WINNIPEG --The inspiration might have come from the popular television show The Amazing Race Canada, but Volkswagen's Great Canadian TDI Clean Diesel Tour is grounded in marketing reality.
Although 28 per cent of VW Canada's sales are powered by the automaker's new turbocharged four- and six-cylinder diesel engines -- including more than half of Passats, Golf Wagons and Touaregs -- sales of diesel engines as a whole are woefully under-represented in this country.
According to Thomas Tetzlaff, VW Canada's public relations manager, the diesel market here is somewhere between one and 1.5 per cent of total vehicle sales. In Europe, by comparison, diesel-powered vehicles account for about half of all vehicle sales.
"We welcome more diesels into the Canadian market," Tetzlaff says, no matter what car company is bringing them in. "This engine has so much potential. It really meets the needs of so many people."
To showcase the fuel efficiency of its TDI (Turbocharged Direct Injection) engines, VW Canada is having each one of its diesel-powered 2014 model-year vehicles -- the Beetle, Golf Wagon, Jetta, Passat and Touareg -- driven across the country from Halifax to Vancouver in five legs. I'm taking part in the third leg, a two-day, 1,400-kilometre jaunt over the top of Lake Superior from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., to Winnipeg via the TransCanada Highway.
Despite the long hours on the road, there's little hardship other than a numb bum. The trees are in the prime of their fall colours, the immensity and awesomeness of Lake Superior is breathtaking and the rugged permanence to the Canadian Shield makes one feel insignificant.
Best of all, at least for long-distance travellers, the sky is clear and Highway 17 is smoothly paved -- except for the dozen or so construction areas encountered on Day 1 -- and light of traffic, large four-legged critters and the police.
And, as the nature of the Great Canadian TDI Clean Diesel Tour is to highlight fuel efficiency, VW's assembled cars (and SUV) are responding with particular parsimony.
All of the cars share a common powertrain, the proven 2.0-litre four-cylinder mated to a six-speed DSG transmission. While the engine's 140 horsepower (at 4,000 rpm) is not the stuff of legend, the lack of ponies is more than compensated for by the torque produced, a robust 236 pound-feet at 1,750 rpm.
More impressive is the engine's smoothness -- there's none of the marbles-in-a-steel-drum noise like older diesel engines. And, at 100 kilometres an hour, it's turning over at an unhurried 1,800 rpm.
Plus, there's always a reserve of power to tap into when passing is called for. Getting around two rigs loaded with construction equipment was no sweat in the Jetta -- a sharp press on the gas pedal and the pass was completed cleanly and quickly.
On the topographically undulating first day, the mid-sized Passat sedan managed to achieve a Scrooge-like average of 4.9 litres per 100 kilometres -- as shown on the fuel display -- from Wawa to Dorion. Not far off was the smaller, sporty-driving Jetta sedan (which, along with the Beetle, trades in its unpopular rear beam axle for an independent suspension) at 5.4 L/00 km on the drive from Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa.
Our last ride of the day is the big Touareg sport-ute, powered by the brawny 240-hp, 3.0L V6 (with a stump-pulling 406 lb-ft of torque, which gives it a towing capability of 3,500 kilograms) and eight-speed automatic. For a big, heavy (2,227 kg) vehicle, it cruised along contentedly averaging 8.3 L/100 km on the drive to Thunder Bay.
Day Two takes us from Thunder Bay to Kakabeka Falls and Kenora, over the border into Manitoba and through Falcon Lake, en route to the leg's final destination in Winnipeg. The route is less up and down -- indeed, once crossing into Manitoba, the topography flattens out like a pancake, with the tarmac arrow-straight for kilometres -- but the crosswinds are fierce.
The majority of the trip is in the Beetle, which takes a severe buffeting from said crosswinds. It also proves the least comfortable, as the seats had fewer adjustment options than in the other cars. Yet we average 5.7 L/100 km for the 400-plus kilometres spent in the Bug.
The final push from Kenora into Winnipeg is in the Golf Wagon. Averaging 10 to 15 km/h above the posted 100-km/h highway limit (it is 90 km/h throughout the Ontario portion, except when passing through towns) and dealing with winds and bumpier pavement as well as city traffic, the Wagon proves the thirstiest of the four cars at 6.0 L/100 km.
There's no real "aha!" moment to the Tour. Diesels have always been known to be particularly efficient at higher speeds -- the numbers achieved by the various Volkswagen vehicles merely quantify things.
That said, the two days reinforce how normal diesel-powered vehicles have become. And, as automakers shore up their product lines with powertrains other than the standard gasoline-powered internal combustion engine -- this to meet increasingly stringent government-mandated fuel economy standards -- consumers will have a greater choice in how they want their cars and trucks powered.
The diesel engine, being "old" tech (that's nevertheless undergone continuous improvement), may not be seen by the young and hip as especially "green," at least in comparison with hybrid technology. But it obviously works -- certainly for VW.