On The Road Review: VW Passat TDI

As this is written, early May 2014, gasoline prices are again reflecting the wild gyrations of the spring market, a supply market heavily influenced by financial speculation, increased overseas demand, fluctuating domestic inventories, regulatory and regional emissions standards, plus other factors. Drivers’ operating budgets will be whip-sawed up and down for the forseeable future, as all of our energy is now traded on the world stage.

Conversely, for the first time in several years, the price of diesel fuel has been moderating with actual ‘rack costs’ closer to conventional gasoline than it has been for a long time.

What does this have to do with the price of peas in China and this week’s automotive review? Well, plenty, as China has a lot to do with everything consumable nowadays — even peas. Yet, there is a third leg to the stool that also is drawing more focus — LCA.

LCA — life cycle analysis — is the scientific philosophy that is now applying pressure to the marketing scheme that electric cars and hybrid cars are really all that much better, or superior to, conventional carbon-fueled vehicles. The practical reasoning is that electric cars only shift the environmental effects of cars, rather than reducing any specific energy consumption or environmental costs. The rare and very expensive minerals and metals needed for components and batteries, including their sourcing from Third World economies that lack our regulations, as well as the natural gas, coal and oil plants needed to generate the electricity for electric cars all have undescribed and often unrealized costs to consumers. Electric cars are not emission-free.

In the end, are consumers en masse really gaining much, if anything, by purchasing hybrid vehicles? Considering the tax incentives in place (paid by consumers originally, as the money must come from somewhere) and the longer payback/fuel economy ratio, LCA calculations are raising fair points about the mix of our transportation fleet.

These three seemingly unrelated points highlight a renewed emphasis on diesel-powered cars and crossovers. Our domestic diesel fuel has had a large percentage of the harmful sulfur content removed — improving not only economy but tailpipe emissions — with the side benefit of removing much of the annoying smell that too many drivers associate with diesel fuel. Today’s clean diesel-powered cars are often able to generate the same, and sometimes lower, toxic emissions as our gas-powered cars.

So, if the charming smell of diesel has been reduced by, say, 95 percent and the emissions questions have been, and continue to be, addressed, the roadblocks to expanded diesel usage in our daily fleet should decrease, right?

That’s the view of the European-based automakers, where diesel is the power source for more than 50 percent of all new cars sold across the pond.

Add the enhanced performance characteristics provided by modern computers and direct injection fuel systems, plus the swift and efficient increased power that the latest twin-scroll turbochargers add, and Dr. Diesel’s low-revolution engine is making a much larger impact on our marketplace than in years past.

Volkswagen has been bringing diesel-powered small cars to America for decades. There is a dedicated, and fairly significant, cadre of followers who swear by their VW diesel cars. Great longevity, terrific mileage, plus impressive power are attributes that we all should embrace.

When VW decided to redo its Passat model, and American-ize the sedan for our market, critics were concerned that Volkswagen would take too many shortcuts and cheapen the car so much that it would lose too much of its distinctive German-derived driving demeanor.

VW product planners, however, had to walk a very fine line; the new assembly plant in Tennessee would have to make the midsize, front-drive Passat less expensive in order to compete against Camry/Altima/Accord/Fusion in the domestic market, so some parts would have to be less expensive.

Overall, even ardent VW fans have to admit, the latest Passat retains most of the Germanic flair that the car has always been known for, while embracing more interior space, a larger trunk, plus the versatility that allows this four-door to actually compete in a segment where it once was just a sales column asterisk.

{gallery}TDI{/gallery}At 192 inches long on a 110-inch wheelbase, the Passat is a bulls-eye hit on the midsize segment. The Passat’s trunk has segment-leading space, 16 cubic feet, plus the rear seat passenger compartment is exceeded by no competitor. For all of the hand-wringing by purists, the Passat is in the top third of the segment in ride, handling and overall driving dynamics with decent sound deadening to make sure that you also enjoy the trip.

But back to the diesel engine, one of four available powerplants in the latest Passat. Now a 2.0-liter turbocharged clean-diesel four-cylinder engine producing 140 peak horsepower, plus an impressive 236 pound/feet of peak torque, the TDI engine delivers smooth acceleration as well as robust power for passing, hill climbing or highway merging. Few cars on the road render such a seamless portfolio of surprising thrust-in-the-back power with such a soft touch on the throttle.

Teamed here with the six-speed manual gearbox, the VW glides between gears with a light touch on the shifter and an easy to modulate clutch pedal that benefits from hill-holder action. Third and fourth gear provide the most driving range, leaving both fifth and sixth gear for true overdrive cogs in the narrow-throw gearbox. A six-speed TipTronic automatic also is available, yet VW continues to sell many a new car with the three-pedal setup. Last year, over 24 percent of the Passats sold here were TDI models.

With over 11,500 miles on our fleet car test vehicle, the diesel engine was ‘broken-in’ enough to show its strengths. And the TDI did not disappoint. Peak fuel economy for a rapid run from Ellsworth to Harrington, Steuben and back was an indicated 51.7 mpg. The next day included a road trip to Belfast and back —50.7 mpg. Overall, the TDI returned 43.7-mpg during its 800-mile stay, beating the EPA highway number (31-mpg city/43-mpg) without straining.

Caveats are few, and refueling is not one of them. With a range of over 700 miles per tank, fueling up will be a seldom event for many buyers.

It would be good, however, if VW dressed up the Passat’s interior to reflect some of the detailing evident in the Golf GTI, or some of the entry level Audi models. In SE trim, the second of four, the Passat TDI starts at $26,295. Nicely equipped is admirable, and true, yet the interior ‘appears’ stark. Functionally fine, with very nice seat heaters and simple controls (thank you), but still a little staid.

A base Passat S with the 2.5-liter gas four starts at just under $21,000 with the manual transmission. Move up to the SE trim, like here, and the 2.5-liter engine fetches $24,000, with an automatic adding $1,100.

So the TDI costs roughly $2,300 more than a gas model, while delivering more power, more acceleration, and more fuel economy. That’s a tough combination to beat.

And given the phalanx of new diesel models heading our way, from VW, Audi, BMW, Chevrolet, Mazda and Ford, hybrid and electric cars are finally going to get some realistic and real-world competition for their professed value and efficiency quotients.

If nothing else, the constant march forward and the constant competition will improve ALL powertrains, making ALL consumers winners.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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