Truly. This weekend we drove a 2014 VW Passat TDI sedan 771 miles, from the coast of Maine to northern New York and back—through four states, across White Mountains and Green Mountains, and past uncountable red maples and yellow birches. We averaged 52.0 MPH and burned 16.4 gallons of fuel, at a cost of $65.93.
We used the 4-cylinder diesel’s bountiful torque to pass lines of motorhomes with ease. Had we been paying more attention to the shift-up indicator light and the speed limits—in other words, driving for miles-per-gallon instead of miles-per-hour—we surely would have done even better. But we’re not complaining.
(VW claims that last year a Passat TDI squeezed out 84.1 MPG, driving from Texas to Virginia on one tank of fuel. TDI, BTW, stands for Turbo-Diesel-Injection.)
Let’s do some more calculations. Our weekend trip in a comparable non-diesel Passat would have required some 25 gallons of gasoline costing $90—$24 more than we spent on diesel. If we annualize these figures for someone who drives 15,000 miles a year, the savings with the diesel would be $467 per year.
Our entry-level SE-model Passat TDI with the 6-speed manual transmission cost $26,295; the equivalent gas-burning Passat, $23,945. Difference: $2,350. If we save $467 per year, we recover the higher price of the TDI in five years. Not brilliant, no, but since we’re now keeping our cars for 10 years, there’s still five more years of savings to come—another $2,335 at today’s pump prices. We could have bought more car! (Passat TDI prices top out at about $34,000.)
With me so far? Now let’s look at tailpipe pollution. Since 2011, diesels have had to meet much stricter emission standards, so no more black exhaust smoke. However, we can’t see carbon dioxide, and even modern clean diesels emit more carbon per gallon of fuel (22.5 pounds) than do gas engines (20 pounds per gallon). But, aha, in each 15,000-mile year, we’re burning 163 fewer gallons of diesel, in our Passat v. Passat scenario, than we would gasoline. Check my numbers if you like, but this works out to a savings of 2,460 pounds—one and a quarter tons—of carbon each year with the TDI. This is about half of the carbon that the average American family releases in heating and cooling its home for a year.
And if we compare this new TDI Passat to a tired, 10-year-old SUV that gets 18 MPG, the pollution and payback numbers look even better.
Not a bad deal, then, especially for an internal-combustion technology that most of us still regard as “dirty.” Thanks to improvements in engines, ignition and exhaust systems, and in the fuel itself, diesel engines now not only run cleaner, they’re also quieter and easy to start in cold weather. More and more automakers are offering diesel-powered cars as alternatives to hybrid gas-electric vehicles.
What comes to mind when you think “German touring sedan”? A large Mercedes-Benz, Audi or BMW with a six-figure price tag? Sure, but really we mean a roomy, comfortable, quiet car for four adults, a car with a tireless engine and suspension and brakes built for the Autobahn, but able to cross the Mojave Desert between fill-ups. If the Passat TDI doesn’t meet this definition, I don’t know what would.
Here’s another way to look at a Passat TDI: With the ability to drive 800 or more miles without stopping to refuel . . . our bladders are in grave danger.
Here I was, thinking that VW diesels, in particular the Passat, were the best-kept automotive secrets in America, when Volkswagen’s September 2013 sales figures appeared on my screen. VW sold 31,920 vehicles in the US last month, and 24.4 percent of them were diesel-powered. Furthermore, diesels have been 24.3 percent of VW of America’s sales for the entire year so far, and 35.2% of all VW sales in September were Passat diesels—2,874 of them. It seems the “secret” is out.