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By Anita And Paul Lienert
The Detroit News
August 21, 1996
Noisy. Dirty. Smelly. If those are your impressions of diesel engines, you haven't been in the 1996 Volkswagen Passat TDI, which may be the sleeper family sedan of the year. The Passat tends to get lost in the shuffle next to high-profile
competitors like the Ford Taurus, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. And shoppers may have bad memories of the previous generation of diesel engines. But so good is the Passat diesel that it won a Popular Science "Best of What's New" award and a Popular
Mechanics "Design and Engineering Award." And besides, we like it, too. She: It's easy to overlook the nondescript Passat diesel because it doesn't have the shock factor of the Taurus design or the reputation for reliability of Accord and
Camry. You really have to look to find its hidden qualities. And one of the biggest ones in my book is its super mileage. The rather sizeable Passat gets 45 mpg on the highway, about the mileage of a little Geo Metro with a 1.3-liter gas engine.
Volkswagen says drivers could get from New York to Chicago on a single tank of fuel - which is a good thing, considering that diesel is not available at every station - and will realize about $400 in fuel savings a year. Since I've been watching pump
prices all year, that sure made me sit up and take notice. He: If you really want to put things in perspective, the Taurus 3.0 V-6 gets 29 mpg on the highway, the four-cylinder Camry does 31 and the four-cylinder Accord 32. Essentially, you're
getting 50 percent better mileage with the Passat diesel, without a big sacrifice in power. That's the beauty of the TDI, which stands for "turbocharged direct injection." She: Try to explain that one. All I know is that the Volkswagen diesel
engine is supposed to be better for the environment because it emits 20-percent less carbon dioxide into the air than a typical gas engine. I've been really excited this summer about driving alternate-fuel vehicles - and I'm happy to see Volkswagen has
given us another option in a Passat that also has an affordable $19,430 base price. So just tell me in plain English how it works. He: With the TDI engine, fuel is injected directly into each cylinder. That helps the combustion process, and also
results in cleaner tailpipe emissions. And to help boost the performance, Volkswagen added a turbocharger, which packs more air and fuel into each cylinder. She: Sounds kind of like injecting a Thanksgiving turkey with butter or bouillon in order
to make it more juicy, rather than pouring gobs of stuff over the whole thing. He: Now there's an analogy that leaps right to mind. I suppose it's basically the same concept. The bottom line is that you don't give up all that much power like you
would in a normal diesel, thanks to the turbo. The TDI only makes 90 horsepower, compared to 125 for the Camry and 130 for the Accord. But the Volkswagen engine develops more torque than either one of the four-cylinder gas engines. That
means the VW diesel feels like it's got more pulling power, especially in the lower gears. And acceleration is surprisingly good with the turbo. You can sprint from zero to 50 mph in just under nine seconds, which is pretty remarkable for a four-cylinder
diesel engine. She: The Passat is a surprisingly livable car, too, even though it had quirky touches like a cupholder that was hung on the right side of the center console, kind of like an afterthought. It is VW's largest and most expensive model,
after all. And even though the cabin looks intimidating, with all that hard black plastic trim, it has a friendly feel. And I mean feel, because drivers of any size can get comfortable behind the wheel thanks to the Passat's many adjustments. Even the
height-adjustable steering wheel is standard. And the back seat is really roomy. He: The Passat sedan has always been a wonderful driver's car, at least the current generation, which is entering its last year before a redesign in
1997. The Passat rides and handles more like a mid-range German sport sedan, say, an Audi A6 than it does your typical family sedan. It's far more entertaining to drive than a Taurus or an Accord, even with the diesel engine. And if you really
don't give a fig about the extra mileage, order the Passat with the optional V-6 gas engine. Now there is a sweet car. She: The Passat TDI that we tested had a sticker of $21,485, and that's for a pretty loaded vehicle. You won't have to worry
about paying extra for anything but anti-lock brakes and a sunroof. A comparably equipped four-cylinder Accord or Camry starts at around $20,000, and when you add a few options, the price difference is negligible. But if you're looking for a real standout
in terms of style, better look elsewhere. If there's a federal witness protection program for cars, the Passat sure looks like it's been through it. It has virtually no distinguishing features. He: You're so shallow. At least give VW credit for
offering some really useful whiz-bang technology to American consumers without charging them high-tech prices. She: Despite that, I'm sure I'm not the only buyer who worries that VW tends to be near the bottom of every automotive quality
survey. He: Funny, but my only major complaint on the Passat was that the rubber floor mat kept sticking under the clutch pedal. And guess what? Consumer Reports, in its annual auto issue last April, recommended the Passat as a "best buy" in the
mid-size class. You can't get a much better endorsement than that. 1996 Volkswagen Passat TDI Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger mid-size sedan. Price: Base, $19,430; as tested, $21,485 (inc. $425 destination
charge). What's new for '96: TDI turbo-diesel engine option. Standard equipment: Premium AM-FM stereo cassette with anti-theft alarm system, four-wheel power disc brakes, all-season radial tires, air conditioning, cruise control,
anti-pollen filter, power door locks, power windows, 60/40 split rear seat, lighted visor vanity mirrors, tilt steering column, front and rear reading lamps, front and rear cupholders. Safety features: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes (optional),
height-adjustable front seat belts, child-proof rear door locks. Options on test vehicle: Antilock brakes ($775), power glass sunroof ($855). EPA fuel economy: 37 mpg city/45 mpg highway. Engine: 1.9-liter I-4 turbocharged diesel;
90-hp at 3,750 rpm; 149 lb-ft torque at 1900 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed manual. Competitors: Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Mazda 626, Subaru Legacy, Mitsubishi Galant, Saturn SL2, Pontiac Grand Am, Oldsmobile Achieva, Buick
Skylark, Ford Contour, Mercury Mystique, Chrysler Cirrus, Dodge Stratus. Specifications: Wheelbase, 103.3 inches; overall length, 181.5 inches; curb weight, 2,890 pounds; legroom, 45.1 inches front/37.0 inches rear; headro
om, 39.3 inches front/36.6 inches rear; shoulder room, 55.0 inches front/54.0 inches rear. 12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $1,136 Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged
40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts. Where built: Emden, Germany.