2003 Volkswagen Passat W8; Hilarious or Hand Grenade?

Passat W8

We write a lot about sedans here at TTS because we’re that kind of geek. Actually, we’re a lot of different kinds of geek. We certainly like our sports cars, and could be tempted by certain goofy trucks sporting badges like Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz. But there’s something about a fast yet subtle four-door with a manual transmission that speaks to us, both loudly and clearly.

Sedans meaning nothing to us with an automatic but so much more with a stick include the first and second generation BMW 7 series (think 735i 5-speed), the Alfa Romeo Milano and 164, and this; a 2003-04 Volkswagen Passat W8 with a 6-speed. A W8 with an automatic is kind of a boring car, albeit a quick one, much like a BMW 5 series V8. In both cases, however, the 6-speeds are fantastic.

This example, available on Craigslist in Washington, DC, certainly looks the business. But don’t whip our your lunch money just yet.

Passat W8

B5 Passats from the facelift forward (2001.5-2005) are attractive enough in a subtle way. It’s a classic three-box design that’s held up well almost 10 years later. You probably don’t even notice how many are still out there running around, since their styling is mostly innocuous. If they were all fast like the W8, they’d be the perfect Q-ship.

The Audi wheels on this one look great, and the car presents as very clean overall. On a neutral color like this light blue, I would have kept the orange and red side markers in place for a little contrast. Still, if the headlight lenses are clear and the lower grilles around the foglights are present, you wouldn’t have to do anything except layer on another coat of wax.

Passat W8The W8 interior is nicely appointed, with extra brightwork and wood trim over its lesser stablemates. The seats are very comfortable, and space is fairly generous room for four occupants, five if you have to. Opinion will always be mixed on the blue dashboard lighting. For example, my wife likes it while those eye-bleeding LEDs make me want to carpet bomb Wolfsburg.

This car’s gray leather interior looks to be in good shape. There’s a little flatness to the driver’s seat, and also a hint of wear to the outer bolster. You’d want to check for leather wear on the steering wheel cover and cracks in the wood, especially on the shift knob and around the stereo and climate control.

All B5s drive kind of heavy, but in a solid German sort of way. You wouldn’t mind taking one on a long roadtrip in any kind of weather, especially when equipped with Volkswagen’s 4Motion, which in this case is an anagram for ‘Audi quattro’. But more on this in a minute.

Problems? Sure. It’s a VW after all. CV boots are replaced every third oil change. Heater cores plug up if you accidently mix coolant types. The driver side sun visor, with its remote garage door opener buttons, will disintegrate and drop pieces on to your lap (oh, and to replace it’s $740.00 for the part alone). All Passats have had their share of recalls, ranging from seat heater elements that will burn through the seat covers and your clothing, to various iterations of both the brake light switch and the coolant temperature sender.

You may think the 1.8-liter inline-four turbo (oil sludge issues) or the 2.8-liter V6 (crankcase breather system freezes solid in cold weather and blows out the camshaft adjuster seals) are classic finicky German engineering. You have no idea. Compared to the W8, they are Honda lawnmower engines.

Much like the first-generation Touareg V10 TDI, the W8 was a study of “we built it because we could.” Indeed, a lot of the Touareg technology, like the in-car network and a fuel pump control module (no other B5 has those), was prototyped in the W8. It takes two hours to change a Xenon headlight bulb because you have to remove the front bumper to then remove the headlight unit. The electronic engine thermostat will fail but replacing it is relatively easy; you just have to pull the intake manifold.

It was very much the beginning of the W-engine development, and they didn’t quite get it right. The W8 motor itself has a 85%+ failure rate due to metal from the camshaft adjuster(s) finding its way into the oil pump, which then grenades, sending shrapnel throughout the engine. VW has 0.00 new long-blocks remaining; they are no longer available (NLA) and I think the part number has gone NFG (you can look that up). Don’t bother with a used engine, because it will kill itself in exactly the same way.

Passat W8

But, and this is important, the first time you firewall the throttle in any of the first four gears you will forget all about the preceding four paragraphs. The torque curve on this engine is astonishing, feeling flat from roughly 2000-5000 RPM. It doesn’t really fall off after 5000 RPM, either. It just keeps going. It makes a noise not unlike a regular V8, but then not really the same.

Third gear in particular will make you soil yourself. You won’t even have time to get a chubby.

If you were going to buy one, this example is probably it. It has a few tasteful modifications, low miles and service records, and thankfully a warranty. I would see about extending that warranty, and then driving it for a while. $14,000 has to be most, if not all, of the money for one of these.

But they are rare and, more importantly, pretty damn fun in a not innocuous way.

Passat W8

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9 responses to “2003 Volkswagen Passat W8; Hilarious or Hand Grenade?

  • Cameron

    Snow day at work? Two posts from TTS in a matter of hours? Cool car, the perfect Q ship. Personally I think the Audi wheels look a bit too large.

  • GARRY FEINSTEIN

    I recently stumbled upon this article and quickly realized that this is my vehicle. I was very pleased that someone else seemed to appreciate the W8 as much as I do. A fabulous car to drive. I just purchased another comprehensive VW warranty that will cover the vehicle for 4 more years. The issues concerning the valve adjusters and the electronic engine thermostat have already been addressed under the VW warranty. I spent 18 years in the used car business and drove thousands of vehicles. Not one of them compared to this VW because of its unique eight cylinder engine, all wheel drive and a 6 speed manual transmission. Truly an amazing combination. Only 327 W8 sedans were imported into the United States.

  • Harry

    I’ve a W8 wagon, and it’s in the shop. The mechanic is gleefully taking things off and charging me to put things back on. $4k and counting…

    • GARRY FEINSTEIN

      I had the same problem a few years back. It was a design flaw that created the expensive problem. The valve adjustors go bad, due to a small filter that clogs and doesn’t allow proper lubrication. The dealer who did the repair, told me the replacement filter is the size of a pencil’s eraser (we do remember what a pencil is) that has been modified and the problem should not reoccur. I spent 18 years in the used car industry, and learned rather quickly, that all German performance vehicles are very expensive to own and repair. I believe they are the worlds finest performing and handling vehicles, but the engineering required to make them the best, results in expensive mechanical repairs and maintenance. It is important to know this before purchasing one. Unfortunately, that is the cost one must incur to own such fabulous vehicles. As I mentioned in my August 1 post, I was able to purchase a great 4 year comprehensive warranty from VW, that is transferrable if I decide to sell my W8, and will cover me up to 95,000 miles. This is exactly what Jonathan Bush recommended in his article and I recommend for any German performance vehicle, as long as the vehicle is eligible for the coverage.

  • Jared

    Where can I find those exact Audi wheels ?

  • Jared

    Just bought 19 inch rims for me 03 Passat , what tire size should I go with ?

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