Volkswagen Passat TDI is today's car of the future

Looking for excellent engine performance, reliability and gas mileage, with quality construction in a roomy sedan with sporty looks that's made in the USA? Then look no further than VW's Passat TDI.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

My 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI SEL Premium in St. Augustine, FL.

Over the last few weeks as I came to the realization that my move to Florida from New Jersey was imminent, I began to look into the purchase of a new car.

While I loved my two late 80's and early 90's Mercedes-Benz 560 SEL cars, it was time for one of them to go. The older of the two vehicles needed several thousand dollars worth of maintenance and when it came to fuel consumption it was like a thirsty elephant, getting about 10-12MPG at best on its 5.6L V8.

Additionally, the air conditioning peformance on the cars were far from optimal and I was concerned about potential reliability issues when driving the vehicle 1200+ miles down the I-95 corridor from New Jersey over the 4th of July week. 

So I decided to donate the 1987 car, arranged for the 1990 to get trailered to Fort Lauderdale and look for a suitable replacement vehicle. 

Now, there are many fuel efficient cars on the market, such as the hybrids from Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and GM, as well as a wide variety of regular gasoline-fueled cars with 30+ MPG to choose from. But I had some pretty specific requirements.

First, I'm a big dude. I need a really roomy car, and many of the small and mid-sized vehicles on the market just aren't appropriate for someone of my girth and height. I also wasn't willing to settle for something in the 30+ MPG range, I wanted something in the 40+ MPG range. And I preferred to own something that was sporty and with good engine performance that could seat four people comfortably and had a nice-sized trunk.

You put all these variables together and it's a pretty tall order for any car.

First I test drove Toyota's Prius V. This is a very impressive car technologically and if you're inclined to get a state-of-the-art hybrid vehicle, it would be a really good choice. It has a voluminous amount of trunk space, gets over 40MPG, it has a generous amount of driver room and you can stuff a ton of people/kids into it. And starting at about $27K the car is priced pretty aggressively.

However, I didn't fall in love with this car. The suspension had almost hovercraft-like characteristics, in the sense that you didn't feel the road. I also found the array of electronic stuff on the dash really intimidating and distracting.

That may seem odd coming from a technology writer, but you have to understand that once you get used to a purely analog driver's car like a circa 1990 Mercedes 5-series with a sport suspension this is a huge adjustment.

I don't mind electronics in a car -- I rent plenty of vehicles with doodads and electronic dashes in them when I travel on business. But getting into a current model Prius is like trying to fly a Boeing 787. The entire car is "fly by wire" with the exception of the steering, and for a control freak like myself, it's an absolute turn-off.

And Chevy's Volt? While I was impressed with the car during my weekend test drive last year I'm just not willing to be an early adopter with a car that technologically sophisticated. There's just too much about the long-term reliability of plug-in electric hybrid EV's we just don't know about yet. And like the Prius you can't exactly bring a Volt into any mechanic, it has to be maintained at a dealership.

So about two weeks ago I my wife and I wandered into a Volkswagen dealership. I've always liked Volkswagens because they are extremely reliable, well-engineered cars that deliver snappy performance. But they've always been a little too tight for me.

I was amazed, however, when I sat in the 2012 Passat. This is a car that's made for tall, big dudes. Hey, let's face it, most German men aren't built like Japanese or Koreans. And it is indeed sporty, has lots of back seat room, with a trunk you could throw a pile of dead bodies or a large amount of luggage in. In fact, the car has about the same amount of interior space as a 7-series BMW.

Oh and by the way, it's made in Chattanooga, TN. Built by American workers.

The standard Passat comes in a 5-cylinder 2.0L gasoline engine and there also is a V6 avaliable as well. But you can also get it in a 2.0L, 4-cylinder 140HP turbodiesel, known as the "TDI" or Turbocharged Direct Injection, which gets well in excess of of the advertised 42MPG and 750-mile range on the highway with its 18.5 gallon tank.

Edmunds.com recently tested a number of fuel-efficient vehicles and the Passat TDI utterly smoked the competition, with 43MPG in the city and over 50MPG at highway speeds. In extreme scenarios it is also possible to get well over 1000 miles range per tank on the car, as was demonstrated by a couple who drove 1600 miles on one tank in a Passat TDI.

The Passat TDI in its basic configuration with a 6-speed manual transmission starts out at about $26,000 sticker, whereas the TDI SE with sunroof and automatic starts out at about $28,000. I ended up purchasing the TDI SEL Premium, the most maxxed-out model with leather and woodgrain interior, integrated in-dash navigation system and alloy wheels.

Very sharp ride, I must say.

How does this car perform in the real world? Impressively. The high-compression turbodiesel has crazy amounts of torque, even for a 4-cylinder. It drives like a European touring sedan is supposed to drive, more like its much pricier Audi cousins which are built off the same chassis.

The TDI has incredible passing power, even when we were driving down I-95 through Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia in the 100+ degree heat with the air conditioning running on full blast at 64 degrees. And man can the thing take tight corners. 

So is there anything negative about the car? Not much, actually. The only thing negative is diesel's bad rap in the United States, which is outdated at best, considering the popularity of diesel vehicles in Europe.

Back when diesel cars were introduced into the United States back in the 1980s it was much harder to get fuel at retail gas stations, and diesel cars were much more expensive because you had few brands to choose from -- mostly you were talking Mercedes-Benz and more recently BMW. And diesel fuel used to be smellier.

But that's just not the case anymore. Over 50 percent of retail gas stations in the United States now offer diesel fuel, which is a low-sulphur type that was introduced several years ago, so it doesn't smell bad. The only "negative" one could come up with is the average higher price of diesel fuel versus gas. In Florida, I've seen it as low as $3.52 per gallon all the way up to $3.80. 

However, with some very small modifications, essentially a special filter, a diesel car can use biodiesel, literally vegetable oil. And if you filter it a bit more carefully, you can use the discarded french fry oil from fast-food restaurants. VW's TDI engines are already biodiesel-rated and require no modifications.

So in a number of ways a diesel car is actually more "green" than a comparable gasoline hybrid, and in theory, if the US were to transform much of our corn-producing output which is largely dedicated to High Fructose Corn Syrup to highly refined biodiesel (or use any number of other biological sources such as switchgrass)  which is a sustainable energy source, then we could substantially lower our dependence on foreign oil. 

There are other advantages to diesel engined cars, however. Overall, diesel engines are far less complicated than gasoline powered cars, so over the lifetime of a car, they have a lot less mechanical problems. They also have an incredible longevity compared with gasoline engines -- because of the high compression ratio they need to run at, the engine blocks have to be heavier and much more solidly built. And they can handle hotter weather better than gasoline engines.

As I have read on a number of TDI enthusiast sites, as the vehicles get older, the cars tend to fall apart around the engine, not the other way around. There's no reason why a diesel engine if properly serviced cannot last 20 years. In fact, many of the TDIs built in the 1990s are still on the road, as are Mercedes-Benz diesels from the 1980s.

Volkswagen has been building cars with the TDI system for about 15 years now, so it's a mature technology. They currently offer it on the Passat as well as the Jetta and Jetta Sportwagon, and in 2013, they will be offering it on the Beetle, which dealerships are already taking pre-orders for in advance of pricing.

With all the talk centered around hybrid electric vehicles, it makes one think whether or not the automotive industry and the driving public isn't able can't see forest for the trees. Diesel is a real alternative and sustainable fuel source, and provides excellent fuel economy and car performance and reliability.

Do you drive or are you considering the purchase of a diesel-engined car? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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