It’s official, Volkswagen’s VR6 engine is on its deathbed. After 32 years of powering enthusiast cars and forming the basis for some of the wildest engines ever put in production vehicles, the famous VR6 will be replaced by a 2.0-liter turbo four. The writing had been on the wall for a while and the last non-crossover to get the engine was sold in 2018. The 2018 Volkswagen Passat GT was one last dying breath of the VR6 in sedan format, and it gave the restrained mid-sizer some much-needed sporty enhancements.
Last time on Holy Grails, reader Factoryhack submitted the one-year-only 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited. While not the fastest SUV in history, it was the fastest SUV on the market in 1998 and in a way, it was basically the Trackhawk before that was a thing. The Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited paired 5.9-liter V8 power to a well-appointed interior and kept the Grand Cherokee’s off-road chops intact. We also learned some interesting oddities in that entry, like a magazine forgetting that it tested a GMC Typhoon before claiming that the Jeep was its fastest SUV ever tested. Testers also didn’t have working vents, but production versions did.
Today’s entry follows down the same path as that Jeep. The NMS Volkswagen Passat is a common vehicle and one with styling so conservative that it sort of just blends in with the rest of traffic. However, for just a single year and technically not even the whole year, Volkswagen sold a version that was a bit lower, a bit more composed, a bit more sporty, and with an aggressive price.
The 2018 Volkswagen Passat GT was the closest the NMS Passat got to a true sport variant and it was the last non-crossover to get fitted with a VR6 in America.
The Volkswagen Passat was discontinued in America in 2022. Volkswagen initially intended on the Passat surviving until 2023, but slow sales and the continued domination of crossovers and SUVs put the Passat out to pasture a year early. At the time, the Passat was Volkswagen’s longest-lived nameplate still in production, having survived 49 years and beating the Golf by one year.
The Passat Was Innovative
As Volkswagen explains, the Passat introduced a number of firsts for Volkswagen. Launched in 1974, the Dasher represented Volkswagen’s first water-cooled car in America. The Dasher was also Volkswagen’s first front-wheel drive car in America and the first Volkswagen sold in America to get styling from ItalDesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro.
[Editor’s note: The Passat/Dasher was also notable because we can see it as the departure point where old air-cooled, rear-engine Volkswagen was replaced by the Auto Union-derived tech that Volkswagen acquired. The Passat was a modern Auto Union/Audi, really, with a longitudinal, liquid-cooled FWD setup that then morphed into the transverse FWD formula that has dominated VW ever since. Modern VW is really Auto Union, and here’s where it started. – JT]
Volkswagen notes that at launch, customers got a 1.5-liter four making 74 horses and the American version had round headlights and federally-compliant bumpers. Next came the Quantum, which was notable for offering Syncro all-wheel-drive that was based on Audi’s Quattro system. Volkswagen notes that these didn’t sell well because they were priced a bit too close to Audi.
Launched in 1990, the Passat B3 is a lot closer to the Passats that enthusiasts know. Volkswagen notes that this one isn’t based on an Audi platform like its predecessors and it was also the first Passat to actually get the Passat name in America. These initially came with 2.0-liter fours making 134 horsepower, getting bumped up to 172 hp by the first appearance of the 2.8-liter VR6 in 1992.
From there, Volkswagen kept moving the Passat upmarket. The B4 introduced greater safety and more style while the B5 was a return to sharing a platform with Audi.
The B5.5 is perhaps most famous for its timeless style, decent luxury, and engine options ranging from the 2.0-liter TDI to the infamous 4.0-liter W8. Volkswagen continued its march upmarket with the B6, which returned to a Volkswagen platform and featured even more styling and safety equipment.
An Americanized European Car
In 2011, something weird happened. America’s new Passat diverged from its European counterpart. Volkswagen Group of America decided that its best path forward to achieve sales of 800,000 vehicles a year was to design Volkswagens for Americans and built in America, rather than adapt European Volkswagens for the market.
This meant that the Passat New Midsize Sedan (NMS) was longer, wider, and cheaper than its European sibling. The Americanized Passat wouldn’t be sold in Europe, but it would see sales in China, South Korea, and the Middle East.
At launch, the Passat NMS was available with a 2.0-liter TDI making 140 HP, a 2.5-liter straight five making 170 HP (these sound like baby Lamborghinis with the right exhaust), and the 3.6-liter VR6 making 280 HP. Period reviews weren’t kind about the vehicle’s styling. Check out this blurb from Car and Driver:
From the rear, the Passat looks like one of those automotive amalgams you see in car-insurance ads. The bodywork is as cleanly conventional as a Midwestern subdivision. It has all the unmemorable, inoffensive attractiveness of a local news anchor. Then again, it’s possible that VW does have us Americans figured out.
Ouch! Yet, the mag’s testers compared the ride quality of the Passat NMS to that of an American land yacht and they initially found it so competent that it scored favorably against the Honda Accord and Hyundai Sonata. Meanwhile, MotorTrend declared it a winner against the Toyota Camry, Chevy Malibu, Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima, and Honda Accord. That publication went on to nominate the Passat its 2012 Car of the Year.
Favorable reviews didn’t save the Passat NMS from its worst enemy, the crossover. The Passat NMS destroyed the departing B6 in sales, selling 117,023 units in 2012 compared to the B6’s 54,208-unit best year in 2006. Still, Passat sales gradually declined and by 2017, just 60,722 of them found homes. In 2018, Volkswagen gave the Passat a shot in the arm, and this is the one that reader Carlos says is a Holy Grail, alongside the Dodge Neon ACR:
I have owned two holy grails. A first gen Neon ACR. I wrecked a 97 model and promptly bought a 98 model, both new. I currently own an interesting model built for maybe 6 months. A 2018 Passat GT. I reached out to VW to try to get production numbers for it and they gave me the middle finger. I would love to know how many were built.
Both cars were very interesting. The Neon is still in my family, I had no room for it and sold it to my brother. I believe it has under 50k miles. I remember giving the cane and thinking that it made great intake noise, sounded like Webber carbs, almost. A brilliant car despite faults that some people had.
The VW has the VR6 that I have craved since the Corrado came out. I cannot do the Wagnerian exhaust note justice. It is not a sports sedan but a sporty sedan. It is a four door GT meant for the Autobahn. I know that the Passat bodies split and that it was built for fat-ass Americans, but it really comes to it’s own above 80, right where it’s torque peak is.
The Passat GT started life as a concept in 2016 that borrowed GTI styling and applied it to a VR6-powered Passat. The production version, launched in the second quarter of 2018, the Passat GT retained the GTI styling details. It comes with the front bumper from the R-Line and pairs it to a honeycomb grille. Around back is a set of tinted taillights and the rest of the vehicle continues the GTI look with a black roof, 19-inch Tornado wheels, and red accents.
The VR6 under the hood is unchanged. It still makes 280 horses and 258 lb-ft torque, but is now backed up with a slightly lower and stiffer sport suspension. Volkswagen also threw in a sport exhaust system noted to make a different sound than a regular Passat VR6.
Volkswagen’s documentation calls it a sport sedan and its equipment is a mix of options from different trim levels. Inside, you get bits like blindspot monitoring, a forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking and VW’s Car-Net smartphone system.
Sadly, Volkswagen didn’t continue the GTI inspiration inside and the seats are black and gray faux leather combined with carbon fiber-style trim and black trim. The car launched with a $29,145 price, or $5,505 cheaper than the SEL, which was at the time the cheapest way to get a Passat with a VR6.
In testing, the Passat GT pleased reviewers with a composed ride and the power of the VR6, but let itself down with tires that couldn’t put the power down or help the improved suspension. The Car and Driver story noted that Volkswagen gave the Passat GT the same tires as normie Passats. Some enthusiasts will also be saddened to hear that this car was not available with a manual transmission.
Reading the reviews for the GT, it sounds like this Passat is just a tire upgrade away from being a memorable version of a common car, so long as you’re ok with not rowing your own gears.
Volkswagen tells me that about 3,600 of these were made and that indeed, the Passat was the last way you could get a VR6 in something other than a crossover. Ultimately, in 2019 the Passat got a new look and along with it, the VR6 was left behind in the past. The sole engine became a 2.0-liter four making 174 HP. Then, in 2022, the Passat itself died here.
You could still buy a VR6 in a crossover, but if you wanted a sedan, the 2018 Passat was the last time you could enjoy the VR6 in that form factor in America. Thankfully, despite the rarity these aren’t hard to find for sale. I ran a simple nationwide search on CarFax and I stopped counting at about two dozen. So, if you have roughly $20,000 to spend and want a GTI-ified example of the last sedan to get the VR6 in America, you have plenty of choices.
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I wonder, wasn’t the B5/B5.5 basic diesel option a 1.9 tdi (I drove a 100hp and 130hp version) and not a 2.0, as that one was only introduced with the b6 platform ?
Nice history run down.
This last gen of Passat (NMS) was a bit of a letdown for sure. It’s not without its redeeming qualities, but it kind of stopped being what was once easily recognized as the top-of-the-line model in VW’s lineup. Plus, it’s the only generation that never got a wagon version. The NMS is exclusive to North American and China. Europe got a different B7 gen Passat that was a bit smaller, still had a wagon variant and all the high end features still optional.
The NMS initially didn’t have xenon headlights as a higher end option like the previous two generations did. Also was not offered with AWD, which previous Passats were (as early as the B2/Quantum had “Syncro” AWD).
But, it was a competent handling car, despite the surprisingly large size and long wheelbase and being FWD. Seriously, most people don’t truly understand just how long one of these cars are until they park next to it with a more average size sedan.
The NMS really is just a slightly cheapened/de-contented but elongated version of the B6 Passat that came before it. The B6 generation was not much more than an embiggened Mk5 Jetta/Rabbit on the then brand new PQ35 platform.
My favorite tidbit about the PQ35 chassis and all the cars on it and that have evolved on the same basic design since then (including the MQB platform that almost everything VW rides on now) has to do with the independent rear suspension design. It’s the primary reason why all Mk5/B6 and newer front drive VWs handle so well. The exception being of some more base model Mk6 Jetta sedans and 2012+ Beetles that get a terrible solid beam axle, and the 2015 Mk7 diesels in the U.S., which used a more traditional-for-VW twist beam rear axle to make room for the adblue tank.
Anyway, getting lost in the details again. The story goes something like this: VW was very impressed with how the first generation Ford Focus handled. The front suspension was pretty standard fare McPherson strut, just like VWs have been for forever, but the “control blade” independent rear suspension design made a world of difference in how the body responded to being chucked into a corner. VW was so taken by how good it was, they literally poached the very engineer that designed it for Ford so he could implement effectively the same thing for VW’s Mk5 and up cars. They’re still using evolutions of that same design today.
It is kind of funny to me personally, recalling working in a tire shop when the Mk5s first came out in 2005, and I was the alignment guy. First time I get under a brand new one to look it over, could not help but notice the similarities to the Focus and other FoMoCo cars that adopted it after the Focus’ introduction (including Mazda 3s, Volvo S40/V50s and even some Jaguars).
So, there you go. If you like how just about any Mk5 or B6 and newer platform vehicle handles, I guess we have Ford to thank!
Sometimes, despite being the big diesel fan and very partial to B5.5 generation Passats, I do find myself perusing FB marketplace for a B6 VR6 wagon with 4motion. I think if I were to buy something with a VR6, it would probably be one of those.
The VR6 was pretty well intertwined with the Passat lineup from very early on. The B3 Passat being the first non-Corrado to get the VR6, and also the first Passat with a transverse mounted drivetrain (the Dasher and Quantum models were called Passats elsewhere in the world from the start). The B4 Passat was just a lightly refreshed B3 and continued with the VR6, both were basically just embiggened Mk2 Jettas. The B5/5.5 being longitudinally mounted drivetrain instead of transverse did away with the VR6 in favor of the Audi 2.8 conventional V6 with 5 valves per cylinder. After the B5.5, as VW went back to a transverse mount drivetrain and the whole platform being once again just a stretched out version of the now current Jetta/Golf platform, bringing the VR6 back with it.
Sad to see the VR6 go the way of the dodo, along with normal sedans and wagons with it. Really does make me want to pick up a unique version myself.
As someone who painfully owned a 93 Passat GLX with the VR6 – I will not be sad to not ever buy another one again. Respect the engineering for it. Hated working on it and every shop near me did too. My god the 93 Passat GLX in dark green and tan leather was a awesome looking ride though. Automatic seatbelts were the best (lol).
I would think the R36 of the previous, actually good generation of Passat would be much more of a holy grail than this.
The best VW with a VR6 engine in is a Polo.
Of course, they never came from the factory like that, but why wouldn’t you want your tiny economy car to have four to five times more power than it started out with?
I had a 2013 inline 5, after that year I saw more of them with the TSi turbo 4 that seemed to have no end of troubles. I suppose the 5 cylinder would be somewhat of a unicorn these days as well. Though I would be tempted to go CC VolsWagon if I could find a 2012-2016 with 3.6 L VR6 engine with 4motion four-wheel drive and a six speed Direct-Shift Gearbox transmission. All of those systems including the VR6 are scary for many as they have reputations with regard to repair costs and frequency of needing them.
Why no one never remembers K70, the actual first water-cooled and FWD VW production car there was? Was it imported to the US?
“Next came the Quantum, which was notable for offering Syncro all-wheel-drive that was based on Audi’s Quattro system.”
Quattro is a full time mechanical system. Syncro is a part time viscous system. Outside of driving all 4 wheels, they’re nowhere near similar.
The “syncro” awd system in the quantum is ripped straight from the 4000cs quattro. The syncro from the vanagon and golf country are the bespoke vw system.
This other guy is correct. The quantum was just an Audi. It even had a 5cyl with the radiator mounted next to it. Pretty sure it even had the locking (rear?) diff. When they change up the AWD system they just use the brand name. Like the TT having “quattro” and the b5 Passat having “4motion”
A little OT: Can someone explain the fixation on black roofs? Why is that desirable?
I believe because it looks like you have either a carbon fiber roof or a panoramic roof. I.e. it makes it look like you’re wealthier than you are.
I was considering leasing one of these once.
My Mazda6 had the dreaded front subframe rust-out. It was not driveable, and I needed a car that was safe for the wee beasties, big enough for them, and big enough for me. And before I found out about the coming recall, I thought I needed to get one that weekend. This ticked all the boxes, but I just couldn’t handle the price ($36k CAD, IIRC). Then came the recall, and Mazda rented me a 300S for 59 days while my car was fixed.
An appearance package with a ‘sport tuned’ suspension and exhaust? I know the definition has already been made quite pliable, but I think we may be stretching ‘Holy Grail’ a bit too far here. The GT is a neat car, but, it really doesn’t do anything that a regular VR6 NMS didn’t already do. There are several ‘Grail-ier’ Passats out there.
Interesting- VW always makes oddball cars. I test drove a 2015 Jetta SEL TDI with a stick- apparently they are rare. But I ended up hanging onto my accord v6 coupe.
Currently hunting a different grail for my fiance to DD. A 2003 Matrix XRS. Why that? The 2ZZ engine. The vibe and Matrix usually came with the 1zz, along with Carollas, celicas, and MR2s. But the 2zz is the one to get. 180hp, will Rev over 8000, and vvt. It was found in the Celina GTS, Vibe GT, Matrix XRS, and lotus Elise. But why is it a grail? We need a bigger hatchback. And all of those are manual transmissions. But for one year only, in only the Matrix XRS, you could get it with an automatic. And daily use means an auto is better than our manual weekenders. So the hunt is on.
Have you driven one? Full disclosure, I have not, but I can’t imagine it being anything other than a complete dog. Below probably 6k rpm, it’s going to behave probably a little worse than a standard 1zz, which is to say an absolutely gutless economy car. Then, for a second or two, you get good power, and then the transmission sloppily shifts up to the next gear, and you’re right back out of the powerband. Maybe it’ll be fine for y’all, but, there’s a very good reason Toyota basically refused to pair that engine with an automatic transmission.
The assessment on the ratios sucking the life out of the enjoyments are true as a coworker had a Celica GTS and unless you pretty much got 1 rpm away from the fuel cutoff point it would put you outside of the power band for VVTL. With that said, I read somewhere that Toyota did make some changes to try and compensate for this error in 07-08 models equipped with the 2ZZ but unable to confirm.
I agree, Patrick. This one missed me completely! And this was when I was in my “GTI-GLI or bust!” phase of midlife crisis. (I don’t have either, but am coming to grips with it.) To be fair, I was also in my “6-speed manual or bust!” phase of life. I’m slowly seeing how good auto or dual-clutch transmissions are acceptable.
Driving a VW with an automatic transmission is like having sex with a spacesuit on.
Don’t kink shame. Besides if you get a Russian spacesuit, they have plenty enough holes in them.
Eh, the DSGs are pretty rad…. for an automatic.
Just an idea: Find the best cars you can’t buy anymore with great roof bars. You could call the series Holy Rails 🙂
No, that’s for the Railroad section.
That name would also work for trains…
Boy, this thing came and went. I’m not sure if I forgot about it, or if I didn’t know it existed at all. It’s somehow way more interesting today than it was in 2016.