Diesel Done Right | 2012 VW Passat TDI

June 2012 View more

NMAG0612_FortheRoadPhoto courtesy of Volkswagon

The all-new, diesel-powered 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI is likely creating some head scratching among shoppers who thought they wanted a hybrid. The causes of that consternation are clear: Here is a luxurious sedan that delivers not just hybrid-like fuel economy—up to 43 highway/31 city—but also many of the benefits that hybrids typically do not—like a truly spacious cabin, terrific handling, and tire-chirping torque.

For more than a decade the front-wheel-drive Passat has distinguished itself from mid-size competitors like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry by delivering a higher level of interior design, a greater sense of solidity (feel how those doors close?), and a suspension tuned for buyers who favor engagement over isolation.

Volkswagen changed a lot for 2012, but it did not mess with those elements of the Passat’s success. The interior is as nicely executed as previous models and the car feels just as solid. The appealing driving characteristics are also present and accounted for.

The Passat is also an easy car to live with in ways that might not be readily apparent on a quick test drive, but that will make buyers happy for years. For example, the doors open wide so sliding into your seat or putting a baby carrier in its base is a breeze. When you pop the trunk, the lid quickly opens up all the way to its limit—then closes with hardly any effort. This is arguably better than many luxury cars with electric trunk openers that go about their business at an infuriatingly slow pace.

The Passat has grown since last year’s model and those extra cubic feet of interior space make themselves known in the second row. This is truly a stretch-your-legs-out type of back seat with plenty of space side-to-side. Volkswagen must be on to something, because the smallish Tiguan crossover also presents a surprisingly large amount of rear-seat room.

Volkswagen buyers are frequently the type who would consider a manual transmission and the Passat’s six-speed is certainly a good option here. But the Passat’s DSG six-speed automatic transmission is not a consolation prize—it is a dual-clutch pleasure. In manual mode, it produces virtually imperceptible upshifts, even as you keep the accelerator pinned to the floor. In full-auto mode, it borders on luxury-car smooth. And, as insignificant as this may seem, the lever glides into gear like a hot knife through butter. You’ve probably never thought about how your automatic’s shift lever feels as it moves from “P” into “D,” but you will after you’ve driven the Passat.

Perhaps the only downside to the new Passat is the disappearance of some of the small touches—inside jokes for Passat loyalists—that marked previous editions. No longer is the trunk-release latch hidden behind the round VW logo. No longer is there an umbrella holder secreted in the driver’s door. And no longer does a counterclockwise twist of the driver’s side keyhole open up all of the car’s windows. Thankfully, buyers will be able to overlook these egregious oversights after about a mile behind the wheel.

The 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI starts at $25,995 for the SE trim. Add the automatic transmission and a sunroof and the price rises to $27,895. For $32,195 you get the SEL model, which adds leather seats, a navigation system, and other features. These prices represent a premium over a Passat with a gasoline engine (the entry-level model comes in as low as $19,995), but seem to be a terrific value compared to any other comparable sized sedans that deliver the same level of refinement and fuel economy.