Future Classic: 2002-2004 Volkswagen Passat W8 Through the years, automakers have answered many unasked questions. Sometimes the answer is a hit like the Ford Mustang or Chrysler minivan. More often than not, it’s a rolling enigma that inevitably sells in niche numbers, portending future collectibility. This is especially true when the enigma suffers delusions of luxe grandeur and has a windmill-tilting backstory, like this one. Volkswagen’s genius/madman boss, Ferdinand Piech, was mightily P.O.’ed at Mercedes-Benz for invading “his” market territory with its A-Class in 1997, so he decided to mount a VW-brand invasion of Mercedes‘ flagship S-Class sector with the Phaeton. But in those days, the “people’s car” brand topped out at the proletarian C-Class level, leaving quite a product gap. The bridge? An E-Class-pretending, C-Class-size super-Passat. Piech’s S-Class-fighter needed to offer a prestigious cylinder count, but had to use Audi‘s A8 architecture, which hangs the engine out ahead of the front axle. Piech’s solution: W-series engines. By joining two narrow-angle VR6 blocks on a common crank, he got an extra-wide 12-banger that’s no longer than a V-8.And by sawing off four cylinders, he shoehorned eight-cylinder prestige into the Passat. These W-engines excelled at one thing only: being short front to back. The rest of the W-8 design is a series of compromises. The crankshaft is too short to package the counterweights that make normal V-8s run smoothly, and the unequal-length intake and exhaust plumbing of the cylinders compromises breathing. A flat-plane crankshaft won back some cylinder-filling efficiency, but smoothing out this twin-four-cylinder setup required counter-rotating balance shafts. The result: an incredibly complex 40-liter producing just 270 hp and 273 lb-ft without the rich V-8 burble. Coupled with standard 4Motion AWD and a choice of six-speed manual or five-speed automatic, it weighed over 4000 pounds and cost just under $40,000 — 500 pounds and almost $7000 more than the quicker, similarly sized, more prestigious Audi A4. The Passat W8 sedan and even rarer wagon were not well-suited to brand snobs, but both made excellent Q-ships in their day. Motor Trend‘s long-term W8 gave reliable service and proved so popular it was stolen by joyriders. Slow sales ultimately forced cancellation of both the Passat W8 and the U.S.-market Phaeton it was trying to prepare us
for, but nice examples are still available for those who wish to waft along in Teutonic solidity with the cylinder cadence of a Mercedes E500 or BMW 540i at a fraction of the price.This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Motor Trend Classic. .