Autovations/VW Passat 2.0T
Sometimes bigger really is better. Volkswagen's Passat has long looked like an adult Jetta - similar lines, marginally more bulk. The 2006 Passat redesign adds a few inches in length while also widening its stance. The payoff: extra interior space.
Passat has gained more interesting aesthetics, too. And once the power plant is factored in, this VW really gives reason to pause. There's only a four-banger in the version we tested, but you won't miss having six or eight cylinders; the 2-liter turbo produces 200 hp., which gets the car to 60 m.p.h. in about 7-1/2 seconds (with the six-speed Tiptronic transmission). It still got nearly 25 m.p.g. in mixed-use driving. There's also a 3.6-liter V6 available. (For more on the power-to-weight debate, see my blog entry at weblogs.csmonitor.com/weekend_zone.) The manufacturer strongly recommends premium fuel for both models.
As comfortable as it is for passengers, Passat is still a driver's sedan - if a little tame, with some lag in throttle response. Its suspension provides stability, not the kind of float found in some big sedans. Passat executes surprisingly tight turns. The interior is clean, with a push-button starter that's not our favorite new-car feature but not a hindrance, either. All for a nice $24,000.