They say timing is everything.
Two days before I was to set out on a 600-mile, 24-hour, Seattle-to-Spokane roundtrip road trip in a 2013 Volkswagen Passat, VW released a new driving app called SmileDrive. The app was developed in partnership with Google and is currently only available for Android, so I picked up a surprisingly full-featured, no-contract Android phone for $80, loaded the app and hit the road.
On a daily driving basis, SmileDrive awards a score for every drive — factoring things like weather, distance driven and time of day — and liberally awards badges for a variety of achievements. The novelty factor feels pretty high here, and I can't see this aspect of the app maintaining its appeal over time.
For road trips, though, SmileDrive is indeed something to smile about.
Once installed on the phone and synced with the car via Bluetooth, SmileDrive tracks every drive automatically (it's supposed to, anyway). As far as I can tell, the app only relies on the connection to know when the car turns on and off; the rest of the information is gathered by the phone via internet and GPS.
In everyday mode, SmileDrive treats every drive as a single event. Because my drive was of the road trip variety, I started a Smilecast before heading out of Seattle, which generated a webpage for the trip that would track my location and route, and incorporate photos taken along the way. I shared the link via social media and email, allowing anyone who cared to check in on my trip to Spokane and back in real time. From there on out all I had to do was take some pictures, and SmileDrive did the rest.
When I returned to Seattle the next day after an evening of catching up with old friends on the other side of Washington, I ended the Smilecast. And that's when the app shined brightest. As soon as you finish a trip, the tracking webpage turns into a share-worthy record of the trip with a time-stamped, map-synced, music-backed slideshow of all the pictures you took along the way. It's a cool feature made even better by the fact that the whole process requires none of your attention during your adventure; just plan a trip, take some pictures, and SmileDrive does all the work.
Here's a link to the Smilecast of my trip:
On the map, you can see the app lost me in the middle of the state going each way. I thought it might have been a cell coverage issue, but both times it stopped tracking me after a stop. And on the video/slideshow, where it looks like I backtracked, I didn't. Next time I'll check that the app is actively tracking the drive after each stop.
Maybe SmileDrive has a few kinks (likely), and maybe it needs a little finesse. Either way, I'm a fan of the app and I'm eager to use it again.
As soon as they make a version for iPhone, that is.
2013 Volkswagen Passat
The SmileDrive app works with any Bluetooth-equipped vehicle, but it felt right testing it in a VW. The match was also purely coincidental; the blue Passat V6 was a late replacement for a Jaguar F-Type I had originally lined up for the trip. Our long-term test fleet currently includes a 2012 VW Passat TDI, so I knew it would be valuable to spend some extended time in the V6 model to reality-check our devotion to the diesel.
Spoiler alert: I'm still devoted to the diesel.
The Passat V6 has the same great European driving feel as the TDI, the same comfortable highway ride and the same good seats, but it also offers a lot more highway passing power thanks to its 280-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6. The flip side is that its 28-mpg highway rating is short of other V6 midsize sedans', and far short of the Passat TDI's 40 mpg highway number.
If I spent more time scooting up two-lane mountain roads working my way past back markers, I'd have a tougher time foregoing the added oomph of the V6. But all things considered after more than 600 miles in each, I'd definitely choose the diesel.
Moving past the powertrain comparisons, the seats were comfortable overall but I found the head restraints a bit protrusive on the long drive. The angled design of the upper door panel looks good, but doesn't make for an elbow-friendly armrest. The Passat's infotainment system proved serviceable but lackluster out on the open road, a problem VW will begin to remedy in the 2014 model year with its new and needed Car-Net system.
But driving is still a big part of driving — especially on road trips — and the Passat is simply more satisfying, more enjoyable to drive than most of its competitors.
Add to that its exceptional roominess and refined look, and it's easy to see why we named the Passat to this year's list of 10 Best Sedans Under $25,000.
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