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Tony O'Kane | Sep 22, 2008 | 26 Comments

"Think of it as being like Mike Tyson in a business suit – smooth on the outside, but you can just tell that it's ear-bitingly mad on the inside"

Life, as they say, is full of compromises. It’s a familiar tale – boy meets girl, marries, then rug-rats, and goodbye to the low-slung sports coupe. Then it’s a minivan (and a bottle of scotch to drown his sorrows). End story.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not if Volkswagen has anything to do with it.

The newest addition to VW’s R-series performance line-up, the Volkswagen Passat R36, is its all-in-one answer to the dilemma faced by nearly every family-bound car enthusiast – performance, or practicality? The R36 makes a case for itself as being quick and agile yet easy to live with. But has it got what it takes to be the ultimate family-friendly sports car?

Firstly, the R36 is one hell of a roomy vehicle. It’s perhaps the most spacious mid-size sedan I’ve ever seen, and there’s more than enough room in the back for a couple of baby capsules/rowdy toddlers/disgruntled teenagers to sprawl in comfort. Being based upon a front-wheel-drive chassis has clearly paid dividends for the R36’s interior space.

Not only that, but pop open the boot and you’re greeted by a cavernous, flat cargo area to store your groceries/strollers/extra children. Despite losing some volume to the rear-mounted battery and the need to accommodate a full-size alloy wheel under the floor, the sedan’s boot still manages to displace 541 litres with the rear seats up and 1641 litres with them down. Impressive – if that’s what you’re looking for.

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So, the R36 already has the practicality side of the equation well covered. But at TMR, we aren’t interested in luggage capacity or cup-holder counts – what we want to know is whether the R36 has shaken off the dowdy, docile image of the cooking model Passat and can deliver on its promise of sportscar-like performance. Thankfully the kind people at Volkswagen heard our call and passed over a Biscay Blue R36 sedan.

Our task was to discover whether Volks had succeeded in helping the ever-so-sensible Passat ditch the pocket protector – and pick up a knuckleduster.

Peek inside the cabin and first impressions are good. The driver and front passenger get body-hugging and heavily bolstered sports seats, with grippy San Remo microfibre trim in the centre panels to help keep your butt planted during fierce cornering. Lower yourself into the driver’s seat and it gets even better – these are seriously good pews. Both front seats feature full electric adjustment, with the side bolsters and lumbar support electro-pneumatically actuated. The rear seats are also clad in the same microfibre/leather combo and are firm, yet very comfortable. Seat heaters are also fitted to four out of the five seats, although I didn’t bother turning them on. (The cosseting effect of those leather-bound chairs was enough to make me warm in the pants anyway.)

Aside from the seats, the only other clues that you’re in the flagship of the Passat range are the dark brushed alloy trims in the dash and centre console, and the R36-badged leather steering wheel (shaped to encourage ‘nine to three’ grip – exactly where your paws should be).

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The rest of the interior is standard-issue Passat, which isn’t exactly a bad thing. The design is Teutonic in its simplicity, although much of the switchgear is made of the same hard plastic used in the base model (and it does come across as feeling a little cheap). Slot the key into the ignition and you’re rewarded with plastic-on-plastic clacking and scraping – not good in a $65,000 car. Push the key all the way in to start the engine however, and you’ll soon forget all about any rough edges.

The R36’s naturally-aspirated, 3.6-litre V6 (known internally as the VR6) whooshes to life before settling into a rather tappety idle. Slot the gearlever into drive, release the electrically-actuated parking brake, pull away from the kerb and instantly you get the notion that the R36 is a much more purposeful machine than its more down-to-earth siblings. The steering is direct and well-weighted, the ride is firm (perhaps too firm for broken suburban pavement) and gear changes ‘solid’ and positive.

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That last bit is important. Although the R36’s gearlever looks for all intents and purposes like a garden-variety automatic slushbox, don’t be fooled. This is Volkswagen’s Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), and while it may look like the auto in your grandad’s Falcon, the DSG offers performance benefits that are well beyond the scope of a normal automatic.

Internally, the six-speed DSG is just like a manual transmission. There’s cogs, sprockets and selector forks floating around inside, and the more efficient nature of these components mean less power is soaked up by the ‘box and more power makes its way to the wheels.

Great. However, the DSG’s real party trick is in how it swaps gears. The twin-clutch technology of the DSG transmission enables lightning-quick gearchanges on both upshifts and downshifts, so power isn’t interrupted and acceleration is linear. Similar systems are used in the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, the latest iteration of the Porsche 911, the BMW M3 and Bugatti’s all-conquering Veyron. Suffice to say, if the technology is good enough for those cars, it’s more than adequate for the Passat.

On the road the DSG transmission is, in a word, incredible. It shifts with an alacrity that has to be experienced and the six ratios endow the R36 with a sprinting ability that’s hard to match. Not only that, but if you tire of the DSG’s ordinary ‘Drive’ mode and the much more manic ‘Sport’ mode, you can always take over via the steering-wheel-mounted paddles or the plus-minus gate on the gearlever. Acceleration is brisk, and when we timed the car over several 0-100kph blasts the R36 whistled up to speed in just 5.6 seconds every time, which is a dead match for Volkswagen’s own figure.

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Once the red mist lifts the DSG settles into a more sedate pace, smoothly slurring between gears and keeping revs on the quiet side of the tacho. It’s a fantastically versatile system, but the delights don’t end with the trick twin-clutch gearbox. Not by a long shot.

That 3.6-litre VR6 engine is another of the R36’s strong suits. With 220kW and 350Nm of torque on tap, the narrow-angle V6 is always willing to propel the R36 towards the horizon. Direct injection (Fuel Stratified Injection, in VW-speak) and a high compression ratio of 11.4:1 help bolster the torque curve, which occupies a relatively wide band between 2400-5300rpm. It sounds fantastic under load too, with the engine note becoming truly sonorous around the midrange – a far cry from its clattery idle.

Fuel economy is good for a performance sedan too, with our R36 returning an average figure of 11.0 litres per 100km - not far off VW’s claim of 10.7l/100km. The downside? The Passat drinks pricey 98-octane petrol, so ensure your wallet is full before topping up the tank.

Handling is another of the R36’s fortés. The suspension is firm, yet dispatches mid-corner bumps with ease. There’s an admirable lack of body roll when pushing hard through the twisty bits – no small feat for a mid-size sedan weighing 1681kg. Credit that to the R36’s stiffer and 25mm lower suspension (Macpherson struts on the front, multi-link in the rear) and the standard 235/40R18 Dunlop SP Sport 01 tyres. Need to stop in a hurry? The R36’s huge ventilated disc brakes will pull you up hard, and they look pretty trick with their blue-painted calipers.

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The Passat’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system is biased towards front wheels during normal driving, but once slip is detected, torque is sent to whichever of the wheels can handle it. You can tell when the transition between front-wheel-drive and grip-restoring all-wheel drive occurs as the Haldex centre differential starts to lock up. However, it’s the briefest of events and the R36’s electronic talent has things pointing the right way in milliseconds. There’s so much grip available you have to take it right to edge before there is any sign of understeer or things becoming messy.

The firm ride can be a little tiresome over rough tarmac or undulating, rutted country highways, but considering the sheer cornering ability of the R36 it’s a fair trade-off. There may be better cruisers than the R36, but there are very few sedans out there that can match it for overall performance and versatility – not for the same price, anyway.

In fact, at the Passat R36’s price point of $64,990 (the wagon costs $2000 extra), there’s precious few cars that can hold a candle to its straight line go and un-stickable handling. In fact, the competition really boils down to just one Japanese contender – the STI-tuned Subaru Liberty GT. The Liberty is almost a perfect match for the R36 on price, but unfortunately it possesses neither the Passat’s trick twin-clutch gearbox, nor the style and panache of the R36. Nor is it as refined, or as comfortable.

Nor yet is it as pleasing to look at.

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If I had to choose between the two on looks alone, the R36 would win hands down. The sheet metal is shared with the rest of the Passat range, but it’s the various body addenda that really complete the package. Up front, there’s a lower, more heavily-vented bumper; on the back a bootlip spoiler, dual chrome exhaust tips and a re-profiled bumper. Sill extensions, wheel arch flares and some very delectable 18-inch Omanyt rims complete the package.

The whole combo results in a car that boasts subtle visual muscle, but doesn’t draw attention like the spoiler-bedecked Evo, or the bonnet scooped STI. Think of it then as being like Mike Tyson in a business suit – smooth on the outside, but you can just tell that it’s ear-bitingly mad on the inside.

Standard kit is impressive too: the R36 comes with self-levelling bi-xenon headlamps with dynamic cornering lights, cruise control, parking sensors, dual-zone climate control, a factory-fitted alarm and immobiliser and power everything. Hell, even the heated wing mirrors and windscreen washer jets are standard-issue. In fact, the only option that would be worth ticking is the sat-nav system, which incorporates a 30gb hard drive, SD card slot, DVD player and an auxiliary audio input socket in the front armrest. (Then again, such frills may only serve to distract from the more tactile pleasures of the R36, so perhaps leave that box unchecked and save yourself the $2990.)

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The safety equipment list is also comprehensive. In addition to the sure-footed 4Motion system, the R36 gets ABS, EBD, EBA, traction control and ESP to help keep you out of the weeds, while a full complement of front and side airbags should keep you in one piece should the unspeakable happen.

The Volkswagen Passat R36 is one intensely enjoyable car to drive, and has rightfully earned its place as the jewel in VW’s R-series line-up. But has it been compromised by Volkswagen’s desire to make it both fast, yet practical?

Well, an Evo X may beat it on a winding road, but the R36 is roomy, safe, comfortable and powerful. It is a viable option for motoring enthusiasts who want their kicks on the weekend, while needing a car to drive the kids to school on weekdays. So yes, there may be some sacrifices for practicality’s sake, but this is without a doubt one of the ‘easiest-to-live-with’ performance cars on the market today. Compromises? Sure, but they are compromises that I can handle. Life’s full of them, don’t you know.

TONY’S BIG STATEMENT

“The VW Passat R36 is proof positive that driving enjoyment doesn't have to be crippled by the need to accommodate the wife, the kids and the shopping. The R36 is truly one of the best all-rounders on the new car market right now, combining a versatile and spacious interior with a WRX-shaming turn of speed - thus making it a solid proposition for new car buyers looking for a genuinely practical performance car. Nice job, VW.”

tony-likes

Sophisticated yet sporty styling, grunty V6, fancy-pants twin-clutch gearbox, unstickable handling, grippy seats, glorious engine note

tony-dislikes

Gearbox's habit of shifting up at redline (I want MANUAL control, dammit!), cheap-feeling interior plastics, tyre roar

Gallery

Specs

Engine: 3597cc V6
Type: Petrol
Fuel system: Bosch Motronic MED 9.1
Output: 220kW @ 6600RPM, 350Nm @ 2400 – 5300
Performance: 0-100km/h: 5.6s (Sedan) 5.8s (Wagon)
Bore/Stroke, mm: 89.0 / 96.4
Compression: 11.4:1
Transmission: 6 Speed DSG, 4Motion AWD
Consumption: 9.5 l/100km (claimed combined average)
Brakes: Front: Ventilated Discs

Rear: Ventilated Discs

Suspension: Front: Independent, MacPherson struts with lower wishbones and coil springs. Anti-roll bar.

Rear: Independent, four-link with coil springs. Anti-roll bar. Sports suspension lowered 25mm.

Price: $64,990+ORC

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