After all these years of writing about junkyard-found vehicles (15 years, to be exact), I’m trying to fill in some of the thin spots in these automotive history lessons. I’ve caught up on some of the post-1980s BMWs I’d neglected, I’m trying to add more SUVs to the mix, and now I realize that I haven’t paid much attention to discarded VW Passats built since we called that model the Dasher or the Quantum over here. So, I decided to document the very first Passat I found in a junkyard with a manual transmission (just to make the search more of a challenge), and that turned out to be this ’03 GLS.
As we learned back in January, the very last North American-market Passat came off the Chattanooga line this year, after a decade of decreasing sales. Car shoppers elsewhere can still buy a new Passat sedan, but those hail from a from a new generation that we never saw on our streets.
In 2003, the Passat was available here in wagon and sedan form. It’s a close cousin of the Audi A4, which tells us that it’s a machine that’s nice to drive when it works and expensive to get repaired when things go wrong.
American Passat shoppers could get the ’03 sedan in one of five versions, with the GLS 1.8T the second-from-cheapest version at $22,885 ($37,315 in 2022 dollars). A 2.8-liter V6 and 4.0-liter W8 were available in the more upscale Passats, but the 1.8T made 170 horsepower with its turbocharger and 20-valve cylinder head.
I’ve seen quite a few 1.8T-powered cars on race tracks during my years working for the 24 Hours of Lemons. Nearly all have suffered engine failures early and often, which contrasts sharply with the scenes of checkered-flag glory predicted by online 1.8T zealots.
Volkswagen didn’t build this car so that it would outlast a Suzuki Esteem or Dodge Neon SXT on the race track at age 17, though. It built it to take the money of car shoppers who might otherwise get a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, and the 2003 Passat with 1.8T and five-on-the-floor manual looked better and was more fun to drive than either of those two similarly-priced machines.
You could get a manual transmission in a new Accord here through 2021, while the Camry held on until 2011 (some say 2012 but I am very skeptical about that). However, the 2003 Accord sedan was available only with the four-cylinder engine if you insisted on a three-pedal rig, and the last year for any Camry with a V6/manual combination here was 2001. The Passat with 1.8T beat the four-banger Accord by 10 horsepower and the Camry by 13.
This car ends its career with a straight body and fairly clean interior.
The combination CD/cassette radio was in its last moments of mainstream relevance in 2003, though I’ve seen a few later vehicles so equipped. This car came with the optional Monsoon audio package that also went in plenty of GM cars of the era.
How many miles? Without powering up the ECU, there’s no way to tell.
The beautifully crafted Passat. You’ll want to keep it that way.
Your future self— probably not calling your flip phone from 2022, but maybe 2009— will thank you for getting the Passat. And avoiding Becky.
[Images by the author]
Become a TTAC insider. Get the latest news, features, TTAC takes, and everything else that gets to the truth about cars first by subscribing to our newsletter.