What I'm Driving At: Ein, Zwei, Drive

I'll make no bones about my predisposition for German automobiles. Whether by nature or nurture, I'm attracted to the look, touch, smell, and sound that comprise the archetypal Deutsch-mobile. (If ever it becomes relevant to taste one, I'm sure I'll favor that sensation as well.)In a nutshell, the German car stereotype is a mixture of contrasts: Spartan yet refined; unadorned yet elegant; mechanically understated yet technically superlative. There are flashier, cozier, faster cars made elsewhere in the world; but German cars, as a group, seem to exude a certain smugness that just doesn't care.Having thus condemned an entire nation's auto industry to one simplistic generalization, I nevertheless enjoy sorting through the entertaining varieties of experience that different German cars represent. In particular, I've been blessed in recent weeks to drive three '98 models at once similar and distinct: Volkswagen's all-new Passat GLS sedan, Audi's updated A4 2.8 sedan, and BMW's freshened 318ti coupe.Arguably, the coupe is odd man out -- but not so quick with hasty classifications. In price, it nearly splits the difference between the VW and the Audi. Despite its three-door hatchback layout, the BMW still accomplishes seating for five. Significantly, both the A4 and the Passat represent a trendy sedan-as-coupe design aesthetic that tries to camouflage their extra pairs of doors; the 318ti, of course, doesn't even have to bother. Far from emphasizing unenforceable similarities, however, my stints with each of these cars highlighted the diverse pleasures -- and occasional pains -- that are underrepresented by that catch-all term, German car.Volkswagen Passat GLSOf the three, Passat makes the boldest entrance into the '98 model year with a near-total redesign that eschews previous years' squat, angular appearance (and attendant personality). A quick look hints at its novelty: The sweeping arc of roofline spans from behind the rear wheels almost to the middle of the front wheels. No V-dub has ever looked like this before -- or has it? The forthcoming return of "the Beetle" may suggest a subtle design ethos that has never entirely disappeared since the first "people's car" appeared in the late '30s; there are traces, too, in this Passat.But Passat makes no pretensions to mass appeal; this is a patently upscale sedan aiming to raise the ceiling of its traditional econo-car reputation. The car is actually built on a stretched version of Audi's A4 platform, and the GLS' standard powerplant is the same 1.8-liter turbo available as an A4 option. In the VW, however, this motor makes more sense. For one thing, it keeps the Passat's price down to a respectable $22,605; for another, its somewhat anemic 150 horsepower is better tailored to this price range than to the Audi's up-market ambitions.In this year's Passat, as in last year's A4 1.8T, the 5-speed automatic is constantly hunting and pecking for the right gear to match the tiny turbo's frenetic power curve. But the '98 Passat has the advantage of an optional Tiptronic "semi-automatic" transmission. This sequential-style shifter derives from modern roadracing technology and operates much like a clutchless motorcycle gearbox. It lets the driver -- not some fuzzy logic computer -- make gear selections that are most appropriate to road conditions and driver moods, be they sporty or loafing.Inside, the Passat is actually roomier, if less de luxe, than its A4 mentor. And while road feel favors comfort over precision, the car is by no means floaty. The overall impression is one of affordable classiness: Instead of settling for a VW because the price is right, buyers will aspire to the Passat, only to be pleasantly surprised by its moderate price tag.Audi A4 2.8This is the car that deserves solo credit for Audi's image renaissance in the '90s. Sure the ultra-luxe A8 is fancier, and the just-released A6 is hotter news. But the A4, powered by a brilliant 190-horsepower, 2.8-liter V6, preceded both and still makes even jaded auto veterans stroke their chins in wonder: "Where've you been all my life?"As appealing as the new Passat looks, the A4 is yet more so with its slightly smaller footprint and taut, kicked-up haunches. The model I drove featured front-wheel drive in lieu of Audi's vaunted (and pricier) all-wheel-drive Quattro. With its "Green Mica Clearcoat" exterior and two-tone "Cognac"-and-black interior, this particular tester was, quite frankly, one of the prettiest cars I've ever driven.And drive it does: The suspension is razor-sharp but compliant, and the five-speed manual shifts precisely and without delay. But instead of a sporty-car click into the next gear, the shifter seems to float where it's bidden. To a one, my passengers remarked on the car's reassuringly solid feel and quiet ride. This is not to say stolid, however; the twin-cam V6 is rarin' to go, and the marriage of the 5-speed manual transmission, independent suspension, and unflappable four-wheel ABS disk brakes makes the car invitingly tossable.Less inviting are the rear seats, which pay a legroom penalty for the sake of the A4's striking silhouette. At $32,420, the space-per-dollar calculus is particularly relevant. As word spreads that the roomier A6 starts at just $33,750, this V6-equipped A4 will find it that much harder to make a convincing sales pitch. Its rare appeal, no doubt, will persist among aficionados drawn to Audi's special blend of athleticism and luxury in a sedan dissembling as a coupe.BMW 318tiThe exclamation that greets BMW's 318ti is, by contrast, "Wow! I can buy a new Bimmer for 22-grand?" This perky three-door lists for $21,960; as tested, with leather seats and a so-called Active Package of power gizmos, 15-inch alloy wheels, and metallic paint, the model I drove stickered up to $24,760. Hardly an econo-car, of course, but keep in mind that at the other end of BMW's 3-series spectrum is the M3/4 supersport sedan approaching $45,000.The 318ti embodies the essence of BMW's distinctive interpretation of the driving experience. It isn't a stripper, bereft of all creature comforts, but it is militantly -- almost militarily -- spare. The 138-horsepower, 1.9-liter four-cylinder is nicely matched to this 2,700-pound coupe. There's no power to waste here, but the car actually feels the zippiest of the three under consideration. It is certainly the only one with rear-wheel drive. Exhaust note is politely raucous; handling is tightly coiled, almost hard-edged. The overall sensation approaches that of a sport-touring motorcycle (something else BMW knows a thing or two about) with seating for five.The interior is almost a caricature of Teutonic down-to-business no-nonsense. Everything is obvious, angular, functional -- not a stray curlicue anywhere. Ironically, the 318ti is such a pure expression of BMW's sporting nature, it probably appeals more to sport-driving enthusiasts than to budget-minders looking for easy entry to the BMW Owners Club. Status hounds are often looking for Easy Street, where plush and cush cost extra. The 318ti is a hard-charger that makes few concessions -- and no apologies.

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