There’s much hype these days about the fuel efficiency of hybrids, but often overlooked in such discussions is a fuel-spipping alternative – the diesel. Forget the old noisy, clattering, smoke-spewing oil-burners of previous eras – today’s version is typically quiet, clean and so efficient.
Few manufacturers have refined the diesel engine for passenger-car use better than Volkswagen and that fact was reinforced for me in a week-long stint with a 2012 VW Passat TDI.
My time with the Passat (a base Trendline model) came on the heels of the recent AJAC EcoRun. In fact, I actually drove the Passat home from the EcoRun’s final destination, loaded its roomy (450- litre) trunk with luggage, filled the 70-litre fuel tank with ultra low-sulphur diesel fuel and headed off the next morning for an extended weekend in Chicago.
Typically, this 1,500-kilometre round trip requires about three tanks of gasoline in our 3.0-litre V-6 Escape. Even with more fuel-efficient vehicles, the consumption rate doesn’t vary much, so imagine my surprise when the Passat’s range readout after fill-up boasted 1,100 km.
There was even more shock when it readjusted after a few kilometres on the road to nearly 1,300 km. Instead of consuming fuel, this diesel was apparently making it! This anomaly fuelled my skepticism about the computer’s calculations, yet as we rolled along, the fuel gauge needle barely budged.
In fact, I made it from London, ON to Chicago, cruising at my usual rate (slightly above the posted limit) and still had more than a third of a tank remaining. On the second day in Chicago I decided to top up – it took 40 litres and cost $44.81.
On the return trip, I topped up the tank upon arrival back in London and this time it took 38 litres ($49.96). The Passat had travelled 1,501 km and my total fuel cost was less than $100. The Passat’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder used less than two tanks of fuel, averaged 4.9 litres/100 km – and outlasted my bladder.
That rate of efficiency rivals some hybrids and you don’t have to pay the price premium typically associated with those high-tech models.
Furthermore, the Passat had all the pep one needed, despite an unimpressive rating of just 140 horsepower. Acceleration on launch was snappy, at least to 4,000 rpm or so before starting to labour, and the response to a demand for passing power was immediate.
That solid performance was due mainly to the diesel engine’s superb torque – kicking in 236 lb-ft at just 1,750 rpm.
The engine’s output was effectively delivered to the front wheels through a dual-clutch, six-speed DSG Tiptronic transmission that shifted itself smoothly, without slippage or hesitation.
The Tiptronic tranny also features a manual override when one feels the urge to be sporty, though the shifter tends to be bumped into the manumatic mode with the slightest nudge. Still, the transmission control does such a fine job of selecting the right gear, stirring the box manually seemed redundant.
It’s worth noting the level of quietness and smoothness VW has achieved with this powerplant. The clatter and vibration typically associated with earlier diesels is nearly non-existent. In fact, an owner of an earlier-generation VW TDI was shocked when he heard me pull up to the diesel pump – he couldn’t believe that purring four-cylinder was in fact a diesel.
As for particulates coming out the exhaust pipe, there were virtually none. A new urea system VW has dubbed AdBlue, combined with the ultra low-sulphur fuel, effectively eliminates any emissions issues.
The Passat is offered with two other engine choices: the base 2.5-litre five-cylinder, with 170 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque, and an optional 3.6-litre V-6 that generates 280 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. After experiencing the TDI engine, however, I can’t imagine why anyone would consider the other two.
The rest of the all-new Passat is very functional. Its exterior design is attractive, but not head-turning. It fits well with the conservative look of its mid-size sedan competition, such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
Where it does excel is inside – the five-passenger cabin is very roomy. For 2012, the wheelbase has been stretched to 2,803 millimetres, longest in the segment, and that additional length has allowed VW designers to create an abundance of stretch-out space in both the front and rear seating areas.
Leg room in front is 1,077 mm while back-seat occupants have an impressive 992 mm for their lower limbs. Typically, with my six-foot-one frame, my seat position behind the steering wheel leaves little room for the poor soul relegated to sit behind me. In the Passat, however, there was room aplenty – and no complaints from the back seat.
The interior was nicely finished and well stocked with creature comforts, even in this basic TDI model. Standard features include automatic dual-zone climate control, a decent audio system with six speakers and an auxiliary input jack, Bluetooth phone connectivity, automatic headlights, fog lamps, heated front (cloth) seats and 60/40 split folding rear seats with a flip-down centre armrest, dual front, side and side curtain airbags and a comfortable leather-wrapped steering wheel that tilts and telescopes.
The steering wheel also has multi-function buttons on the spokes and I found myself unintentionally changing radio stations or dialing up my cell phone as I turned the wheel. Not a big deal, but certainly annoying.
This Passat has been specifically designed and tuned to suit North American tastes. It’s even built on this side of the Atlantic – in Tennessee.
As a result, the European flavour of the car’s dynamics, inherited with its Audi platform, has been tempered somewhat in the 2012 iteration, but I still found it a pleasure to drive.
The ride was comfortable, especially on long stretches of interstate routes, yet it still revealed minimal body roll when pushed enthusiastically through a highway access ramp. Previous Passat owners may notice the change, but for the majority of consumers, the Americanized version rides and handles just fine, thank you.
Actually, compromising some of the Euro-tuned attributes of previous-generation Passats may be just the move that will draw more North American shoppers into VW showrooms. And when they discover the smoothness and fuel efficiency of that 2.0-litre diesel, sales folks should have no problem closing the deal.