Review: 2012 Volkswagen Passat SE TDI vs. Airplanes
by Zack Klapman
“Please remove all belongings from your person. Any references to dangerous materials, even as a joke, can result in your arrest…”
The PA system of LAX repeated this over and over again while passengers fell into line; domesticated cattle, emptying their pockets of explosive Chapstick, lethal bits of lint, and sandals clearly hiding ninja stars. I’m staring at the fork in security road: one leads to a giant machine that “prevents terrorism” and only takes “temporary” pics of my favorite toy. The other path leads to a heavy set man wearing gloves who looks like he’d be confused operating a toll booth. Should I elect to not be zapped with what a for-profit company deems are “safe levels” of radiation, tollbooth Billy has to rub his knuckles on my perineum; something he and I will both (hopefully) loathe, all for a 45-minute flight to visit my parents up North.
Irritated, I practice my request to opt out of the X-ray machine. How to form a 5-second long response that’s simultaneously funny, informs the TSA agent of my distaste for this farcical security, and is (most importantly) arrest-proof… I look at the agent, take a breath… and step to the machine. Coward. I clench my jaw. A few sperm die while it captures my non-existent spine. “This sucks.” There has to be a better way.
After security I learn my flight is late. Great. If I’d driven my Miata, barring a moderately possible catastrophic engine failure, one can *allegedly* do the trip in under 5 hours. But the way I drive I’d easily eclipse the cheap $140 round-trip transportation Southwest Airlines provides. “But what about a different car?” I think back to the E350 Bluetec we drove almost 800 miles on 1 tank of fuel. Santa Cruz is 350 miles away, 700 round-trip.
I slide into my seat, which is older than I am and probably more infested than Gene Simmons’ tongue. I sip my 1/3 serving of a soda while the 1.75 scale human next to me planted his forearm on the armrest, looking like tofurkey and indicative of a probable future of insulin shots.
That’s it, I‘ve had it. I will race Southwest Airlines. You want to make me pole dance to prove I’m not a threat and sit next to a dude I (unfortunately) know through visual confirmation is not wearing underwear? I’ll take my money on the road. I can make this journey cheaper, and possibly faster, by car. Overall travel time, with check-in, waiting, etc., is between 4 and 5 hours. The distance is 350 miles, legally possible in that time, barely. The challenge: do it in 5 hours and use less than $140 of fuel, and I win.
I wrote an email to VW, seeking a TDI. The Passat has an advertised range of 700 miles, and I bet it would do even better. Every keystroke on that flight was a figurative punch to the face of air travel. I was going to beat this stupid plane.
A few weeks later, my “racecar” arrived: a Opera Red Metallic 2012 Passat SE TDI. Priced at $27,895 it had heated leatherette seats, a sunroof, Bluetooth, and an EPA advertised MPG of 30 city/ 40 highway. But I expected (and needed) it to do better. Multiply by the 18.5-gallon tank and you have a range as high as 740 miles, but I had to go over some big hills in hot weather, which is not how the EPA tests cars.
I’d take Interstate 5. Flat, boring as baseball, and no congestion, because there’s no town worth stopping at. I got in the car at 2pm, before rush hour, the freedom of departure time another benefit of traveling by car. The range said 560 miles, likely computed in the congested drive to our house. I knew it’d go up once I was moving…right? Sitting 1 mile from LAX, I heard a plane take off. I flipped it off, Bluetooth audio drowning it out. I adjusted the seat (more on them later) and pulled away. “Ok Passat: highway, set cruise, beat plane, avoid latex gloves. Easy.”
405. Traffic. ****! The next 40 minutes were spent under 10MPH. While I shot invisible flame throwers from my eyes at the string of brake lights in front of me, the 2.0L TDI quietly spun along, still managing 30MPG doing the stop-and-go. A 1970s diesel Mercedes passed, loudly reminding me why people wrinkle their nose when you suggest a diesel. My, how far we’ve come. By comparison the Passat is silent, barely louder than a gasoline engine. Unless you drive it while lying on the hood, you won’t hear it, so don’t worry about it. It’s quiet enough. The seats comforted me like a mother trying to quiet Damien. Bolstering? No. But other than on an off-ramp or mountain road this car’s normal duties don’t bring that up. They are extremely comfortable, perforated leatherette and heated to boot. In fact, after initially setting it, I didn’t adjust it once, a very rare thing for me on a 5-hour drive.
Traffic opens and I’m climbing out of L.A. up the Tejon pass; not exactly easy on fuel but it did give me a chance to evaluate the drivetrain. Diesels have torque, which is why I think they’re such a good way to get efficiency without feeling gutless. The Passat has 236ft-lbs, about 40 more than the Hybrids Camry and Sonata. Power is 140, not a lot. But this engine is absolutely acceptable, and does its job fine, pulling up hills and away from stoplights with conviction. The Sonata Hybrid makes 206HP but the Passat is faster to 60MPH (8.7s and 9.5s, respectively). Buyers in this market don’t need a car that pulls hard to 100MPH, they want to be able to get ahead of a bus, or pass a trailer in a safe amount of time. It can do both.
The transmission is a great 6-speed twin-clutch, which rev-matched, making down-shifting for passing and slowing a dive-less pleasure. The manual transmission might get a few more MPG (one set a record at 99.5), but the DCT feels right in this chariot of domestic conveyance.
L.A.’s various expansion joints were a good test for the chassis and sound dampening. In L.A. freeway repair means covering a small hole with a slab of concrete normally used as a foundation for a medium-sized house. “Mount it flush with the rest of the road? Who am I? Michelangelo?” Bumps and seams were all muffled, but not as well as the sound-stage serenity you find in other cars. I know they lightened these cars to save money and raise efficiency, and it’s noticeable here. It felt thinner than past VWs. The suspension soaked these obstacles up easily, and it’s grounded, but I felt like I was in a cheaper car, the opposite of old VWs.
The congestion meant that the 5-hour goal was gone. To make up the lost time would require serious speed, which means serious fuel consumption…oh, and it’s illegal or something. The battle for speed was lost, but Operation Low Cost and Genital Freedom continued. Once I-5 flattened out, I used the trip computer to find out my optimal speed vs. MPG. Unfortunately, I had to drive absolutely no faster than 70MPH. That’s the speed limit. That’s like saying, “Eat just one Pringle.” But it had to be done. So, like a coma patient re-learning to walk, I learned to let people pass me, and got used to my new home in the right lane.
Driving like this actually revealed something I didn’t expect; you can relax when you go the speed limit. Did you know cops don’t notice a Red Metallic Passat obeying the law? Crazy concept, right? Usually I have one eye on the V1 and one on the road, sweating like a submarine radar operator during the Cold War. Passat owners don’t speed, they teach 3rd grade, enjoy hikes, and listen to books on tape (or in my case, SPICE radio. Same thing.) By using the electronic cruise control and anticipating traffic, I played automotive chess, anticipating traffic and doing my best to maintain my speed and MPG. I only slowed when a stupid spawn of Satan, lacking the logic and spatial awareness to notice rain, would pace a semi truck at 64MPH. My MPG fluctuated between 42 and 55, depending on the grade and wind. Range leapt up, South West was going down.
The interior of the Passat was quite nice, a soothing combination of Cornsilk Beige, brushed aluminum, and black. I didn’t notice the cost cuts at first glance, but I did at first touch, due to hard plastic near either knee. But visually it’s a winner. The clean look reminded me (slightly) of the Jaguar XF; unlike the busy protrusions you see inside a Camry the Passat’s buttons don’t offend your eyes. The big glass and sunroof make it feel airy and simple, kind of Japanese teahouse. Lots of cars today make me feel like there’s 93 butlers offering holding platters at all times (NAV? OnStar? Volume? Cup holder-finder-button?). The Passat has buttons for what you use most positioned simply and quietly, keeping everything else in the simple but dated-looking computer.
Besides the old media interface I noticed a few other problems. The HVAC indicator lights are almost invisible during the daytime. A tiny, orange light makes a bad indicator because the sun is-anyone? -orange. The steering wheel, which felt and looked great, was actually slightly crooked, angled a few degrees left, so my left arm had to extend slightly more than the right. It was hardly noticeable, but odd for sure, perhaps a problem that occurred during 15,000 journalist miles.
Several hours later I turned off the 5 to highway 152/33, the Pacheco Pass Highway. It’s a wide, curvaceous road leading from desert to sea. Heaven if you’re in a sports car. The Passat was locked in, its .82g of grip (higher than the Sonata and Camry) and connected feel making this weird hyper-miling slalom fun. At one point the car ahead of me suddenly swerved left. Uh oh, tree limb. Blocked on the left, I quickly chose the shoulder and the Passat took nature’s chicane in stride without losing a single MPH or making a peep. I actually said to the wheel, “Wow, good job buddy!” Like a man losing weight to lower cholesterol, the Passat’s agility is a side effect of the weight cut in the name of energy frugality. The Sonata I drove over this exact road last year would have protested such a quick direction change audibly and with a lot more body roll.
After 5 hours and 54 minutes I arrived. I’d gone 347 miles, and averaged 43.4MPG and 59MPH. That included 30 minutes in traffic, 90-degree temperatures, and two sets of mountain climbs. I had the A/C on when I wanted to, and maintained the speed of traffic. I did not get there quickly, but I had 420 miles of fuel left in the car. A tank would cost $82 to fill. I’d burned less than the cost of checking a bag on United.
The next day I drove back. I decided to take the undulating highway 101 instead of the I-5; a pretty girl had requested my presence in Santa Barbara. I told her I would stop by, as long as I had the fuel to spare. She met this with understandable confusion.
I had fuel to spare. In fact I arrived back in L.A. with 90 miles of range remaining. The total distance round-trip was 708 miles, and I averaged 45.7 MPG. Hills, heat, trucks, slow, unaware pieces of gutless stupidity; all causing dreaded drops in speed and yet the 2012 Passat TDI SE carried me and my new leathery best friend to the mother ship and back for less than $82.
Is this an exciting car? Not particularly. Save for the very front and rear, it looks like any other sedan in this segment. Their identities exist at the ends, and I don’t find the Passat’s features particularly pretty, because they were meant to be appealing to all, which makes them special to none. But, as with Angelina Jolie when she married Billy Bob, concessions are made because of a really good personality. The interior is very comfortable, and much better looking than Toyota’s competition. It feels and drives good, there’s space everywhere and battery-supported rivals can’t match its efficiency. If this engine follows the pattern of past TDIs, it could last several hundred thousand miles, and keep its value long after the competition’s fall off. And unlike a hybrid, there’s no $5,000 battery you will have to replace.
I hated flying a decade ago, and as airlines reduce their amenities to the point you have to bring your own chair, it’s becoming ludicrous. I don’t like unpacking all my belongings on the same table a 300 million people before me, and I don’t like paying someone $50 to put my bag inside that giant, unused space under the plane. Yes there are other costs to driving (oil, maintenance, etc.) but I’d argue there are extra costs in flying: money spent on bags, snack food, drinks or magazines. Exposure to germs and radiation, a limit on what how much toothpaste you can carry. Know where that doesn’t happen? In a car.
VW provided the Passat with a full tank of fuel.