Sunday, August 25, 2013

Test Drive -- 2013 Volkswagen Passat TDI SE DSG

As you can probably guess, this post is about my recent test drive of a 2013 Volkswagen Passat TDI SE DSG.  Holy acronyms, Batman!  TDI stands for turbo direct injection and it refers to Volkswagen's series of diesel motors.  SE refers to the middle of the three trim lines in which the US Passat is offered. DSG stands for Direkt Schalt Getriebe, which loosely translated means direct-shift manual gearbox.  In other words, it's physically a manual transmission with two clutches, but its operation is automated and it lacks a clutch pedal.  It was designed to shift more quickly than any human (or conventional automatic transmission) while delivering the efficiency and feel of a stick shift by replacing the torque converter found on a normal automatic transmission with a clutch (or rather, two clutches) that would directly connect the engine to the drive wheels.  I am a manual transmission purist and thus do not consider VW's DSG to be a viable replacement for a manual transmission despite its paddle shifters, and I only drove a Passat with this gearbox because Nemer VW in Latham did not have any Passats with the six-speed manual transmission on their lot.

Despite the fact that this car was, for my purposes, an automatic, I really liked it.  The DSG is easily the best automatic transmission I've ever driven, with lightning-quick shifts and generally smooth behavior. I didn't try the paddle-shift manual mode, as my test drive was short and accompanied by a salesman, but I would be surprised if it did not function well.  This car, as previously stated, was equipped with a diesel engine, which makes most of its usable power low in the RPM range.  The DSG did an excellent job keeping the engine in its power band and the car never felt underpowered.  It did take a while to get used to its power delivery, though, compared to the "wind it to the stratosphere" attitude of my 2010 Honda Accord's VTEC gas engine.  I did drive a 2011 Jetta TDI with a six-speed stick just to see how the diesel motor mated with a manual transmission, and it was weird in that first gear was usable only to get the car rolling but second was too tall to start in.  Definitely different, and I hope to test drive a 2013 Passat TDI SE with a manual gearbox to see if this trait carries over.  It probably does.  I could get used to it, though.

The best feature of the TDI drivetrain, without a doubt, is its exceptional fuel efficiency.  With a stick shift, the Passat TDI is rated at 31 mpg city and 43 mpg highway (the DSG model fares slightly worse), and there have been reports of people regularly exceeding these EPA ratings.  One couple nearly doubled the EPA's highway number of 43 mpg on a long road trip, driving nearly 1,500 miles before refueling.  Read their story at

Drivetrain aside, here are my thoughts on the car in no particular order:

1.  It's huge.  The trunk is enormous.  So is the back seat, though my head did manage to brush the headliner.  Perhaps the manual transmission model (which is unavailable with the DSG model's mandatory sunroof) has better headroom.

2.  The rear seats split and fold, and they have a center ski pass-through.  Why all sedans don't have rear seats with this fantastic level of versatility floors me, and why my 2010 Accord's rear seat doesn't split is downright maddening.

3.  The SE model comes with leatherette (glorified vinyl) upholstery (base S models come with cloth and SEL models come with legit leather, with suede inserts in some cases).  I didn't like it.  It was sticky and not particularly supportive.

4.  The seats themselves seemed flat and, while generally comfortable and electrically adjustable in the driver's case, didn't offer as much lumbar or lateral support as those in my Accord (or my 2002 Passat GLX wagon, for that matter).  The back seat was also flat, which is good for three-across travel but not as great for two-person travel.

5.  The steering wheel was slightly offset to the right of the driver's side of the dash.  I noticed this when this car came out a couple years ago, but it didn't bother me on the test drive nearly as much as I thought it would.

6.  The wheel itself is awesome, leather-wrapped, and equipped with well-designed redundant controls for the Bluetooth system, the trip computer, and the audio system.

7.  The details are impressive.  The sunvisors slide to extend when moved to the side, the stalks on the steering column felt at least as finely oiled as those in my Accord (and those are pretty damn good), and the directionals flash three times when tapped (useful for lane changes).  Build quality was very impressive and, in particular, the shift knob's action was as fluid as in any automatic vehicle I've driven.

8.  The six-speed fan was a nice touch, and was strong at its highest setting on the scorcher of a day I drove the car.  It was loud, though, and I would've liked the option of automatic climate control (it is offered on the SEL model only).

9.  The stereo was good for a mid-level system, and included a touch-screen interface, Bluetooth audio, a six-CD changer (I can't think of any other manufacturer who still believes in multi-disc changers), HD radio, satellite radio, and an eighth-inch jack.  I would have liked to see a USB jack (there's no excuse for leaving this out in 2013) or at least an iPod interface, and it would be nice for the SEL model's Fender audio system to be available on the SE.  It's a significantly better system.

10.  The analog clock between the middle two air vents was a very classy touch.  I think there's a digital one in the instrument panel or on the radio touch screen for those who can't read a clock's hand.

Well, that's all great, but how does it drive?

Generally, very nicely.  Here are the specifics:

1.  The steering felt extremely light and devoid of road feel, but was surgically precise.  I would have preferred more heft, but I could get used to this.  My Accord has one of the best front-drive steering systems I've ever driven, second only to a Mazda6 loaner car my parents had several years back.  The fact that the TDI Passat uses an electric power steering system in place of the gas engine model's hydraulic system might explain the lightness and lack of road feel.

2.  As previously stated, the powertrain worked well.  I can't wait to try this car with a stick shift.  I like that the RPMs were significantly lower at highway speed than in either of my current cars.  Passing power was definitely sufficient too.

3.  It's a QUIET car!  My 2010 Accord isn't all too quiet at speed.

4.  The ride is smooth but not Buick-smooth.  Handling is pretty crisp for such a large car, though maybe not quite as responsive as my similarly-sized Accord.

My largest complaints with this car are as follows:

1.  Lack of a stereo upgrade to the Fender system in the SE model.

2.  Lack of a USB jack or iPod interface.

3.  Lack of a Siri button on the wheel (but then again, very few cars have one currently).

4.  My head grazes the rear headliner when sitting back in the rear seat.  Not enough to be annoying, but enough to make me wonder why it's happening given how huge the car is.

5.  The leatherette upholstery is sticky and inferior to cloth and leather.

6.  The steering could be a little meatier.

What kills me is that four of these six complaints would be resolved if I could order the SEL trim with a manual transmission, but I can't.  I can understand VW's desire to streamline the manufacturing process, but they offer a trim nearly identical to the SEL in Canada with a stick shift and it's built on the same line as the American Passat for a MUCH smaller audience.  UGH!!!!  Honda and Mazda do something similar with their Accord and 6, respectively.  Makes me crazy.

Upgrading my 2010 Accord to a Passat TDI SE stick shift is still extremely tempting, though.  My fuel economy would increase by nearly 20 mpg, I'd be in a quieter car, and I'd gain a few cool tech features that my Accord doesn't have.  I would also get free maintenance for 3 years or 36K miles and could probably get 0% financing for up to 60 months.  And I'd not have to worry about the few upcoming maintenance items that my Accord will need in the next couple years (tires, brakes, various inspections, and possibly a clutch).  I'd lose some athleticism in the drivetrain and in the steering/handling, I'd lose the awesome cloth seats (but gain seat heaters), I'd lose the sunroof, and I'd gain a higher car payment.

Decisions, decisions.......