The power within

James Chan

THE VOLKSWAGEN Passat W8 is no ordinary car. Look at its engine, and the way the German marque has been able to stuff a compact six-cylinder unit into the engine bay built for an inline, four-power unit.

Volkswagen made the Passat W8 special by joining two banks of 15-degree 'V' four-cylinder units at the crankshaft (below right) to form an eight-cylinder engine in a 'double-V', or 'W' configuration - alluded to in the model's name badges - outperforming the Passat range's previous top-of-the-line model, the 2.8 V6.

It is hard to imagine a car about the size of a Honda Accord being able to fit in an eight-cylinder engine. I am accustomed to seeing long and big V8 engines fit into the engine bays of much bigger cars such as Lexus LS430, Mercedes-Benz E500 and BMW 540i, but the use of space in the mid-sized Passat is quite astonishing.

The W8, which sits longitudinally in the engine bay, is so small I swear I can wrap my arms around it.

From the outside, the engine looks about the same size as a conventional V6; but it's so compact it rests in front of the front axle. The four-litre W8 engine is no slouch, cranking out 275 brake horsepower at 6,000rpm. And it sprints to 100km/h in 7.5 seconds, two seconds faster than the 2.8 V6's 193bhp unit.

I entered the W8 test car, still glowing with the memory of an even faster six-speed manual model I had recently driven in Switzerland. That model showed tremendous highway passing ability, especially at more than 140km/h, yet it lacked the acceleration most motorists might expect from an eight-cylinder engine.

The Volkswagen seems to satisfy European drivers who demand autobahn strength and response, but I suspect this new engine configuration might disappoint in Hong Kong, where our hills require power and executive drivers need that extra oomph at the lights. So I take the W8 for a lap around Hong Kong Island, starting from VW's showroom in Causeway Bay, cruising westward through some traffic jams in Central, then up the hills along Pokfulam, Repulse Bay, Stanley, Tai Tam and back along the Eastern waterfront.

The first thing you notice in a W8 is its exhaust tone, a burbly growl that is similar to the Subaru Impreza's flatter sound but is still pretty rare in this mid-executive range.

The automatic W8's ride is surprisingly smoother than the manual version I had sampled in Europe. Stomping the throttle at the start, I cannot feel the kind of rush I would expect from a traditional eight-cylinder engine, but as the revs climb, the W8's acceleration intensifies. The W8 seems eager to leave the traffic at the Cheung Kong Centre, and running up the steep Smithfield Road in Western, it shows the pace that justifies Volkswagen's engine innovations.

Without any notable change in suspension, the W8 ride is similar to other Passat models. I find its handling is on the soft side but is comfortable at cruising speed. A stiff chassis reassures on quality but the Passat's comfort is its biggest drawback on the tighter corners around Stanley Gap Road, where the BMW 330i and Mercedes C320 seem more agile and precise.

Even so, the W8 is a good buy for Sars-hit Hong Kong. Should Legco agree to the proposed increase in first registration tax, it could force Hong Kong's smart money to switch from more expensive executive cars such as the Lexus LS430 to the eight-cylinder punch of the more affordable Passat. The W8 configuration and the quality of Volkswagen's German finish, therefore makes a lot of sense. Dealers Harmony Motors (2882 8938) say the 2003 model sells for $520,000, but you can pick up a 2002 version in silver for $370,000.