Payne: The (next) VW Passat diesel

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Europe is six hours ahead of the United States on the clock, and two years ahead on Volkswagen cars.

On this side of the pond, the Environmental Protection Agency is currently in hysterics over diesel emissions and VW has been caught red-handed cheating the agency’s arbitrary rules. Assuming that both diesels and VW survive the storm, Americans might be intrigued by what’s coming.

On a trip to France this October, Mrs. Payne and I rented the latest Passat TDI wagon (or five-door or hatchback or whatever term is used these days to avoid the dreaded w-word) which is a generation advanced from the Chattanooga, Tennessee-built version introduced on American shores the same week. Not only does the 2015 European Car of the Year’s diesel-exhaust get a chemical scrubber — VW calls it “Bluemotion” — to make it fully compliant with EPA and European emissions diktats (if only VW had chosen this road in the first place) but it’s based on the sensational MQB platform that undergirds all-stars like the VW Golf GTI and Audi A3.

On twisting French country roads I played cat to a Mazda CX-5’s mouse. The Passat was tight, neutral for a 3,595-pound station wagon. Its 2.0-liter diesel TDI (turbocharged direct injection) delivers a marathoner’s range of 620 miles on a tank of fuel. A good thing because that’s about the average distance between service stations in infrastructure-challenged France. We rowed hard from Paris to Omaha Beach to Rouen and back to Paris on a single tank. Six-hundred miles. Average mpg: 38.7.

Not bad for a mid-size family pod.

Indeed, the Passat wouldn’t be bad for a luxury sedan. You’ve heard me scratch this itch before. Why pay $40k for an Audi A4 when you could have a $37k, fully-loaded Passat that is bigger, roomier, and on par in safety, handling, and looks?

Is VW trying to put its Audi luxury brand out of business? Begin with the looks.

My rental was black — consistent with French color preference. You can have any color car you want . . . as long as it’s black, white, or gray. For a country that birthed the colorful Impressionist movement and churns out dazzling Hermes scarves by the yard, its automotive palette is surprisingly monochromatic. But I digress.

Passat ditched its rounded corners a generation ago for a more chiseled, Pilates bod – and its latest figure is uncannily Audi-esque. Shard-like taillights, headlights with daytime-running LEDs, creased body panels. And a longer wheelbase with short front overhangs.

“MBQ allows short overhangs – which designers love - even for front-wheel drive cars like Passat,” says VW spokesman Mark Gilles.

The Passat’s low front hood also gives it a menacing look as you loom in rear view mirrors. I did a lot of looming on French highways where the speed limit is 80 mph and I was often in left-lane car trains doing 100. The Passat was whisper-quiet thanks to extensive sound-deadening that isolates the cabin from the diesel’s distinctive thrumming sounds. My wife luxuriated in leather-upholstered bliss (ahem, as soon as I assured her the 130 on the speedo was kilometers-per-hour, not miles-per-hour).

My Passat’s most appealing visual feature, however, are seamless, body-length windows thanks to blacked-out pillars. The wagon is a large European vehicle and with good reason – inter-city roads are claustrophobic. On the highway, the Passat’s small-car fuel consumption and voluptuous interior never made me regret turning down a compact, Fiat 500 rental.

Accessing our hotel near Rouen Cathedral was another matter.

The Passat didn’t fit into the underground parking garage; barely fit through Rouen’s narrow streets; and was too long for most street parking. A Chevy Suburban would need a tugboat to get through this place.

Fortunately, the V-dub’s 360-degree radar made maneuvering ding-free. A bird’s eye view in the console screen with radiating ribs indicates your distance from surrounding obstacles. I backed down the alley in front of my hotel. . . FWEEE! The ribs turned red indicating my mirror was inches from a wall. FWEEE! My tail was inches from another car. HEEEEY! (actually, my wife pointing out a rare service station).

While the TDI’s fuel efficiency is outstanding, its performance is wanting. The oil-burner delivers 90 fewer horses than a Ford Fusion’s 240-hp 2.0-liter Ecoboost and is prone to turbo lag. I routinely shifted into manual mode in order to drop a gear to urge the Passat through traffic.

If diesels are endangered by over-zealous U.S. nannies, they have been encouraged by generous European tax subsidies. Filling up on diesel costs 25 percent less in Europe. Stateside, oil-burners gets no such privilege, meaning their 25 percent fuel economy advantage over gas is a wash. Add the $5k purchase premium and diesel may be forever doomed here.

But if you suffer from gas station-phobia, like going 600-plus miles between fill-ups, and fancy VW’s sleek architecture . . . well, this is your vehicle. Start saving. It should arrive in 2017.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com

2015 Volkswagen Passat Diesel

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger, five-door wagon

Price: $27,524 base (est. $36,600 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged, diesel 4-cylinder

Power: 150 horsepower, 236 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-62 mph (Europe spec), 8.9 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,595 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA est. 43 city/55 highway/50 combined

Report card

Highs: Small-car handling; 360-degree radar for tight spots

Lows: Doggy accleration; Diesel cost premium


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★