Few sights matched watching the black smoke pour from the back of a large Oldsmobile — unless it was the black smoke occasionally pouring from the front. GM rushed its engine into production at the time, so reliability was less than stellar. Diseasel, indeed.
This not-so-fond recollection could be part of why Americans have been slow to embrace the oil-burning engines, though they remain popular among Europeans. (Of course, when a gallon of gasoline flirts with two figures, saving fuel becomes paramount.)
A small but strong fan base: But people I talk to who have gone diesel seem happy with the switch. The engines tend to last half of forever and offer 20 percent to 50 percent improvements in mileage.
A German tradition: Volkswagen has been importing diesels in its small vehicles since it switched from air-cooled engines in the 1970s.
The current Clean TDI engine is a turbodiesel, boosting performance over diesel engines of yore. And low-sulfur diesel burns cleaner than it did years ago, though it’s still more of a pollutant than gasoline.
I checked out a small Golf TDI at a 2011 media event, but could only test the big Touareg SUV TDI for a whole week. It’s revamped over the 2010 model (skipping 2011, as the Beetle did).
First impression: At idle, the 3.0-liter V-6 TDI gives the familiar clackety diesel sound, but only from outside the vehicle. Inside, it’s quiet and smooth.
Performance: Coupled with an eight-speed automatic with ShiftTronic, the Touareg had plenty of power for passing and climbing hills. We filled up all five seats — and packed in the cargo space, as well — and it had plenty of extra power available.
Fuel economy: I observed 27 m.p.g. in a mix of highway and city driving, which is pretty good for a large all-wheel drive. But the savings comes at a diesel price, which is usually higher than premium gasoline these days.
Subtlety: I didn’t reveal to the lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat — who thinks diesels are smelly, dirty, and underpowered — that it was a diesel until after she had driven it. She never suspected.
So, go Touareg? Not so fast.
For a company on the way up with its latest designs (notably the new Passat and Beetle), they’ve left some unfortunate design glitches in their top-of-the-line SUV.
CD changer: I’ve written about cumbersome and complicated CD interfaces before, but the Touareg wins the Worst of the Worst (So Far) award.
At first I thought the Touareg was too advanced for a CD player. But the display screen seemed to indicate that a disc player was available. The lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat and I hunted and hunted, and then consulted the owners’ manual.
And, of course, where else would you put a CD player but in the glove box?
And it’s tucked away over the top of the glove box, with a tiny little lever to pull that allows it to drop down, so music lovers have to move all their junk out of the way first.
Forget about changing the CD on the fly. Or at a red light. Or with any convenience.
Really, Volkswagen? No one there ever rode in, say, a Jeep? Where the display screen slides forward and reveals the disc player? It’s not my favorite solution, either, but it’s way better than this.
Speed control: Normal Volkswagens have a convenient little switch on the turn signal stalk to set cruise control. It’s been one of my favorites because it’s easy to read and operate.
The Touareg takes a page from Toyota and adds a separate, short stalk for the cruise. But Volkswagen puts it on the same side as the turn signal. I cannot count how many times I wanted to signal and reset the cruise, or wanted to slow down and instead put on the turn signal.
Plenty of sun: The giant sunroof was a boon to rear-seat passengers. But opening it the whole way created some real sonic vibrations. I had to crack the rear windows to alleviate it.
Friends and family: The Touareg also lacks a third row of seats, meaning that at least one of the Sturgis Kids stays behind. I’ve been surprised by third rows in some SUVs, notably the Mitsubishi Outlander and the Kia Sorento (read reviews in future Driver’s Seat columns). But the Volkswagen surprised me by not having one.
Where it’s built: Bratislava, Slovakia.
How it’s built: The Touareg is still fairly new, having been redesigned for the 2011 model year. The 2011 J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey puts Volkswagen at the bottom among automakers, though the company has been making lots of changes to improve its reliability.
In the end: The Touareg is a nice ride, with luxurious touches. And the TDI engine offers better economy without chugging or belching black smoke. But the overall package leaves me thinking of old "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoons. "And, now, for something really different. …" Of course, it may appeal to someone buying something named for a nomadic tribe in Northern Africa.
Contact Scott Sturgis at 215-854-2558 or firstname.lastname@example.org.