I bought a used 97 Passat TDI with 157000 miles. It runs perfect and it's been the most reliable car I have purchased. Some of my previous cars have been Toyota Pickups, 528i 1998 BMWs, and Nissan Maximas.
There are a couple "must dos for 1996-1997 Passats. Change all of the vacuum lines and do not forget the vacuum line inside the engine control unit (ECU) or "computer" or whatever you want to call it. It is located on the passenger side firewall next to the cabin filter. If the vacuum lines are leaking - especially the ECU vacuum line - the car will run like crap. Once I changed my vacuum lines, no engine lights or problems persisted.
Also change the timing belt if you don't know how long ago it was changed. While doing the timing belt, do the water pump, valve cover gasket, the tensioner and a couple of other parts. If you have a good mechanic they will let you know. All these other things don't cost much to replace during the timing belt service, because they are all very accessible.
As far as being the car being hard to turn, it's completely "false!" It's the best turning car I've had. The person writing issues with this car is not realistic.
These car are soo coveted these days it's hard to find one.
I'm 6'1" and I also have always had a problem getting comfortable in this series Passat. It can be done, but not without spending some time.
Anyone saying they have this series of car and says they are reliable, must be real lucky. Just check the preponderance of reviews here and elsewhere.
Get your annual wheel alignment, it will need it.
Don't use the VW mechanic unless you don't mind spending 10x the amount you need to in order to have it repaired. Most of the time their 1st guess is very expensive and wrong. Get familiar with VW forums and you can save yourself a lot of money.
I'm just glad I finally unloaded mine, despite having the redeeming factors of the engine and the mpg. And it sure could pull up the mountains.
96 Passat TDI wagon owner here.
I don't get the front seat legroom comment. I'm 6'2" and don't even need the seat all the way back. I think I'm 3-4 "clicks" before full rearward, and I find the very adjustable seats to be quite comfortable.
Timing belt needs to be done every 100k km or 60k miles, no question, this is just part of regular maintenance, such as would be required on any car with a timing belt.
My car has 300k km, and is quite reliable. To get it there, it needed a new glowplug harness, new injector nozzles, the injection pump resealed, and a timing belt.
My car also needed the instrument cluster repaired. $75 on ebay for a used one, and I was good to go.
As above, the stellar part of this car is the mileage - 42mpg on winter fuel, through the mountains of Virginia, from Toronto to Miami and back. Lots of room, and only having to fill up once on the way down.
Great car, but it does need a competent mechanic to keep it running properly.