the B5 marked a palpable visual shift in VW’s aspiration and reach. Audi levels of quality were evident in both exterior and interior styling, from the tight shutlines and pared back appearance to the superior interior fittings and finely damped controls. Yet there was enough residual pragmatism for it to retain its ‘people’s car’ roots. So while the B5 was still recognisably a VW, it could equally be said that with this edition, we had attained ‘peak Passat’.

Image: autodata24
Image: autodata24

Not only a quality piece of work in terms of showroom appeal, it was also a far more refined car to drive owing to its more sophisticated running gear. There was a greater range of engines too, beginning with a 1.6 litre four, culminating in 2.3 litre VR5 and 2.8 V6’s, the latter with standard four wheel drive. Exuding class without connotation: if a Peugeot 406 offered a nicer handling, better riding package, the Passat had it in modernity, perceived quality and overall snob value. In high-specification estate form, B5 not only had its mainstream rivals for dinner, it gave owners of the larger Volvo’s something to go home and think about. For the first time in the model’s history, the model not only eclipsed the volume players, but became a genuine rival to the likes of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, to say nothing of Audi.

2002 Passat W8. Image: Carscoops
2002 Passat W8. Image: Carscoops

The obligatory mid-life refresh came in 2000, with additional brightwork and further embellishments, but perhaps the most obvious evidence not only of Passat’s new-found upmarket grasp but also Ferdi’s (driving) force was the advent of the range-topping 4 litre W8 version. An engine layout which could only have come about from the machinations of a seriously one-track mind, this enormously complicated power unit was allegedly a testbed for larger displacement variants which would subsequently power Bentley’s and Bugatti’s. But if a Ferrari engined Thema was ambitious, then half a Bugatti W16 shoved under a Passat’s nose could only be considered a somewhat bemusing slice of automotive hubris. But it was Piëch to a tee, setting the scene for an even more ambitious gambit.

The B5 was an immediate sales hit. By 1998, US sales had doubled, doubling again by 2000 – the model line peaking in 2002 with 96, 142 sold. In the European D-segment its advent not only precipitated a significant uplift (sales of 348, 398 in 1998) but also the elevation of the Passat from perennial wallflower to sector leader. So much so, the current B8 model makes up almost one in three sales within the sector, (over the first three quarters of 2016) more than double that of its nearest non-VW Group rival (the Opel Insignia since you asked). Yes, the Passat has come a hell of a long way; its position looking unassailable, diesel emission scandals notwithstanding.

For Hartmut Warkuss, his career at Volkswagen began with the B5, encompassed the Mark IV Golf and its Bora sibling, and culminated with what can only be described as peak Piëch, Ferdi’s folly or whatever sobriquet you choose – the 2003 Phaeton.
Murat Gunak succeeded Warkuss in the VW styling hotseat in 2004, which probably makes 2005’s B6 successor something of a transitional car. Robert Lešnik’s design was certainly no stylistic breakthrough, but by then it didn’t really need to be: the groundwork had been done.

The B5 series was Volkswagen taking themselves very seriously indeed and in doing, created the conditions that would see them make the Euro D-segment their own. Just goes to prove what gimlet-eyed vision (and a certain amount of tyranny) can achieve. Excellence sells.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

13 thoughts on “Piëch Practice – 1996 Volkswagen (B5) Passat”

  1. I remember well when these came out, and how obsessed the press pack was with the venetian-blind air vents. Something about simple things and simple minds, I seem to recall thinking at the time.

    It’s funny how time shifts one’s attitudes. Notwithstanding the above, I was quite impressed by the styling of these when they debuted, even if I am in the camp that prefers more overtly expressive design as a general rule. With VAG having built on the basic design principles laid down by this Passat and the Mk4 Golf for the better part of two decades now (a realisation that makes me feel very old), what was once quite striking in its own way has become utterly mundane and unremarkable. Both here in the US and back in Australia, this generation remains a relatively common sight. Its immediate B4 predecessor has pretty much disappeared, and is therefore now more interesting virtually by default, even if I utterly ignored them when they were new.

    1. I always preferred the 406 to this generation of Passat, though. At least until Pug inflicted the sort of facelift that would make Fiat blush.

    2. Although I admired what VW were doing with the B5, I’m naturally one who preferred its pre-facelift, ultra-logical, grille-less predecessor. I think the reason the B5 now seems so unremarkable is that it set a template that, with the addition of more and more cosmetic creases, still exists. The B5 made the seamless curve from A pillar to roofline obligatory for practically everyone, regardless of the intrusion into cabin space. Yes, it looks good but, as a tall person who really dislikes the closeness of the windscreen top in today’s car, I can’t praise them for that. Also I never really liked the transition from C pillar to boot when viewed from 3/4 rear. I did once consider a secondhand W8 Estate – it appealed because, apart from the noise it made, I could see no significant advantage in performance that would be offset by the increased fuel consumption and service bills. So, just the sort of silly car I like. Assuming he had engineers to distance test his W12 and W16, was Piech’s experiment just to see how many people would purchase a totally unnecessary car?

    3. A friend of mine who works for a German carmaker that isn’t VW makes the point that the German industry in general, but perhaps VW most especially, don’t view expenditure of this sort the way normal people do. Normal people look at the W8 and go, “That will never deliver a return on investment in a million years.” Naturally, they are correct.

      However, the point they miss is this. By no means are the people pushing these projects unaware of the complete lack of commercial logic in such a project. A car like the Passat W8 is pretty much the dictionary definition of doing it because you can – and because, at this level, there is a spectacular level of ego and ‘personality stuff’ going on. Someone like Piech has absolutely no problem throwing away (say) 50 million euros on a car like this, because commercial viability is simply not the point. The point is to reinforce the industry’s perception that VW is lording it over rivals – in fact, in that sense, the more wasteful and extravagant it is, the better. The W8 cannot be understood as a car designed for the public; it is purely and simply designed to send a message to the rest of the industry. “We can do this because we are so much richer than you.”

      It should be noted in passing that VW’s perception of “the rest of the industry” doesn’t extend to anyone outside the German border. Bavaria is debatable at best.

  2. This generation of Passat was (and still is, unbelievably!) rather popular arund here, especially in TDI station wagon form! Seems like a decent car, although we actually had 406, original version. Unfortunately, it was 2/1td, which didn’t come with reliability built in…
    Anyway, B5 does seem like a where quality does extend to components below surface (unusual for VW!). They seem to last well and most one I see around probably done over 250,000-300,000km . Phaeton, one of very few VWs I actually like (Iltis, T4 Caravelle, Corrado being others, W8 station wagon manual.. ), seems very un-VW like – quality bulit in almost every single part. Could be great second-hand buy, but you have to pick the right engine…

  3. The genius lay almost entirely in the refinement of the industrial design of the B5. It is not the least design (that’s the B4 and predecessors). It’s got a crucial extra bit of expression to make clear to the customer it is not an appliance. After the B5 that ethos has evaporated. The current car is imperial, sinister and imposing (with fancy interior lighting). I could not drive anything designed to be so intimidating.
    (Note: is it fair to call early Passat buyers middle-brow? I think the middle-brow sales were elsewhere though I am not comfortable in saying where. People buy cars for lots of reasons. I know a particle physicist who has a Lupo, the crummy one).

    1. Middlebrow Richard? My parents had a brown B2 Passat and my Dad would have punched your nose if you’d called him middlebrow. I almost bought a B3 Passat. And I’ve got a late period Scott Walker album … somewhere. And I write for Driven To Write.

    1. Oh dear, I appear to have stirred a hornet’s nest. The next editorial meeting is likely to be even more than usually tense. And this the season of goodwill…

      Might I add that my father also had a Passat? (It was a B5.1 facelift model), so maybe I should punch my own nose, although why deny others the pleasure?

    1. If I could merely ask you all to form an orderly queue? We might as well be civilised about it.

  4. the W8 was an oddball of its own.

    by the time the VAG Group was inspired by Bauhaus, in the turn of the century, (Passat B5 / Skoda Superb Mk1, the first Audi TT, the contemporary A6), I didn’t like it. now it has grown on me, even if the B6 and the B3 keep themselves as my favourite Passats.

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