2013 Volkswagen Passat SE TDI Quick Drive

The 2013 Volkswagen Passat SE TDI presents the ups, and downs, of diesels.

Last summer, we spent a week behind the wheel of a 2012 Volkswagen Passat SE. Our reaction was mixed, to say the least. Most of us liked the car's styling, or at least found it easy enough to live with, while we weren't particularly fond of the interior's vinyl seats, especially considering our mid-level SE model's $25,000 price tag.

Fast forward a few months, and we're back in a nearly identical-looking car. Same silver color, same gray vinyl interior, but this one costs about $1,500 more. The difference: This Passat has Volkswagen's 140-horsepower turbocharged diesel engine under the hood. Would the super fuel-efficient diesel change our opinion of Volkswagen's big family sedan?

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Model and Price

Our test vehicle was a 2013 Volkswagen Passat SE TDI, which means it was the lowest-priced Passat diesel you can buy. Standard on this model is a six-speed manual transmission; you have to move up one model level to get an automatic. There were zero options on our test car, too, which means we got to appreciate the standard equipment level, a rarity in a business where manufacturers are anxious to show off as much high-tech wizardry as they can. Still, our SE was well equipped. Bluetooth and a good sounding audio system were standard, as were power seats, manual air conditioning, and cruise control. The vehicle information screen between the gauges was handy, but looked dated, with white-on-black graphics that need an upgrade in an era when even base Kia models have full color screens. The cost, including the $795 destination charge, came to $27,020.

Safety and Key Features

The 2013 Volkswagen Passat is one of the safest cars in its segment. It comes standard with airbags popping out from virtually every panel: front, side, curtain, and so on. It also comes standard with stability and traction control, as do all cars these days. But where it really shines is in its crash tests. The Passat has scored a Top Safety Pick+ with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, one of only a handful of cars getting Acceptable in the new small overlap front test. The federal crash tests are also excellent, with a five-star overall rating. As before, the roomy back seat makes it easy to install infant and child booster seats, and the LATCH points are easy to reach.

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Family Friendliness and Utility

One of the advantages diesels have over hybrids is the lack of a battery pack. Since the only difference is that diesels burn a different fuel, you keep all your trunk space, whereas hybrids need to sacrifice a few cubic feet for a battery pack. So the Passat TDI has a full 15.9 cu.-ft. of cargo space, compared to the similarly thrifty Toyota Camry's 13.1. More space means more grocery bags, and our Passat swallowed 18 of them; 13 when sharing space with our large Britax stroller. The rear seat is huge, with plenty of leg and headroom for adults; children fit without a problem, the doors swing wide open, and the LATCH points were easy to reach, too.

Comfort and Quality

The Passat's interior is a mixed bag. On one hand, everything fits as tightly as Germans are capable. Gaps between panels are nearly seamless, nearly everything has a low-gloss sheen, and there's not a squeak or rattle to be found. That's the good news. The bad news is that even though our car's as-tested price is more than $27,000, it has vinyl seats. Sure, Volkswagen calls it "V-tex leatherette," but it gets just as hot and rubbery in the sun as the vinyl seats you thought you'd left in the 80s. The Passat's competitors have cloth even on their base models; Volkswagen seems to think V-tex is a step up in its mid-level SE, and cloth isn't even an option. While some of us didn't mind it, others thought the company should reconsider. Griping about the seat coverings aside, they're actually quite comfortable, with excellent padding that strikes an ideal blend between squishy comfort and firm support.

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How it Drives

Diesel engines cost more than gasoline engines, but they also have two distinct advantages over their gasoline counterparts. First--and a primary selling point--is fuel economy. Here, the Passat wins hands-down. We averaged 33.3 mpg in mixed driving, and the Passat frequently returned greater than 45 mpg on sustained highway drives. By contrast, during our comparison test of similarly sized sedans--all powered by gasoline--none of the cars averaged more than 30 mpg. But the Passat was hardly a slow-poke. The diesel engine's quiet and smooth, but when you lay on the gas it leaps forward. The low-rev grunt for which diesel engines are famous is alive and well, although it peters out after about 4,500 rpm. The downside, amazingly, was the manual transmission. Although the shifter was slick and smooth, the clutch engagement was disappointing, and the pedal was too far to the right. We'd recommend Volkswagen's excellent DSG automatic if you do a lot of city driving. Fuel economy drops from an EPA-rated 31 city/43 highway to 30/40, but more importantly it's only available with a sunroof for some reason, and adds $2,000 to the price. Still, it's better for around town.

Summary

We were virtually unanimous in our opinion that the diesel version of the Volkswagen Passat is better than the gasoline-burning version. Power delivery is immediate; it feels stronger when merging on a freeway or passing traffic, and it avoids fueling stations like it's allergic to them. The downside is cost. This vehicle is about $2,000 more expensive than a similarly equipped non-diesel Passat, and as with hybrids, it's up to the buyer to decide if that premium is worth it. In our minds it is. You get a better engine, significantly better fuel economy, and all the trunk space of the standard car. It takes a good car and makes it much better. Still can't come to terms with the price? Then think of it as an upgrade engine, a better alternative to the base five-cylinder, and more fuel efficient than the top-line V-6. In that context, yeah, we'll go diesel.

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Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $27,020
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 31 mpg
EPA Highway: 43 mpg
EPA Combined: 35 mpg
Cargo Space: 18 grocery bags/13 grocery bags with Britax stroller
Child Seat Fitment: Excellent
Estimated Combined Range: 648 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Excellent

Notebook Quotes

"I love the diesel engine in this car, but in LA traffic, I found myself wishing it were automatic. The shifter is great; the clutch not so much. The car wasn't especially well-equipped. I'm not sure that diesel premium is worth it yet, especially when the gas-powered cars are as good (and frugal) as they are." -Jacob Brown, Associate Editor

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