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