Dr. Rudolf Diesel either jumped, was pushed, or fell off a ferry while crossing the English Channel on September 29, 1913, but his legacy, and the compression ignition engine, lives on in everything from industrial applications to passenger vehicles.
A fine example of the latter is the VW Passat TDI. This Passat is a larger vehicle than the one available in Europe. It was designed for the U.S. market and is built in Tennessee.
My test vehicle, the top-trim version called Highline, came with the DSG twin-clutch automatic gearbox plus optional Navigation and Sport packages. Thus equipped, it retails for $36,500.
The lines are clean, and avoid being generic due to a few VW styling cues and badges. There's plenty of interior space both front and rear, the finish is stylish if not opulent and there's more colour than we normally see in a VW. This model has leather upholstery, while the seating surfaces are a high-tech synthetic that looks like suede. The steering wheel is excellent, nicely set up for 9-and-3 hand position with thumbs on the spokes for better feel.
The primary controls are well laid out, with nice big knobs for heating and AC. The diesel engine fires and settles down to a surprisingly quiet idle, just a trace of background clatter.
The Passat's steering is less direct than other VW models such as the Golf. I could appreciate the engineer's dilemma, knowing that a portion of the North American market believes one wrist limply draped over the top of the wheel somehow constitutes good driving. For those folks, sharper steering could feel twitchy.
After a few days of local driving, I get ready for a 1,400-km road trip, north to Prince George. I'd been invited to attend a ceremony for the seven-billionth tree planted by British Columbia's silviculture industry.
The DSG shifts are quick, and it also downshifts as the vehicle slows. There are a few odd lurches when left in drive -- not hard to live with but noticeable. Visibility is good to the front and sides, less so behind the car. Wipers do a good job, always a concern here in the coastal rain forest of British Columbia.
The DSG is an electronically controlled gearbox with only a degree of manual use. For example, it will upshift at 4,500 rpm regardless or what the driver does with the shifter. It will also downshift automatically if the throttle is depressed hard enough. However, if you accept those parameters, the DSG's shifts are crisp in response to either the gear lever or my car's paddle shifters. With the diesel's excellent torque, you almost never need more than part-throttle, and revving past 4,500 would produce more noise than power.
The Duffey Lake Road across the Coast Mountains has its share of challenges, a great stretch for the Passat to reveal its European heritage. Cornering was predictable, transitions taken in stride, and grip was excellent. Seats were firm and comfortable, with reasonable lateral support.
There was little traffic, so I pedalled the VW along at a reasonable pace. The Passat has very good chassis dynamics but, had I been chief engineer on the project, I would have added a touch more rebound damping to the front shock absorbers. A series of dips taken at higher speeds caused a bit of front-end float.
On B.C.'s highway 97, traffic usually flows between 110 and 120 km/h. At that speed, you won't overtake many people, and the only vehicles running consistently faster seem to be pickup trucks -- swaying along on all-terrain tires, the drivers serenely unaware of any potential stability problems.
For overtaking, I used the manual shifters, keeping the engine in its optimal torque band without gulping extra fuel from triggering an automatic downshift. Again, part-throttle was the order of the day, and we easily kept up to traffic.
VW's diesel is a very sweet engine. My fuel usage for the whole trip, including mountains, town and highway, was 5.8 litres per 100 km, or close to 50 miles per gallon. At more sedate speeds, it was easy to improve on the Passat's 4.9 L/100 km highway rating. As usual, my endurance-racing trained right foot got better fuel economy than the cruise control.
A real value is the Trendline model at $26,575. It has narrower tires for better traction in rain and light snow, are cheaper to replace and there's virtually no loss in cornering grip if proper pressures are used. Its cloth seats are far preferable to "leatherette" or even leather, and there are fewer electronic things. I've never felt hard-done-by having to use an ignition key instead of a proximity sensor, and keys also don't fail if they get wet.
The only thing I'd miss with the Trendline would be the Highline's sunroof, a wonderful device with a flip-up wind deflector that is not available as a stand-alone option. I'd go for the manual transmission -- more driving pleasure and even better fuel economy.
On the way back to VW's headquarters, I reflected that I could not find a downside to the diesel powerplant. It's so good, you might like it even if fuel economy were not such a concern. In the Passat, it makes for an excellent road car with room for the family.
Alan Sidorov is an experienced automobile racer, product tester and freelance writer. You can reach him at