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BY Andrew Stoy | autoweek.com
What is it?
If you hadn’t heard, Volkswagen has big plans for the American market: The company wants to roughly triple the number of vehicles it sells in the United States by 2018. To do that, we’re getting a few models tailored specifically to what VW thinks are this country’s tastes, built locally to keep prices in line.
Our featured car, the 2012 Volkswagen Passat SE TDI, is one of those models and marks a major step toward the company’s lofty sales goals. It’s the first car to come out of VW’s new $1 billion manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.; it’s also an entirely new Passat sharing little with the European model of the same name.
The result is a bigger Passat than ever before, though the interior isn’t as upscale as it was in the past. Likewise, certain features mid-size sedan customers have become accustomed to — a back-up camera and blind-spot assist, for example, have been left off the list in order to keep prices more in line with the Passat’s competitors.
In place of the missing tech gadgets, Volkswagen offers an option the other players don’t: A diesel engine. The VW TDI “clean diesel” offers smooth, powerful acceleration, a complete absence of any traditional diesel smoke or smell, and up to 40 mpg highway with an automatic transmission.
What’s it like to live with?
First, a disclosure: I own a Volkswagen diesel. Depending upon the fit of your particular tinfoil hat, that makes me either a) a Volkswagen apologist who can’t possibly write an objective review of a related product, or b) a trained reviewer who’s determined that the various pros and cons of said car made it worthy of his own hard-earned money. Hint: It’s B
Whether you’re familiar with Volkswagens or not, the 2012 Passat TDI is an extraordinarily good mid-size sedan. Passengers are greeted with a bright, airy cabin boasting Rolls-Royce levels of rear legroom, along with a massive trunk with pass-through for longer cargo. The driver gets simple, easy-to-understand gauges and controls, along with an intuitive touch-screen radio/infotainment system that can also be equipped with navigation.
On the road, the Passat TDI’s diesel engine pulls smoothly at all speeds, working through a unique dual-clutch automatic transmission Volkswagen calls DSG; mechanical details aside, the DSG transmission helps get the most out of the diesel’s characteristics and the programming is nearly perfect. Only at low speeds can the driver detect any roughness. Steering and brakes thankfully maintain the crispness for which VW vehicles have long been praised, and the ride quality will impress those who’ve previously thought German-engineered vehicles too firm for their tastes.
If you’re hesitant about considering a diesel vehicle, don’t be: Nearly half of U.S. filling stations offer diesel fuel today, so any concerns about not being able to find fuel can be put to rest. Once you’ve located a diesel pump, the refueling experience is exactly like that of a gasoline-powered vehicle. Similarly, the maintenance schedule for a Passat TDI is nearly identical to that of a gasoline Passat, and Volkswagen offers free scheduled maintenance for the first three years or 36,000 miles of ownership. In other words, aside from the variable price differences between unleaded and diesel, about the only unusual thing you’ll notice about owning a VW TDI is how slowly the fuel gauge drops.
Who should consider this vehicle?
Stylish, roomy and delightful to drive, family sedan buyers accustomed to the Toyota Camry/Honda Accord vanilla twins will find the Passat TDI a refreshingly different alternative, but without some of the quirks of previous Volkswagen products.
Green-leaning buyers in particular should consider the Passat TDI, along with its smaller Jetta cousin. Modern diesel car engines offer many of the mileage advantages of hybrids without the awkward on/off acceleration and complicated electronic controls. Volkswagen is a leader in clean diesel technology around the world and they’re one of the few manufacturers offering this promising technology to U.S. buyers today.
Worth noting is that Volkswagen is coming off a disappointing decade in terms of quality control. The company appears to have turned the corner and recent independent ratings show VW on par with the rest of the industry, but we’re going to need to see some long-term proof. Our Passat TDI has been trouble-free as of this writing (about 5,000 miles in), but buyers for whom impeccable reliability is key should recognize that VW ownership may not be as seamless as having an Accord or Camry. Barring major mechanical meltdown, we think the tradeoff is worth it.
Among comparable midsize sedans, the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu are all sized and priced similarly to the Passat. Considering the fuel economy of the diesel model, the field narrows: The Camry Hybrid, Fusion Hybrid and Malibu Eco all offer similar mileage ratings, though the driving experiences of each are quite different.
Base price: $30,265
Engine: 2.0-liter DOHC turbocharged diesel I4
Drivetrain: FWD, six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy/combined): 30/40/34
Torque: 236 lb-ft
Curb weight: 3,459 lbs.
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