Brave Pills are almost always drawn from the rarer and groovier end of the market, but some are much harder to track down than others. Since the column began this week’s offering has been close to the top of the “must do” list, but the Passat W8’s critically endangered status means they rarely reach the classifieds. The arrival of this one triggered both a braying klaxon and a happy cry in the PH command bunker.
The eight-cylinder Passat might have been the answer to a question that nobody was asking when it was new – a point quickly apparent to the unlucky Volkswagen sales execs charged with trying to shift them – but now it is pretty much the perfect response to “what was the most needlessly complicated car of all time?”
We’ve been slowly working our way through the list of the unlikely powerplants that Ferdinand Piech willed into existence during his time at the top of Volkswagen; several examples of the Bentley-Audi W12 have been Pill’d, as have both the V10 and V12 TDI diesels, and there’s little doubt we’ll get to the Bugatti W16 eventually. But even by the standards of Ferdie’s Follies the Passat’s W8 was at the outer edge of oddball eccentricity.
Piech was always better at engineering than marketing, but that never stopped him from trying. By the turn of the century he was determined to turn Volkswagen into something much more Mercedes-ish, despite the presence of Audi within the wider clan. To make that happen he ordered the creation of the Phaeton, a luxury saloon charged with beating the S-Class which would get the option of a W12 engine. Recognising that would be a stretch for the brand, the decision was taken to effectively preview the idea of the range-topper’s powertrain, and get the world used to a VW plutobarge, by squeezing what was essentially an eight cylinder version of the same engine into the B5-generation Passat.
This didn’t make a huge amount of sense – the existing range-topping VR6 version was more than fast enough for typical Passat buyers – but it was made possible by the fact the B5 sat on the same platform as the contemporary Audi A4 with longitudinally mounted engines, even for its front-driven applications. So although it hadn’t been designed for anything so large or grand, a compact 4.0-litre that effectively combined two narrow-angle VR4 cylinder banks could be made to fit. Just. This quart in a pint pot powerplant made a relatively unstressed 271hp and drove through a Torsen all-wheel drive system. It would be offered with both manual and automatic gearboxes, and in both saloon and estate guises.
The rush of buyers for this complicated, expensive beast was conspicuous only by its absence. Volkswagen’s normally voluble PR operation was remarkably muted, too. This was an era when the brand’s press department was second to none, especially in the UK. Normally the company couldn’t be too helpful; at around the same time the W8 arrived I cracked the sump of a Mk4 Golf while doing a photoshoot on the Elan Valley Mountain Road in Wales. After one apologetic phone call to HQ in Milton Keynes a visually identical replacement arrived just three hours later.
Yet when hacks tried to get into the spiffy new W8, the answers turned dusty. Few demonstrators were registered and they all seemed to be booked for months in advance. When the magazine I worked for did eventually get a loaner the reason for the reticence was soon obvious – the W8 and chassis had less chemistry together than platinum and helium. Or than Mick Fleetwood and Sam Fox at the 1989 Brit Awards.
The engine sounded more like a V6 than a V8. It had an interesting rasp when pressed harder, but one far short of Piech’s unlikely stipulation it should sound like a Ferrari. The W8 was smooth, quick to respond and impressively free of vibration. But it was also lacking in both low-down torque and the sort of top-end zing that buyers of junior octopots were likely to expect. Performance was less than scintillating; Volkswagen claimed a 6.5-second 0-62mph time with the manual gearbox, but even the most brutal road testers struggled to match that. (The auto was easier to launch, but nearly a second slower over the acceleration benchmark.)
The rest of the driving experience was also short on enthusiasm. The W8 wasn’t a bad car, grip was high, traction impeccable and high-speed stability was Audi-ish, especially in poor conditions. But there was little encouragement to be found in the feel-free steering or understeery handling balance. Like many VWs of this era the W8 was noticeably under-damped for the challenge of rougher British roads, undulations turning it wallowy and ill-disciplined. It was a good seven- or eight-tenths cruiser, but it definitely wasn’t a sports saloon.
Costing nearly ten grand more than the VR6 4Motion that sat below it in the hierarchy – and being the only non-Touareg member of the VW clan to get beyond £30K in those days – it’s fair to say that the W8 was always fishing in a small pond for buyers. Fewer than 250 were registered here in four years before it was quietly dropped, less than one for each the the company’s UK dealers at the time. Globally it fared little better. In the U.S. Volkswagen execs breezily assured journalists the expected to sell around 5,000 a year, presumably while smoking crack. It actually peaked at just 450. As VW never fitted the W8 to anything else it seems unlikely the engine made back more than a modest percentage of its development costs.
The combination of dismal sales, huge complexity and a lack of experienced mechanics had a predictably savage effect on the W8’s residual values – it’s not as if the standard B5 Passat was renounced for its resistance to depreciation. Within five years of the W8’s launch examples were already being offered for the sort of enticing prices that encourages the brave or terminally optimistic to take a punt. Some of these new owners signed on willing to accept the very serious running costs necessary to keep such an exotic beast in fettle; a greater number were just looking for a cheap, fast Passat. Survival rates among the latter group will not be high.
While there will be a strong element of beggars not being able to get too picky when finding a W8 these days, our Pill does seem a solid example. The selling garage reports it has recently been imported from Guernsey, and although it seems like an odd choice of vehicle for a small island where the highest speed limit is 35mph the fact it has clocked up 67,000 miles suggests it has made some longer trips. It looks good in the pictures, with the combination of dark blue metallic and the yellow beige interior that was a popular choice for Volkwagens in period, and which I know from experience is a particularly good match for baby vomit.
Life on a Channel Island has denied us an MOT history to peruse, the dealer promises it will have its first before being sold. Beyond some marking on the driver’s footwell carpet it seems to have worn well and the vendor says it comes with plenty of service history. It’s an automatic, as three quarters of UK cars were, but we’re also told it has received a gearbox rebuild at some point in the past.
The W8 Passat might be a historical footnote, but it did play a significant role in creating one of the most extraordinary hypercars of all time. The Bugatti Veyron’s 8.0-litre W16 is pretty much a doubled-up and quad turbocharged version of the Passat’s engine. So although a six grand price tag would be tea-spluttering if stuck to any other B5.5 Passat, it doesn’t seem outrageous for something so rare groove.
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