Life’s full of surprises. Take the Volkswagen Passat TDI, for instance.

It’s a midsize car powered by a four-cylinder diesel engine, and I was prepared to hate it. Diesel equates to slow, noisy, smoky and smelly, right?

My experiences in a friend’s VW Rabbit diesel back in the early ’80s left me with that indelible impression and a firm conviction: Never buy a diesel car. I’ve heard similar convictions from people who have owned diesel cars made by Mercedes-Benz and Volvo.

But, surprise, the Passat diesel TDI was not bad at all. With turbocharging and a new fueling system called direct injection (thus, TDI), this sedan was reasonably powerful, not too loud, smoky or smelly, and even somewhat fun to drive.

There is some engine harshness and vibration, kind of like a miniature city bus, though I’ve driven gas engines that are worse. There’s also the occasional whiff of diesel fumes.

But the usual diesel compromises, such as hard starting and lengthy warm-up times, have been eliminated.

What’s also gone by the wayside, and certainly not the Passat’s fault, is the once lower cost of diesel fuel compared with regular gasoline.

So what’s the advantage of diesel? Why should anyone put up with the compromises, no matter how modest?

Gas mileage is the answer.

The Passat TDI is a 3,000-pound car that gets 37 miles per gallon in the city and 45 mpg on the highway, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s accurate, too. In a week of Phoenix driving, we logged in the low 40s.

With its 18.5-gallon fuel tank, the TDI should have a cruising range of well over 800 miles. Pretty incredible, and it makes the additional engine harshness and lesser availability of diesel fuel pretty easy to handle.

Other selling points are diesel’s low cost of maintenance and reputation for durability, with 200,000-mile-plus engines a fairly common occurance.

The VW diesel also passes California’s strict air-quality standards.

Packing just 90 horsepower, one would expect the TDI’s acceleration to be pretty wimpy. But strong torque coming on at a very low rpm helps pull the Passat up to speed quickly, even with passengers.

Our test car was equipped with a five-speed stick shift, which enhanced engine power and economy. With automatic transmission, power and acceleration might be less satisfactory.

On the highway, the Passat’s cruising is relaxed and comfortable, with decent hill-climbing abilities and passing power.

Aside from the diesel engine, the Passat is already a nicely turned-out midsize car, especially for fans of solid, roadworthy Germanic vehicles. It also comes with a gasoline-fueled four and a racy V-6.

The sedan’s placidly conservative appearance harbors a nice-handling road car that compares with other Europeans costing many thousands more. With the V-6 and related suspension enhancements, the Passat really flies, though the four-cylinder has enough pull for family car duties.

The in terior is typically Volkswagen, sturdy and utilitarian, but still comfortable with enough style and innovation to keep it from being stodgy. It’s very roomy, especially considering the outside dimensions, with happy back-seat passengers able to find room for heads and legs.

Still, it’s all business inside this car, with no wood or leather to distract from serious, mature driving. No one’s going to mistake this interior for that of a Jaguar or BMW.

The Passat TDI comes fully equipped for under $20,000, including such niceties as power windows, mirrors, central locking, cruise control, air-conditioner, alarm system and a decent stereo system.

Options on our tester included a power sunroof at $855 and anti-lock brakes at $775. Obviously, ABS should be standard.

Hundreds of thousands of drivers in Europe, where gasoline costs three and four times what it costs here, alreadyhave figured out the advantages of diesel.

American drivers, turned off by thei r previous experie nces with diesel (mostly during the Dark Time, also known as the ’70s), might want to rekindle the relationship in a fashionably smoke-free environment.

1997 Volkswagen Passat TDI

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive. Base price: $19,430. Price as tested: $21,485. Engine: 1.9-liter in-line-four diesel, 90 horse- power at 3,750 rpm, 149 pound-feet of torque at 1,900 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed stick shift. Curb weight: 3,009 pounds. Length: 181.5 inches. Wheelbase: 103.3 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes. EPA fuel economy: 37 mpg city, 45 mpg highway. Highs: Great fuel mileage. Civilized diesel engine. High build quality. Lows: Still some engine noise, vibration. Bland styling, interior. Anti-lock brakes cost extra.

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