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Volkswagen TDI: The only way to travel


2012 VW Passat in Utah

Greetings from St. George, Utah! We're on the last leg of our week-long New Mexico road trip in our long-term 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI, which we decided to conclude with a drive through southern Utah. We've driven just over 2,200 miles, with about four hundred more to go (maybe more if we decided to meander) -- and I am now convinced that diesel cars are the only way to travel.

Our mileage has been pretty remarkable -- so far we're averaging just shy of 46 MPG, with a one-day high of 50.2 MPG (moderate speeds and only a few steep hills to climb) and a low of 42.6 MPG (low speeds, lots of hills). Based on what I've seen, I have no doubt that we could top 55 MPG on a long, level road with a 65 MPH speed limit... unfortunately, we haven't encountered anything like that!

But the real advantage, as I predicted, has been the range. With the Passat's 18.5 gallon tank, we have a range of around 800 miles -- and the most we've managed to drive in one day is 534 miles. I cannot begin to tell you the peace of mind this brings. We fill up when it's convenient and we don't have to worry about finding fuel for the rest of the day -- important when you're driving out West, where you can go hours without seeing much in the way of civilization. Better yet, we're not at the mercy of those "last chance" gas stations and their sky-high prices. And when we pass a sign that says "Next services 60 miles," it's not even a concern -- our Passat goes farther than that with the low fuel light on.

Diesel does have a few downsides, the main one being price. While diesel fuel is priced between regular and mid-grade in Los Angeles, we've found it to be quite a bit more expensive than gasoline in the surrounding states -- around 50 cents per gallon higher, give or take a dime. On this trip, we've paid between $4.09 and $4.29, but we've seen gasoline as low as $3.40. (Diesel prices are lowest at the truck stops, but since we've been sticking to the back roads, we can't take advantage.)

And then there's the fact that not all stations have diesel. Yesterday morning we were in a town with four gas stations. The first had a price for diesel but we couldn't find the pump. (Turns out it was in an open lot next door.) Station #2 had a diesel pump, but it also had a Ford Windstar that had leaked a small lake of gasoline as big as its own shadow. I decided not to stick around. Station #3 was out of business (which explains the cheap price on the sign). We had to backtrack to station #4, at which all went well -- but that was 20 minutes of wandering around we didn't need to do. (Of course, we still had 525 miles of fuel remaining, so we could have skipped refueling altogether and still done a full day's driving with nearly a hundred miles to spare.)

All in all, I'm more of a diesel fan than ever. Even with the higher per-gallon gas prices, we've saved money. If my math is correct, our Passat has consumed around 48 gallons of diesel fuel at a cost of about $200. A gasoline car averaging 28 MPG -- pretty optimistic considering the speeds and grades -- would have burned 30 more gallons and cost us around $90 more. And don't forget that we're not driving some tiny econobox -- we're in the roomy, smooth-riding Passat.

With an experience like this, can you argue that a diesel-powered Volkswagen is the only way to travel? -- Aaron Gold

P.S. After news of Hyundai's MPG debacle broke, some of my colleagues and I were discussing the fact that VW diesels typically outperform their EPA numbers -- obviously, our Passat routinely exceeds its EPA estimates of 30 MPG city and 40 MPG highway. I discussed this with some of the Volkswagen folks. The way the EPA tests are structured, diesels simply don't perform at their potential. This is ironic, since several automakers (and no, I'm not singling out Hyundai) seem to be tuning their engines and transmissions for high EPA numbers at the expense of throttle response and shift quality -- and in many cases, these numbers can't be achieved in real-world driving. With the Passat, it's the exact opposite, especially on the highway -- I can't imagine any circumstances where our Passat would get as little as 40 MPG.

Photo © Aaron Gold


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