Room for manoeuvre

James Chan

WHY SOME MARQUES label their estate cars as sports wagons, beats me. When I drive a car loaded with passengers and their belongings to the airport, I drive slowly, as if I'm trying to impress a driving instructor. After all, I'm usually carrying three passengers in the back who are probably packed to the straining doors.

Then there's the risk of all their luggage, banging about. Go too fast to Chek Lap Kok and those cases might dent the car's interior, or if they're not stowed properly, hit the back of someone's head when I brake. So, if you're constantly moving people and stuff, you might agree that station wagon drivers consider stashability and safety as much as sportscar fans desire speed.

My eyes water when I first see the Passat Variant, the station-wagon version of the Passat saloon. In the station-wagon world, the boot of the Passat Variant is cavernous, with its bump at the back - and that's good news for mums who do school runs or have a constant flow of house guests. The wagon's lid opens high and wide to reveal 603 litres of storage (38 litres more than you get in the saloon). And when you fold all the seats down, you get a whopping 1,731 litres inside, enough for all my friends and their luggage.

Volkswagen dealers Harmony Motors showed how the Passat Variant can accommodate a set of Rimowa luggage or ice boxes for boat trips, a cricket team's tea and kit, and assorted household appliances. The boot's floor is flat and carpeted and the sills are straight, so you get maximum use of the rear's space, instead of having to fill those spots around the wheel arches of a saloon.

There's a 'luggage-management package', comprising a pair of telescopic bars plus a lashing strap that can partition the boot. Then there are the foldable back seats, retractable curtain and cover, and a vital luggage net.

The boots of all station wagons nowadays are well designed, but the Passat Variant's is spacious and practical. The estate version is taller than the saloon's, even though it's as wide, with a 2.709m wheelbase. Volkswagen likes you to think of the Passat Variant as stylish instead of sporty, which is fair because it doesn't have the fast look of the Audi A4 Avant or A3 Sportback.

The Passat Variant is an elegant looker. The car's front is the same as the saloon's, with a large, chromium-plated grille and pocketed headlights. Around the cabin, chrome trims extend to the rear side windows and the boot lid's edge, plus a pair of aluminium luggage racks on the roof and a little aerofoil on top. The wagon's back-light design is more wrap-around the corners than the saloon.

If the Passat Variant looks more mature than the Audis, its interior is plush, with a T-shaped instrument panel, chrome circles around the gauges and beautifully finished leather seats. The centre console is in aluminium and can be matched with a choice of wood or dark grey or beige plastic.

The new keyless entry and engine start/stop system (Kessy), is the must-have item for higher-class vehicles this season. In the Variant, you slip the key fob into the ignition slot and push to start the engine. You also get an electronic parking brake, which is normally reserved for bigger cars such as the Audi A6, A8 and BMW 7-Series. Then there's the two-zone air-conditioner system, cruise control, sun roof, manual sunscreens for the rear-door windows, steering wheel with audio control buttons. The Auto Hold button automatically applies the brake on slopes, which is a boon at inclined lights around Mid-Levels.

The Variant has lots of oomph, with the 200 brake-horsepowered, two-litre FSI Turbo, the same engine as the VW Golf GTi and those two Audi wagons.

The Passat Variant does have some sporty credentials: a strong turbocharged engine, a six-speed automatic gearbox with paddle shifters and direct-feeling steering system, and it shifts to 100km/h from a standing start in 7.8 seconds. But the Passat has softer suspension that's really designed for a relaxing drive rather than catching a late flight.

The Passat Variant is an enjoyable drive, thanks to those paddle shifters, and quite fast on the straight. The engine has that unmistakable 'turbo push' in hard acceleration. Handling is as secure and predictable as the saloon. And all the while you're surrounded by an elegant-looking interior with lots of gadgets. More importantly, you get lots of space to seat five people comfortably.