Here’s Why We Can’t Buy That 80-MPG Diesel We Rented in EuropeS

I recently spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos. You’d to this, too, if you were an unemployed writer just waiting for that call. You know the one: it comes from a major car magazine, and it goes something like: “Doug, we love your writing. Can you move to Michigan and summarize press releases for approximately the same salary as people who mow highway medians?” Oh, the excitement! Any day now!

Anyway: like you, I only watch the most exciting YouTube videos. Russian dash cams. Police chases. The royal wedding. You know: stuff that really makes you glad you’re inside.

But I recently stumbled across a video that merits serious coverage. So I, dear readers, have decided to take up that task even though I’ve never provided serious coverage of anything, aside from the time I asserted the coolest cars came from the mid-2000s and, you, in reply, asserted that I’m a complete jackass.

I’ll start with a summary of the video. First, a gruff-looking guy sits down in front of the camera. Then, the guy begins speaking, which causes you to think: Is he really going to film this entire video in portrait mode? Once you realize that, yes, that’s exactly what’s he’s going to do, you start listening and quickly discover the following four facts:

1. The gruff-looking guy recently visited Europe, where he probably perpetuated a variety of American stereotypes by insisting that a café in Paris serve him “a cold Miller Lite” and “set up a TV with the game.”

2. While in Europe, the gruff-looking guy rented a diesel Volkswagen that returned more than 50 miles per gallon. Because European towns are very small (Rome, for instance, is roughly the same size as a beach umbrella), the gruff-looking guy failed to notice the car had the acceleration of a millipede.

3. The gruff-looking guy came back to the States and visited his Volkswagen dealer, where he was told Volkswagen doesn’t offer that powertrain in America. Angered, he replied: “Well, can I at least have a cold Miller Lite?!”

4. The gruff-looking guy decides to blame the government for Volkswagen’s decision not to offer his desired powertrain in the States. Reached for comment, President Obama said: Is this entire video in portrait mode?

I watched this video with great excitement, largely because I love it when people who aren’t into cars give their opinions about cars. Really, their perspective is always highly interesting. An example is when my girlfriend was looking for an SUV last year, so we drove the Lexus RX 330, and after the test drive she remarked: I really like that one. It was at this point I knew that we could no longer continue our relationship.

But like many non-car people trying to make their way in the complicated world of cars, our gruff-looking friend had the right idea, but the wrong facts. No, Mr. Gruff-Looking Guy: it isn’t the government that stopped us from getting high-mileage diesels. It’s the American people. Allow me to explain.

To do this, I must take you back to 2003. You might remember 2003, because it was the year that politically-minded adults debated whether Iraq had any weapons of mass destruction, while their children tried to figure out what the hell Andre 3000 was talking about when he implored women to “shake it like a polaroid picture.”

It was also the year that Volkswagen finally brought a European-market Passat diesel to the United States.

That’s right: the 2004 Passat offered a 2.0-liter turbodiesel 4-cylinder, presumably designed to satisfy all those people like Mr. Gruff-Looking Guy who insisted that Volkswagen was saving its most efficient cars for Europeans.

And guess what? Nobody bought it.

You see, the problem with that Passat – and most European-market diesels – is that they’re unbelievably slow. In the Passat’s case, it offered 134 horsepower and reached 60 mph in 10.5 seconds. Americans, as it turned out, wanted better gas mileage – but not if it meant they couldn’t reach highway speeds on the onramp. The result was that Volkswagen shelved the US-market Passat diesel until 2012, when rising gas prices finally meant Americans would trade a little speed for a little efficiency.

And now we return to the gruff-looking guy’s video. He says his European rental car of choice was actually a 1.6-liter Passat diesel, which is an even smaller engine than the one they sold here in 2004. So I checked the numbers: the B6 Passat’s 1.6 TDI model produced 104 horsepower, topped out around 119 mph, and did the 0-to-60 run in twelve point seven seconds. Is that really worth 50-plus miles per gallon?

To some people, the answer is yes. These are the kind of people who buy Priuses and show up for flights three hours ahead of schedule. But our gas is still cheap enough that most Americans would rather have a bigger engine – and Volkswagen is keenly aware of that.

In other words: yes, it’s true we don’t get tiny diesel cars with double-digit horsepower ratings. But it’s not because of the government. It’s because Americans don’t want to drive down the road while simultaneously wondering: Is this thing on? And once gruff-looking guy attempted to drive a 104-horsepower, 3,500-pound midsize sedan on a large American highway, I expect he would feel exactly the same way.

@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He operates PlaysWithCars.com. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.