The two cars I drive most often are the 2016 Passat VR6 you see here and my own MK7 GTI. A stock MK7 GTI will handle circles around the larger, more luxurious Passat, and if you've followed along with the GTI project, you know we have made some pretty substantial handling improvements above and beyond factory levels. So jumping between the two is quite a shock to the system. After my first drive in the Passat, I wondered if I could get some of the precision and balance of the GTI, without compromising too much of the ride quality.
The GTI is blessed with VW's fantastic MQB platform, while the Passat is a collection of parts from older VW and Audi products, so it is starting a notch down just in terms of architecture. It is also intended for a completely different audience. While the Passat does offer an R-Line version, I am still hoping for something more along the lines of the Passat GT that VW showed at the 2016 LA Auto Show.
I find myself telling people more often that coilovers may not be the best starting point for handing improvements. Everything from a GTI to a 911 has great spring and damping rates right from the factory, so finding anything other than the aesthetics of lowering a car and the ability to corner-balance is going to be tough. Cars like Golfs, base 3-series, and especially our Passat still use spring and damping rates more focused on keeping your groceries safe in the trunk than attacking freeway ramps. If you really want to see improvements and get satisfaction from the act of tuning, start with the basic cars.
When I started looking into options for the Passat, there weren't many. Sales numbers aren't stratospheric for the VR6 models, so I don't think most companies believe they're in much demand. The extra weight of the VR6 models means the components from the popular 1.8t models aren't going to be compatible. KW suspension had offered me a damping adjustable V3 kit for the car, which coincidentally shares a part number with the previous generation of Audi A3 Quattro—the NMS Passat does share some parts, but not all, with Audi 8P, Golf MK5, and Jetta—more on that later.
You might recognize Pacific German as one of the competitors in the 2016 Continental Tire GP. As a shop local to us in Orange County, California, I had been admiring their handiwork for a few years. We had been looking for an excuse to work with them, and this seemed like a great opportunity. Pacific German's Performance Director Tyler Setterstrom is well versed in all VW Group platforms, plus they have all the equipment necessary for a proper coilover install, including a state-of-the-art laser alignment rack.
If you've done a coilover install on any VW from the MK5 forward, you know how this goes. In the front, you will need to do a bit of disassembly to get enough drop on the spindles, plus the front spindles are the clamp type, so you have to spread them open to free up the old strut and install the new. It isn't difficult, but it is 10 times easier on a lift—although it is totally doable in your driveway. The rear setup is actually just slightly more difficult than installing spark plugs. If you are going to do this yourself, find a YouTube video explaining the process start to finish, especially all the safety steps. If it were me, and in this case it is, take it to a shop that will be able to handle the install, setup, and alignment all in one crack. I will hold off on a rant here, but I can't stress enough the importance of supporting your local performance shops.
The KW V3 uses dampers adjustable in both compression and rebound. There are 12 levels of compression and 16 levels of rebound damping. The adjustability is all in the low-frequency range of damping, which means the adjustments affect handling by controlling body movement, as opposed to high frequency more associated with ride-quality from impacts. Adjusting compression damping is mostly used for adjusting the natural frequency of the car's body movements. Stiffen it up, and the car will roll more slowly, but don't confuse this with spring rate; in constant state cornering the car will roll the same amount when subjected to the same forces no matter the damping rates. With stiffer damping, it will just take longer to get to that roll angle. Adjusting rebound, while not entirely, is associated with body moving upward and is unloading, or movements where the car feels like it is floating. This is most common at higher speeds driving over rises or recovering from large compressions. Getting the rebound damping just right gives that tied-down feeling, while overdoing results in a car that feels uncomfortable.
To begin with, the dampers, both front and rear, were set to the middle setting in both compression and rebound. This is the safest bet, although for later testing, we will try full soft and then jump all the way to full hard to get a real idea of how much difference there is. Setting up damping rates with no baseline is difficult, and while they are easily adjusted on a lift, getting under the car and reaching the adjuster knobs while out on a drive isn't easy. Getting to the rebound adjuster on the rear is basically impossible without jacking up the car. Also, since the adjusters aren't numbered 1-12 and 1-16, you don't actually know what you have dialed in just by looking. With that in mind, it is recommended that when you make an adjustment, you dial all the way down to 0, then back up to the number you wanted.
After installation, we set ride height. In the accompanying photos you can see we originally aimed for a ride height that leveled the body of the car; we didn't go for visuals by fender height. As with just about everything on the road today, the rear fender opening is slightly lower, so if you just look at wheel gap, it appears the rear end is sagging—it isn't.
On the alignment rack, we set everything back to roughly factory geometry. As is the case with most strut-type front suspension, we weren't able to dial in extra negative camber, which this car needs. We are considering adding camber plates, although the ideal solution would involve offset bushings made from a stiffer material, which after searching, don't appear to be available on the aftermarket. Remember how we said it shares some parts with other platforms? The MK5 GTI and Audi A3 had switched to a horizontally pivoting bushing for the rear position of the front control arm, while this car uses the vertical pivoting hockey-puck-type bushing found in earlier cars (and surprisingly, again in the MK7 Golf/GTI) but doesn't appear to be interchangeable with any of those cars. Again, the low volume of these cars, along with the perceived lack of enthusiast owners, means the suspension companies have yet to look at this platform for high-performance bushings. We will keep encouraging the aftermarket, but if you would like to see bushings for the Passat, please the manufacturers and let them know.
After the initial install, I was surprised by the ride quality of the KW V3s. It is certainly stiffer than factory, but it feels slightly softer than even a stock GTI. It is completely appropriate for what should still be a comfortable cruiser for the family. As you can see in the photos, we've managed to get quite a bit more tire under the car. We have Pirelli P Zero tires in a 255/30-20 mounted on a 20x9-inch wheel from Neuspeed. The tire size isn't ideal, but I will address that in the following update. Hopefully by then, I will also have some actual test data to back up a full qualitative review of the suspension. Until then, you can look for more mini-updates on both Instagram and Facebook if you are so inclined.