Can you name a fun-to-drive sedan with a manual transmission that can transport five adults and their luggage comfortably while sipping fuel at the rate of 50 mpg? The answer is the Volkswagen Passat TDI – a German antonym for "range anxiety."
The past forty years have seen the Volkswagen Passat evolve from a three-door hatchback with a 1.5-liter engine (sold as the Dasher in the States) to a four-door near-luxury sedan boasting a 4.0-liter W8 a decade ago. I'm making the case that today's reasonably priced diesel-burning 2.0-liter TDI is the best, and most sensible, Passat ever built.
The turbocharged, direct-injected, 2.0-liter inline-four is a little stump puller. While only rated at 140 horsepower, it delivers 236 pound-feet of torque at 1,500 rpm. Launching from a standstill – even with a full load – was uneventful and it pulled confidently under all driving conditions (even though the acceleration numbers are far from impressive).
According to the EPA, the Passat TDI earns 31 mpg city and 43 mpg highway – but not on my watch. My city average was more like 35 mpg and 50 mpg wasn't difficult to achieve on the highway at 70 mph. With an 18.5-gallon fuel tank, its cruising range is just short of the moon.
Curiosity got the better of me one night, so I decided to run a 100-mile highway loop between Camarillo and Goleta on Southern California's coastal US 101. Following a few suggestions, I pumped the tires up from the recommended 32 psi to 42 psi (51 psi is the maximum on the sidewall of the all-season Continental ContiProContact tires), shut off the air conditioning and set cruise control at 60 mph on the highway. Driving at this "hypermiling" speed was painful, but it delivered an impressive 56.9 mpg according to the Passat's computer – that's a burn rate of just over one gallon per hour!
The Passat's cabin is huge. Almost limousine-like in the second row, it easily swallowed two adults and three teenage soccer players (with all of the associated gear in the trunk) during a long drive to a weekend tournament. Nobody complained about room, and the air vents in the second row kept the atmosphere fresh.
The cabin appointments on the 6MT model, Volkswagen's SE trim, aren't very luxurious. An upgrade to a sunroof, navigation, leather upholstery or even an iPod interface requires acceptance of the dual-clutch DSG automatic, which brings with it lower fuel economy and a less engaging driving experience. That's very frustrating.
On the odd side of things, the clutch pedal transmitted an awful lot of engine vibration to the driver's left foot and I noticed an unnerving sound of fuel sloshing around inside the tank each time the sedan came to a stop (keep the radio on and passengers won't notice). [Volkswagen says the noise I heard was the AdBlue urea solution sloshing around inside its 4.9-gallon tank in the trunk. One tank lasts about 15,000 miles - MH]
Even though the diesel is the perhaps the wisest choice in the Passat family, Volkswagen doesn't seem to want offer consumers any incentives to take one home. Unattractive lease and financing rates on the TDI often make its more expensive gasoline counterparts (or worse, its competitors) more attractive in the showroom. America's wildly fluctuating (but generally costlier) diesel fuel prices don't help, either.
By Michael Harley, Autoblog, December 21, 2012