2013 Volkswagen Passat SE 3.6 vs. 2012 Passat SE TDI

By Zack Klapman.

Battle for Family Supremacy: It’s a moderately energized bruhaha for transporting children and pets! Track days and burnouts? I don’t think so! This game is all about daily serenity and making smart, rational, adult decisions. Exciting? It better not be! Excitement is for inefficient engines powering a cramped cabin to the repairman! This is the other kind of “bang for your buck”, the “What is roomy, safe, and smart?” kind.

And what makes a fight better? Involving family! Passat vs. Passat, like the Baldwins being thrown in the ring in Roman times, it’s the 2013 Passat SE 3.6 vs. 2012 Passat SE TDI.

“Isn’t that same car, just with a different engine?” Yes it is Timmy! And why are you in this dealership alone? These cars share almost everything, from leatherette seats to hard door plastic to their fuel tanks. So what we’re going to find is not if you should buy a Volkswagen Passat, but rather, which one.

2012 Volkswagen Passat

My testers arrived near-identically equipped. The SE TDI had the “TDI w/ Sunroof” package, with Volkswagen’s brilliant 6-speed DSG gearbox, leatherette seats, Bluetooth, a premium stereo, and no NAV, with a price of $28,225.

The one that prefers gas (requires, please don’t put diesel in it) is the “3.6 SE w/Sunroof & Nav”. The interior looks identical except the NAV button does something, although you’ll never use it, because you have a smart phone. It has the same fabrics and materials as the diesel, the same old center stack that Volkswagen should have retired 3 years ago, same inoffensive styling, and the same greenhouse that feels big enough to stand up in. With options, it was $30,895.

Volkswagen Passat

So they have the same equipment, look the same, same great seats, same transmission. What separates these cars is (obviously) the engines.

With 236ft-lbs of torque, the diesel engine is stout, but no one will call it fast. 140HP is very “1994 Civic”, but it’s more than sufficient in town or during highway passes. The DSG is a perfect companion to the torquey motor, like meat and fire. VW advertises 30/40MPG city/highway, but I saw between 47 and 55 on a 700-mile trip. So despite having the same tank as the 3.6, it’s range is 222 miles further. That’s a lot of school runs without an extra stop.

By comparison, the V6 is a dragster. My driveway has black streaks from simply trying to pull away. It’s a lively 280HP and 258tq unit, with a touchy throttle. It’s faster than the TDI (because people in this market LOVE speed), and a smidge smoother, because it doesn’t have to wait for a turbo.

2013 Volkswagen Passat

Because of the likenesses between them, this is a numbers game.

Usually diesel-powered cars have a higher MSRP, due to their more expensive materials and the demand, prompting buyers to hire MIT technicians to work out how long they’ll have to go before the fuel savings eclipse the higher upfront cost. But in this case it’s the opposite. The TDI Passat starts at $27k, while the 3.6 starts at $29k.

But that’s not necessary here. The Passat TDI is cheaper than the 3.6, plain and simple.

2013 Volkswagen Passat

After driving the 3.6, I realized the Volkswagen Passat is up against stiff competition from Hyundai, Toyota, Ford, and Honda. Most of those are quieter on the road, cheaper or more reliable, and have interiors from this decade. The Passat’s only ace is the diesel engine, and if I was buying a car in this class, it’s what I would get. I love the range, the torque, and did I mention the range? 50MPG observed? You’re winning the post-PTA showdown.

But take that card away, and you have a family sedan with 280HP that feels outdated, and you’ll envy Sonata 2.0T owners. Sorry Steven, I’m going with Alec, the TDI.

(Note: All vehicles provided by manufacturers for comparison test purposes. Photos provided by Volkswagen.)