2013 Volkswagen Passat TDI
Engine: 2.0L I4 TDI Clean Diesel
Power: 140 hp
Torque: 236 lb-ft
Fuel Economy: 31/43
Starting MSRP: $26,225
The man from the car delivery service was happy about parking in midtown. Maybe a little too happy. "That's the nice thing about midtown—lots of parking," he said over the phone. I hadn't heard that one before, but I suppose it's true. When I met him in the lobby he was positively gleeful about the garage he'd found. "Turn left out of the building, walk half a block, and it's right there. Like, right there!" I nodded, took the keys, and made a mental note to reconsider the recreational applications for Zoloft.
The car park was in fact just half a block down the street, but only a braver man than I could get much excited about it. A steep ramp plunged off the sidewalk into the cavernous garage below, with just two lanes for ingress and egress, vehicular or otherwise. Two skinny lanes at that. It's as if the designer of the garage forgot that actual flesh and blood humans drive cars, and that while, yes, they need convenient, space-efficient places to deposit their trusty steel-and-glass steeds when they come to the city for Mama Mia or the Rockettes or whatever other casual diversions they have their minds set on, those same humans will still have to perambulate out of and back into the goddamn garage at some point.
As it is, patrons of Central Parking on 51st play a dead man's game walking in and out of the place, potentially beset by cars charging into the garage from the street, or cars roaring out of the garage from the depths below. Or, possibly, horses. There are a lot of horses in midtown, catering to the Central Park carriage trade. But they haven't lodged horses in parking garages since the '70s, right? RIGHT?
Passat is not German for "soother of man with an irrational fear of being run down by a carriage horse on the ramp of a midtown parking garage," but it might as well be (it actually means “trade wind”). Motor Trend’s 2012 Car of the Year is not the flashiest whip around. Its “Hi! I’m a mid-size family sedan!” exterior will not snap necks on the street (great for hitting on MILFs with an appreciation for fuel efficiency, though). Its 9.3-second 0-60 time will not win many drag races (its 5-star crash ratings could save your life should you wrap a telephone pole while participating in one, though). It will not get your kids into nicer schools (but again, it’ll get them to their shitty school safe and sound). What it is is a solid, reliable, sensible car. And, in a city that is sending horses, metaphorical or otherwise, to grind you into bits under their thunderous hooves, it’s all you could ask for, and more.
Scooting down the West Side Highway, midtown in the rearview and no signs of equine traffic through the dash, the Passat gives the first indications that it’s a little more than just a sensible ride. The manual transmission shows surprising zip, especially in the second and third gears, and the steering is responsive. Be careful, though: Just because the exterior is non-descript doesn’t mean the car is invisible, or even made out of anti-matter; if you get too frisky with the lane changes you will engender the wrath of other motorists, naturally. Better to keep it simple: Just get the kids.
Here’s the trick to making the perfect family car for the city: The car itself has to be relatively compact; the interior has to be fuckin’ huge. Sounds like an experiment with the aforementioned anti-matter, but somehow the Passat manages to pull it off. If the Passat’s exterior is nondescript, the interior feels luxe: roomy and low-slung, it practically begs you to relax.
In Howard Beach there is a place called Kids ‘N Shape, an indoor children’s playspace used for birthday parties and the like. It’s the size of a basketball court and has all kinds of fun stuff: giant tubs filled with plastic balls for kids to jump in, a zip line, a 20-foot-tall blow-up slide. It’s awesome. It’s also in a strip mall, wedged behind a parking lot with spaces for maybe 3.5 cars tops. In other words, it goddamn better be awesome inside because it’s a massive clusterfuck getting the kids out of the car while double-parked and dodging traffic on Cross Bay Blvd.
Turns out the Passat is equipped to ease the horrors of this city situation, too. Stalling a stick-shift is a fact of life for out-of-practice city drivers (this one, at least). It’s a horrible experience—other motorists honking furiously, me frantically fumbling to get the car re-started—compounded by the fact that the stall itself is usually announced with an almighty jerking of the entire car. The Passat has the sweetest, softest stall, ever. At times (yup, it happened more than once) it’s impossible to tell the car has flat-lined, which poses its own set of problems vis-a-vis other motorists pounding their horns. It feels like a gift nonetheless: You’ve done this boneheaded thing, the rest of the world is mad at you, but the Passat will not rub salt in your wound (nor will it clothesline you with its seat belt).
The Passat is similarly gentle in third gear and above. The Belt Parkway, Ocean Avenue, speed bumps (literally) on various Brooklyn backroads: no horses for the entire rest of the weekend. The Passat TDI is equipped with a direct-injected 140-horsepower 2.0-liter I4 engine; as mentioned, it’s not going to beat any sports cars off the line, but it’s surprisingly jaunty at speed, and the handling is nimble to boot. The interior is airy and bright, and the sightlines are great. The aforementioned I4 runs on diesel, but “runs” is a misnomer. The Passat sips the stuff, it doesn’t gulp; in fact the manual transmission set a fuel economy record of 77.99 mpg. Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and back: during a full weekend’s driving, I couldn’t get the gas gauge to budge.
Of course any serenity bestowed over the weekend evaporates in the crosstown Bataan Death March back to midtown Monday morning. The car’s not a miracle worker; it’s just a ride. But it’s a damned good one at that.