Tie-dyed Volkswagen lost its languid hippie swagger in a cloud of diesel smoke two years ago.
No more Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers with German accents, no more flower-power vans, and the Love Bug.
Dieselgate – the emissions-cheating scandal that cost VW more than $20 billion, as well as its quirky image – left the automaker cloaked in the soot of a fraud.
And believe me, I know all about really bonehead mistakes.
A buddy and I once drove to Denton for a rowdy North Texas football game and on our return, found ourselves in downtown Fort Worth – marveling for awhile about how much better Dallas suddenly looked.
Old Chris Columbus may have been a distant relative of mine.
Volkswagen’s blunders, however, were so blatantly dishonest that it is essentially rebuilding its house from a pile of oily ashes.
Five or 10 years from now, the chastened company says, that will entail bunches of electric vehicles. Whoopee.
For now, though, VW’s rehabilitation will focus on politically correct cars like the silver 2017 Passat R-Line I had recently.
Though Volkswagen probably doesn’t have much left in the bank these days, the Passat did get a freshening last model year and continues to offer a fresh turbocharged 1.8-liter four as its base motor.
Still, you will need to look pretty closely to distinguish this year’s Passat from, say, the 2013 model.
Mine sported an attractive three-bar grille shoving up against large, two-projector headlamps, sort of announcing that it was a substantial sedan.
A long hood streaked with four character lines seemed to reaffirm it, presiding over mostly flat sides pulled tight with a few lines of their own.
Like the hood, the VW’s top looked slightly over-sized for a four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive car, sliding into a relatively short trunk embellished with bold, wrap-around taillamps.
Giant doors, meanwhile, suggested that this could well be a car whose primary role in life was to haul Cheetos-encrusted kids to softball and soccer games.
At least they will roll in a bit of style. The Passat flashed nice-looking 19-inch spoked wheels wrapped with decent 235/40 tires.
They almost compensated for the tiny single exhaust pipe peeking from beneath the rear bumper.
I didn’t have high expectations.
On paper, a 1.8-liter four-banger with 170 horsepower doesn’t look like much motor in a 3,400-pound sedan – particularly when tied to a six-speed automatic transmission.
But unlike, say, the similarly sized Mazda6 – diminished by a weak 184-horsepower four – the Passat felt well-tuned and lusty.
Granted, the Passat’s no faster than the striking Mazda6, but it can be more fun to drive, especially in a straight line.
Thanks to a turbocharger, the 1.8-liter VeeDub leaps away from red lights, occasionally even scratching the front tires a tad if the driver is, uh, kind of irresponsible.
As speeds rose and the transmission settled into higher gears, the car’s vigor began to wane.
However, stay on it, and the Passat will hit 60 mph in a reasonable 7.8 seconds, according to Car and Driver, remaining pretty smooth as it clicked off 5,500-rpm shifts.
R-Line, incidentally, is just a trim level – marketing bull-chips of sorts – that doesn’t buy you any extra power or performance.
But the Passat kept its scrappy personality even in corners – a 140-pound street-fighter in a banker’s suit.
Although its steering felt too light to me, it conveyed some road-feel and turned into corners pretty enthusiastically, clinging to the pavement despite some body lean.
And of course, the ride was German proper — long-legged with good wheel movement over bumps and just enough firmness to make a Baptist preacher wonder if he might have a back-roads sinner on his hands.
In short, the Passat felt like a distant relative of the fabulous Volkswagen GTI – something it never did when equipped with VW’s last base engine, the lowly 2.5-liter five-cylinder with the same horsepower as the new 1.8.
Moreover, the 1.8 is rated at 23 miles per gallon in town and 34 on the highway, which is certainly acceptable.
While spare, the black interior in my Passat seemed almost upscale considering its window-sticker of $24,795 – a price, incidentally, that is roughly $4,000 less than current average transaction values.
A wide dashboard in pliable plastic rolled down onto a tidy center display area that offered knobs and buttons for the stereo and climate systems.
The plastic door panels were sculpted and the comfortable leatherette seats featured perforated centers and immense leg- and head-room in back.
Let’s face it, though: Sedans don’t pop these truck-crazed days.
So maybe we should view the Passat as almost a roots car – a comfortable way to run counter to popular trends from a company that once embodied that culture.