With a name that literally means "People's Car," Volkswagen has gotten a fair amount of practice at building solid, reliable and affordable transportation over the past 60 years. While the company recently expanded its lineup with interesting additions like the Touareg and Phaeton, the fact remains that VW's bread and butter is the family sedan market. The German automaker has done pretty well in that niche, as the midsize Passat has earned its fair share of Edmunds' Most Wanted awards.
Sales picked up even further after a significant update midway through the 2001 model year, and the Passat is now the best-selling German midsize sedan in the U.S. In an effort to further solidify that standing, VW has added a new diesel engine to the mix with the promise of impressive fuel economy, cleaner emissions and refined operation beyond anything we have come to expect from passenger car diesels in the past. After spending a day behind the wheel of the newest member of the Passat family, we walked away impressed, with a few small reservations.
With the possible exception of the BMW 3 Series, there have been more articles written and rave reviews posted about the VW Passat than any other vehicle on Edmunds. It is consistently ranked among our editors' favorites, and it handily won our entry-level luxury sedan shoot-out two years ago. You already know we like the platform, and the wide array of interesting gasoline engines available in the car are all excellent choices. However, the beauty of the Passat is that it can be built to suit a variety of different budgets and tastes, from a sporty and well-equipped GL for less than $25K, to the opulent W8 loaded with every luxurious amenity one could hope for and a price tag peaking just north of $40 large. With that kind of segment flexibility, the world's largest producer of diesel passenger cars saw an opportunity to bring one more option to the table — diesel power.
The TDI engine family can trace its roots back to 1976, when VW introduced its first diesel-powered passenger car. Drawing a mere 50 hp out of a 1.5-liter four, the car was not fast, but it achieved excellent fuel economy at a time when gas prices were skyrocketing and lines to fill up wrapped around the block. By 1998, displacement had increased to 1.9 liters, and the combination of turbocharging and a new sequential multipoint direct-injection system helped boost output to a much more usable 90 hp. The balance of economy and tractable bottom-end torque has made the TDI option an outstanding success in Western Europe, where incredibly high fuel prices have driven passenger car sales to the point where nearly half the new vehicles sold across the continent burn diesel. In contrast, only a mere five percent of new vehicles sold in the U.S. are diesel-powered, but Volkswagen believes that the combination of record-level gas prices and the American desire for cleaner-burning, more ecologically friendly vehicles will make its latest TDI a hit.
For those of you who just did a double-take, you read that correctly. Thanks to a new fuel-injection technology codeveloped by Bosch, the new 2.0L TDI is the cleanest-burning and most environmentally sound diesel engine ever built by VW. Called "Pumpe Duse," which roughly translates to "Unit Injector," the new fuel delivery system utilizes cam-driven injectors to spray diesel into each cylinder multiple times per engine revolution and at such high pressure that it instantly atomizes, thereby creating a cleaner and more efficient burn. Adapted to work with VW's outstanding Motronic sequential multipoint direct injection, the Pumpe Duse system was initially designed to help meet stricter European emissions standards. A by-product of the more efficient fuel burn is that power has increased as well. Other features of the new TDI include a bump in displacement to 2.0 liters, a new 16-valve cylinder head and refined intercooled turbocharger technology.
The result of all these enhancements is a boost in output to 134 hp at 4,000 rpm and an impressive 247 pound-feet of torque at 1,900 rpm. Those numbers aren't exactly earth-shattering, but torque is what you feel in the seat of your pants, and nearly 250 lb-ft are more than enough to execute rapid lane changes and quick stoplight launches. In briefing us on all this technowizardry, VW engineers also mentioned that they have come up with something called a particulate filter, which is essentially a screen in the exhaust system that works with the catalytic converter to help cut down emissions. With an EPA mileage rating of 27 mpg city/38 mpg highway and a 16.4-gallon fuel capacity, those same engineers claimed that the Passat will drive over 600 miles on a single tank, besting even the miserly Toyota Prius.
Interestingly, the Prius reference was made more than once by VW execs during the TDI product launch. Apparently Volkswagen would like us to believe that because the new Passat TDI scores high on the EPA mileage chart and has lower-than-expected emissions standards, it is comparable to the Japanese hybrid from an ecological standpoint. This doesn't exactly compute with us, since one car relies upon electric power half the time while the other exclusively burns a fossil fuel less refined than gasoline, but we kept the comparison in mind. We took both a sedan and a wagon out on highways and country roads in rural Virginia to see how these modern diesels measure up against their gasoline-powered counterparts.
Both test vehicles were 2004 GLS models, and the sedan carried a base price of $23,430. While the midgrade GLS is an extremely well-appointed car to begin with, our tester came loaded with the leather and wood package ($1,915), five-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission ($1,075) and the Electronic Stability Program ($280). Throw in a $575 destination charge and the grand total came to $27,430 — still not a bad deal considering the fact that you get a midsize German luxury sedan equipped with an opulent interior and the sporty road feel of an Audi. Materials quality is top-notch, from the genuine walnut appointments to the rich caramel leather that covered everything from the seats to the shifter and steering wheel. If there is one thing VW knows how to do extremely well, it's build an upscale cockpit that appears far more expensive than it really is.
After spending a few moments appreciating the quality of our immediate surroundings, we twisted the key and hit the road. While the diesel engine is noticeably louder than its gasoline-burning brethren outside the car, the heightened noise level is hardly detectable inside with the windows rolled up. This may in fact be testament to VW's advanced sound-deadening technology. The engine vibrates the entire car a little more than we would like at idle, as you can pick up slight engine shake through the steering wheel and shifter when sitting at a stoplight. Everything smoothes out as the engine speed climbs, however, and at highway speeds the added noise and vibration is hardly detectible.
The little four-cylinder doesn't start making tractable power until around 1,800 rpm, and it drops off again around 3,900 rpm. While that window seems small, it is actually pretty good for a diesel, and Volkswagen's excellent five-speed automatic transmission does an admirable job of keeping the motor right smack in the middle of its power band. All that extra torque comes in handy, and we found the sedan to have more than enough power when passing cars on the highway and accelerating away from a stoplight. Full throttle nets you a little extra vibration, but it disappears as the accelerator is eased back. We didn't notice any turbo lag at all, an impressive feat for such a small engine. The relationship between Audi and VW shines through in the canyons, where the Passat TDI felt confident and fun to drive. Nothing else in the world feels like a German car on a twisty road, and the turbodiesel engine provided ample power to pull out of the turns. After a day of varied driving conditions, we calculated that the sedan netted 35.2 mpg, which is extremely high considering how heavy our foot can get on long drives.
As enthusiastic as we were about driving the TDI sedan, the wagon was a bit of a disappointment. The ride is quite a bit choppier, which we believe is most likely due to more spring load designed to compensate for the extra weight behind the backseat. That extra weight also hurts the car in the performance department, as the same 2.0-liter turbodiesel that felt more than adequate in the sedan seemed barely passable in the wagon with only two passengers aboard. Throw in a few kids and some luggage, and the problem will only get worse. Otherwise, the wagon benefited from the same great interior and sporty driving feel as the sedan. If you're looking to haul big loads of people all over the state, the TDI will get great mileage, but you might be better off with one of the gasoline motors, such as Volkswagen's outstanding (and still quite efficient) V6.
However, if you're looking for a luxurious sport sedan but only have the budget for a low-priced family car, the Passat TDI is a great choice. The standard GLS comes equipped with a truckload of great features and a sticker price in the low $20Ks, and the new TDI engine option will allow you to cruise right past all your Toyota and Honda driving buddies as they pull into gas stations every 300 miles. Throw in a few interior upgrades and you've got yourself a fun-to-drive luxury car that is both environmentally and ecologically friendly. That sounds like the People's Car, indeed.