Just so you don't think this is some kind of oddity peculiar to Germans or VW buyers, almost half of all automobiles sold in Europe in 2003 were fitted with diesel engines. That figure includes everything from BMW 7-Series to Toyota Corollas. Even the Mini Cooper, for heaven's sake, comes with a diesel a 1.4 litre unit built in France by Toyota.
Already Europe's leading diesel car company, Volkswagen wants to be America's, too. To tempt us, VW has developed what it hopes will be an irresistible line-up of attractive, economical and fun-to-drive automobiles and light trucks.
The brilliant Touareg sports utility vehicle, which went on sale in North America in mid-2003 with a choice of V-8 and V-6 gasoline engines, will be available with VW's big daddy 5.0L V-10 TDI diesel in 2004. This powerhouse pumps out 313 hp and an astonishing 560 lb.ft. of torque.
Torque is that special step-on-the-gas-and-go ingredient that separates the big American V-8 from just about any other engine you can name. Torque is what endeared the muscle car to an entire generation of American drivers. It's what diesel engines are all about and, VW maintains, it's what makes driving fun.
What does torque really mean to the average driver? Among other things, it can mean adrenalin-free passing on two-lane roads. With maximum torque coming at just 2000 rpm in the V-10, a 5700 pound heavyweight like the Touareg is out and around the loaded tractor-trailer combo hogging that twisty two-lane; no downshifting and no noisy over-revving.
While doubtless not destined to be cheap VW of America's public relations people are still playing prices very close to the vest the V-10 diesel option promises to make an already terrific automobile almost irresistible, even to SUV-averse types like myself.
Volkswagen also plans to offer more diesels to North Americans. The venerable 1.9L TDI gets a boost in horsepower and torque. While the numbers haven't yet been made public, it seems likely that a 110 hp, 177 lb.ft. torque version will replace the 90 hp engine offered for the past several years. In addition, VW plans to make its newest 4-valve 2.0L TDI engine available in Passat models sold in North America. This incredibly sophisticated and refined engine is also offered in 2004 Generation V Golf models sold in Germany and other parts of Europe.
I drove both the 2004 Passat 4Motion and the new 5th Generation 2004 Golf sedan, equipped with the 2.0L TDI, on a variety of roads around Wolfsburg. It was truly a treat. And, by the way, if you think two litres is too small an engine for US roads, think again. In the Passat, it almost felt like there was a V-8 under the hood and in the lighter Golf, all I can say is "try it." Forget about the numbers... you won't believe what the seat of your pants is telling you.
In its North American version, the 2.0L TDI will develop 140 hp and 236 lb.ft. of torque. It's quiet, smooth running and best of all, it'll get an honest 35 mpg in the cut-and-thrust of urban driving. It will also meet the 2005 Euro IV emissions standard. In other words, it'll run cleaner than just about any engine available in any automobile anywhere today.
With its comprehensive range of 3-, 4-, 5-, 6- and 10-cylinder diesel engines, VW claims it has turned contemporary driving into good clean fun for the ordinary European motorist. Alas, the North American driver will have to settle for the 4- and 10-cylinder variants at least for the time being. If we're good boys and girls and buy lots of diesels over the next couple or three years, however, VW promises it will make more available from its grab-bag of diesel goodies.
So get ready America, and keep an open mind. The diesel revolution starts soon.