There’s an old saying about chance occurrences: Some days you get the bear, and some days the bear gets you.
Volkswagen got the bear. As gasoline prices shot past $2 a gallon, the German manufacturer stood alone in offering fuel-efficient diesel engines in most of its cars and trucks.
Two new Volkswagens with this enhancement are the midsize 2004 Passat sedan and station wagon, and the 2004 Touareg sport utility vehicle.
With these, and its existing diesel models, VW has a head start at a time when fuel economy has returned to the fore. Diesel engines, on average, deliver 30 percent better fuel economy than comparable gasoline-fueled motors.
In Europe, diesels account for nearly half of new passenger-car sales. VW even argues that diesels, overall, are more efficient than the popular gasoline-electric hybrids from Toyota and Honda.
Unlike conventional engines, which fire spark plugs to explode a gasoline-air mixture in the cylinders, diesel engines use high compression to generate the heat to ignite the fuel-air mixture.
Diesel fuel is not as highly refined as gasoline, so it offers more of a clean-air challenge. The future of diesel power in the United States depends on the anticipated availability of cleaner, low-sulfur fuel and technological advances in the engines themselves.
Current passenger-car diesels can only be sold in 45 states. They do not meet anti-pollution requirements in California, New York, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont.
But in those 45 states, VW has the landscape almost to itself. It is the only manufacturer that offers diesel engines in popularly priced passenger cars. Mercedes-Benz has a diesel in its 2005 E320 sedan, but it carries a 50 grand window sticker.
The new Volkswagen Touareg TDI (it stands for turbo direct injection and is VW’s diesel designation) also has a nosebleed price tag that can easily approach $65,000.
As it should be at that level, the Touareg TDI is one hunk of an SUV. Its diesel is a 5.0-liter V-10 with enormous grunt. The engine is rated at 310 horsepower but, more importantly, it delivers a whopping 553 foot-pounds of torque at just 2,000 rpm. Torque is a measure of low-rpm power, and it enables the Touareg TDI to hit 60 mph in just over seven seconds and tow more than 7,700 pounds.
Yet the government rates the Touareg TDI’s fuel consumption at 17 miles per gallon city and 23 highway. By itself, that’s not remarkable, but it’s outstanding for a heavy vehicle with that much power.
Unfortunately, the Touareg TDI will not have much impact, at least at the outset.
With European sales devouring limited production, Volkswagen of America expects to get only about 500 copies in 2004 — all of which are likely to be quickly snapped up by buyers with excesses of disposable income.
Of more general interest is the new Passat TDI, which brings diesel power to the popularly priced midsize family car. With it, VW now offers diesel engines in all of its passenger cars. The Golf, New Beetle and Jetta already were available with diesels.
The Passat diesel is a new — to this country — 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 134 horsepower. On paper, that looks low for a midsize car.
The base engine in the gasoline-fueled Passat has 170 horsepower. But the diesel has a strong 247 foot-pounds of torque, which keeps it out of slug territory.
With the five-speed automatic — the only transmission available — VW claims a zero-to-60 acceleration time of a tick over 10 seconds. That’s barely acceptable in these days of seven- to eight-second times in many midsize gasoline-engine cars.
Despite that, the Passat diesel feels fairly strong off the line. It is hampered somewhat by turbo lag, which manifests itself as a hesitation when you push hard on the accelerator.
In hilly territory, the modest power also forces the automatic transmission to “hunt,” or to shift up or down. Fortunately, the Passat’s automatic comes with a Tiptronic manual shift mode, so the driver can exercise independent control.
The Passat’s four-cylinder diesel is not nearly as refined as the Touareg’s V-10, so it exhibits some diesel clatter at idle — noticeable mostly from outside the car — and a pronounced growl under hard acceleration. Highway cruising, however, is commendably quiet. And there’s little smoke from the exhaust pipe.
The tested GLS TDI model carried a base sticker price of $25,235 and an EPA mileage rating of 27 city, 38 highway. The base price was only $205 more than the same model with the 1.8-liter turbocharged gasoline engine, which has an EPA rating of 21 city, 30 highway.
Included in the diesel’s base price were antilock brakes with brake assist, side air bags and side curtain air bags, a motorized sunroof, air conditioning, remote central locking, power windows and mirrors, alloy wheels, a garage-door opener, and an upgraded audio system with CD and cassette players. Optional electronic stability control and a cold weather package brought the bottom-line sticker price to $25,480.
VW officials expect the diesel Passat to account for 10 percent to 15 percent of all Passat sales, which totaled 76,977 in 2003.
With anxiety over fuel costs, that could prove to be a cautious estimate.