Times have certainly changed. Who would have thought we would compare a Chrysler to a Volkswagen? Nobody, back in the 1970s or the 1980s. These days, though, Chrysler has moved its brand down to the level of Chevrolet, while Volkswagen has been moving itself up.
The Volkswagen Passat is the top-end VW, and a nearly identical car is sold as the Audi A4. VW enthusiasts will find that the "user interface" is pure Volkswagen, while the sound insulation and ride are true to Audi. Handling is excellent, and acceleration is standard with the turbocharged four and good with the optional, thirsty, premium-drinking V6.
The Passat has a better ride than the 300M, yet feels more nimble. The sound insulation is better, with very little wind or road noise, despite good road feel. The Passat deftly removes annoying road surfaces and potholes without making it seem as though you are riding on a mobile sofa. To be fair, it is also much smaller inside than the 300M, whose suspension has to work harder to have the same handling.
The Passat's V6 moves it quickly, but gets poor gas mileage, and drinks premium as well. The 300M is considerably more economical when it comes to gasoline - as is the Intrepid R/T. The turbo four is a better choice, and most drivers will find it to be fast enough.
The Passat's main powertrain advantage over the 300M is the availability of a manual transmission, and the all wheel drive option. The manual transmission makes the most of the engine's power while increasing gas mileage, while all wheel drive prevents tire squealing on takeoff and helps in snow and rain. (It is a $2,000 option). The 300M has neither of these - drivers only have the AutoStick.
The Chrysler transmission is actually superior in full automatic mode, delaying shifts under full throttle while the Porsche Tiptronic in the Volkswagen shifts prematurely and unpredictably. However, in semiautomatic mode, the Tiptronic has the advantage. Its controls are easier to use, and it is much smoother - also, it has five gears. Five gears doesn't matter much in full automatic mode, but in semiautomatic, it helps. Both automatically upshift or downshift when needed to protect the engine. (Note that Chrysler's transmissions adapt to the driver and to internal conditions, so they get better with time).
The instrument panel is easy to read on both cars, but the 300M's is much more elegant. It also is not illuminated in bluish-purple at night; instead, it uses a Timex-style "Indiglo" backlighting which is easier on the eyes. The 300M also comes with a passenger side door lock that the Volkswagen lacks. We found the 300M's cruise control easier to operate.
Seats on both cars were comfortable, with memory. The Volkswagen's sunroof had a convenient dial to let the driver set an opening, then get back to driving. On the Chrysler, the driver has to keep their finger on the control to open the sunroof all the way. There are few quirks to the Passat, but one which is becoming common is the lack of a passenger side door lock. Presumably, everyone uses the remote control, and when the batteries run down, they open the doors from the driver's side, since power locks are standard. The second quirk is the cruise control, which is always on - the lever bounces right back from the Off position to On, so it can always be activated by pressing the Speed Set button. Speed is increased by pushing the On/Off control in the other direction, which is somewhat awkward. Generally, we prefer the Japanese stalks or steering wheel controls.
The Passat is more of a "driver's car," with just enough interior space for four to sit comfortably (five in a pinch), but with very good handling and acceleration. The Tiptronic is admirable as a semiautomatic, but a five speed is available for those who want to maximize performance. The 300M compromises its nimble feel to increase interior space, and has more wind and road noise and a firmer suspension, but it does have a more elegant instrument panel and drinks less fuel - and less pricey fuel. Both are very good. We recommend the Passat without reservation to those who would like the 300M but find it a bit too large, rough, or lacking in a manual transmission or all wheel drive; while we recommend the 300M to those who find the Passat too small. The Audi A-series adds a more sensibly lit instrument panel but costs more than the Passat.
The Volkswagen Passat is one of the nicest cars we've driven - but so is the Chrysler 300M. Try them both if you're in the market.
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