Forget noisy, smelly or anything else you might remember about diesels, including the black clouds of smoke rolling up from the tailpipe. Today’s clean diesels are none of that, and they’re no more polluting than a typical car – perhaps even less so because they get better fuel economy.Those are the lessons we can learn from vehicles such as the 2014 Volkswagen Passat TDI sedan, whose turbo-diesel engine gives it amazing fuel economy and plenty of power, yet nothing to announce publicly that, “Hey, I’m a diesel.”The 2.0-liter four-cylinder TDI is one of the optional engines available on the US.-built Passat. This latest version of the Passat arrived for 2012, and already has clearly established itself as a solid entry in the midsize-sedan segment, able to challenge the dominance of the longtime leaders in the class, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.Its styling is pleasant, even if not groundbreaking, as Volkswagen deliberately made the North American version of the Passat almost neutral to match the non-controversial appearance of its key competitors.The goal was to create a car that appeals to the widest audience possible, rather than one that polarizes to the point where people either love it or hate it.This version of the Passat, the only product so far of the recently built Chattanooga, Tenn., VW plant, is sold only in North America. Europeans and others around the world have a different version that is a bit more stylish – but costs more, as well.For 2014, Passat prices begin at $20,845 (plus $820 freight) for the base model with a 2.5-liter five-cylinder gasoline engine and five-speed manual gearbox, and run as high as $33,895 for the top-of-the-line SEL Premium model with a 3.6-liter V-6 gasoline engine and leather interior.Volkswagen says it’s introducing a new base four-cylinder engine during the 2014 model year, though, which will eventually replace the 2.5-liter five-cylinder. It’s a 1.8-liter turbocharged engine, rated at 170 horsepower and 184 foot-pounds of torque. The five-cylinder has 170 horsepower and 177 foot-pounds of torque.Our tester was the SEL Premium with the TDI engine and automatic transmission(base price $32,995). It’s not the least-expensive TDI Passat, however; diesel-equippedmodels begin at $26,295 for the SE model with a six-speed manual gearbox, or $28,295 with the six-speed DSG automatic and a sunroof. For $29,995, you can get the TDI automatic with the sunroof and navigation.The diesel offers the best fuel economy – up to 31 mpg city/43 highway with the manual, or 30/40 with the automatic, which is standard on the SEL model we tested.The TDI engine also is available in the Jetta sedan and Golf hatchback. VW says it has a highway range of up to 800 miles on a single tank of fuel.After a week in the Passat TDI, I was impressed by the mileage we were getting. With a mix of interstate and local driving, we averaged 39.3 mpg, according to the onboard fuel monitor. At the end of the test week, we still had more than a quarter-tank of fuel left.And with all the amenities included on the SEL Premium, this car comes across more as a luxury car than a mass-market sedan. At $33,815 (including freight), this car isn’t cheap. But it’s as well-equipped and elegant as some premium sedans that cost thousands of dollars more, and the road handling is still driver-oriented, a Volkswagen hallmark.The Passat is 191.6 inches long, which is four inches longer than the previous-generation model. It has a 110.4-inch wheelbase. Its instrument panel was patterned after that of the VW Touareg sport utility vehicle, with chrome-trimmed gauges around a digital multifunction display.The cabin is roomier than many midsize sedans I’ve tested recently, with enough rear-seat legroom to accommodate just about any adult, including those who are close to being all legs. Even with the front seats positioned back as far as they could go on their tracks, there were no complaints from my rear passengers – kids or adults. Volkswagen says the Passat has the most legroom in the class.The long and wide trunk is slightly bigger than those of the Camry and Accord – 15.9 cubic feet for the Passat compared with 15.4 for the Camry and 15.8 for the Accord.There are three trim levels: the base S model, midlevel SE and top-of-the-line SEL, and there are 16 different configurations, based on engine/transmission combinations and standard amenities.The top Passat engine is the gasoline-powered 3.6 V-6 engine, cranking out animpressive 280 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque. EPA ratings for the V-6 are 20 city/28 highway with the automatic transmission, which has an automatic dual-clutch system that gives the feel of a manual gearbox. The manual transmission is not offered with the V-6 engine.I didn’t need that V-6 power, though. The diesel provided plenty of zip, even with the car loaded with people for a family trip that included some mountain driving. We also encountered some rain, and the car handled well on the slick pavement, even through some (very shallow) standing water here and there.Even at the base price, with the five-cylinder gasoline engine, the Passat comes with such standard features as automatic climate control, an eight-way adjustable driver’s seat with lumbar support, and Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity.Other standard features include power windows, insulated glass, analog clock, cruise control, outside temperature display with frost warning, and a radio-CD system (MP3-capable with an external audio input).Among safety features is VW’s Intelligent Crash Response System, which automatically shuts off the fuel supply and electronic equipment upon impact, while also unlocking the doors and disconnecting the battery from the alternator. The hazard lights also switch on.Also included are a tire-pressure monitoring system, electronic stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes with brake assist, hill-climb assist (with the manual transmission), six air bags, and a rigid body structure. Sixteen-inch wheels are standard, but 17- and 18-inch alloy wheels are available.Our SEL TDI model featured such extras as eight-way power front seats withmemory; leather upholstery and steering wheel; a touch-screen navigation and premium Fender audio system with satellite radio; fog lights with static cornering lights; interior wood trim; ambiance lighting; and keyless entry with pushbutton start. The Fender audio system was designed exclusively for Volkswagen.We also had a power tilt/slide sunroof, 18-inch alloy wheels, and memory for the driver’s seat. A rearview camera system projected its image in the dash navigation/audio screen.The front bucket seats were quite comfortable, and there was a center console with a small cubby under the padded armrest, two cupholders, and, in the cubby, a 12-volt power outlet, iPod cable and auxiliary input jack.In front of the console-mounted shifter was an open cubby big enough for a couple of smartphones, with a 12-volt outlet. Door pockets front and rear had single bottle holders in each one.Rear passengers had a pull-down center armrest with dual cupholders, and they also had their own heat/air-conditioning vent, at the rear of the front center console. No options were added to our vehicle, which already included everything available on the Passat.
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1994. Contact him at email@example.com.