Orlando Sentinel's view

Ever since VW announced that it would introduce an improved version of its diesel engine in its Passat sedan and wagon – already one of my favorite cars – I have been eagerly waiting to test one. With the addition of the diesel engine, the Passat now comes in two radically different flavors.

For all practical purposes, the high-performance Passat GLX, with its VR6 engine, is an attractive alternative to a BMW 328i. But where does the diesel-powered version fit into the scheme of things?

Turns out the Passat TDI diesel has no competition in this country, where diesel-powered cars don’t sell well. The only other diesel-powered automobile sold here is a $45,000 Mercedes-Benz.

The diesel Passat also has no rivals when it comes to how far it can go on a tank of fuel.

After spending a week with the Passat TDI sedan, I think VW has the potential to change a lot of American minds on the viability of the diesel engine.

As global concerns over pollution and the high cost of fuel command more attention, the diesel engine may emerge as the powerplant of the future.

Automotive history buffs can track the decline of the diesel to General Motors. The automaker’s poorly designed mid-size diesel sedans of the late ’70s and early ’80s were so bad that they destroyed the diesel engine’s reputation in the United States.

Auto enthusiasts who follow developments around the world know that the diesel engine is very popular in Europe because of the high price of fuel there. Also, recent technological advances in diesel engines have meant huge reductions in emissions and soot, and big increases in fuel mileage.

The Passat TDI has many advantages over similar-sized gasoline-powered cars. If you do a lot of driving and want to save money on fuel, the Passat TDI is definitely worth a serious look.


When you start the Passat TDI, you have very little indication that there is a diesel engine under the hood. There is none of that annoying chattering, and there are no thick clouds of black smoke or harsh vibrations – all traditional traits of diesels.

VW engineers have designed a super-efficient fuel-intake system that makes the Passat’s turbocharged 1.9-liter, four-cylinder diesel nearly as well-behaved as a gasoline engine.

Unlike older diesels, the Passat’s engine has a direct-injection fuel system. The diesel fuel is routed directly into the cylinder head instead of being ignited in a separate combustion chamber. In other words, this is a more efficient and cleaner way of burning diesel fuel, which is ignited at much higher temperatures than gasoline.

In fact, the TDI’s engine runs so clean it is certified for sale in smog-choked California, where emissions laws are among the toughest on the planet.

The whole operation is governed by a powerful computer system that replaces all the mechanical linkage from the accelerator pedal to the motor. When you s tep on the accelerator in the Passat TDI, you basically are telling a computer how fast you want to go. This is a terrific system.

The engine in the Passat TDI – available with only a five-speed manual transmission – makes 90 horsepower and provides respectable performance. It accelerates about as quickly as a small import – such as a Toyota Tercel or Kia Sephia – which is to say not fast, but not slow enough to make you uncomfortable.

With prudent management of the throttle and shifter, you can easily merge onto the interstate at high speeds. Also, the Passat TDI offers good acceleration from a stop.

Nearly all of the power comes on when the engine revs from 1,000 to about 3,800 rpm. After that the engine quickly runs out of steam. Yet the power comes on smoothly and with none of the sudden uneveness you might associate with a turbocharger.

In fact, you don’t even really feel the turbocharger kick in. You can’t hear it wind up. (The turbo, by the way, is a e haust-driven pump that blasts a denser mixture of fuel and air into the engine to increase power.)

The Passat’s incredible fuel economy is the car’s most endearing trait. If you drive in the city, you can expect to go a whopping 680 miles between stops at the filling station. On the highway, the Passat TDI runs 870 miles – roughly a trip to Atlanta and back or New York to Chicago – on a single tank of fuel.

There is no other automobile in this class in this country that can do that. The Passat’s 18.5-gallon tank will cost about $24 to fill up, making the cost per mile to run the Passat among the lowest on the market. This car would be an excellent machine for commuters who pile on the miles or for traveling salesmen.

I found the Passat TDI easy to shift and, for the most part, enjoyable to drive.

The four-wheel independent suspension system was a bit too soft for my tastes, but I understand why VW engineers softened the car’s handling for the diesel engine. If the TDI retained the same stiff, sporty demeanor as the Passat GLX, it would be a drag to drive. You would constantly want to go fast, and you would constantly be disappointed.

The TDI has a very mellow personality. It erases most bumps easily, corners competently and stops quickly. But it does not deliver much in the way of a sporty ride.

The car is outfitted with a set of four-wheel disc brakes and power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering. Our black test car came with an optional anti-lock brake system that added $775 to the sticker price.


VW is introducing an all-new Passat this fall that will be slightly larger on the outside and have a much more rounded and aerodynamic shape than the current model.

The TDI version of the new car might be worth waiting for. As it stands now, the current Passat is respectable in many ways, but its interior seems dated and its exterior styling is fairly bland. The new car addresses these shortcomings.

In particular, the squarish dash in our test car gave the interior a bulky, almost cramped feel. But I found the controls for the air conditioner, buttons for the radio and switch for the lights easy to operate.

The Passat TDI comes very well-equipped. The list of standard items includes air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and door locks, a powerful eight-speaker AM/FM/cassette radio, tilt steering wheel, split folding rear seat, and cruise control. Our test car came with an optional ($855) power sunroof. I like the fact that you don’t get nickled and dimed to death when buying a Passat. Just about everything you could want is standard.

As with most other German vehicles, the Passat’s seats are extremely firm, but they are not uncomfortable.

I think VW could make the seat-adjusting system less complicated. For instance, the seat moves up and forward or down and backward when sometimes you only want to move in one direction.

However, there is plenty of room front and rear.

All in all, the Passat TDI is a versatile, well-engineered machine. VW has the reputation of building very durable and long-lasting diesel engines. The Passat’s engine has a 10-year, 100,000 mile warranty. If you are the type of buyer who gets a car and keeps it until it wears out, the Passat TDI just may be your last car.


1997 Volkswagen Passat Base price: $19,430. Safety: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, daytime running lights, side-impact protection. Price as tested: $21,485. EPA rating: 37 mpg city/45 mpg highway. Incentives: None.

Truett’s tip: VW’s Passat diesel will surprise you with its performance and please you with its astounding fuel economy. However, the styling and interior are a bit dated.

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