1997 Volkswagen Passat TDI It was difficult enough to return the posterior-cosseting and back-relieving driver's seat on loan from Recaro North America; it was downright gut-wrenching to finally part with Volkswagen AG's Passat TDI that sheltered that Recaro for the last year - and served our staff eloquently and with nary a complaint. When VW carted off the Passat, the Ward's fold felt it lost a member of the family.

That's partly due to the fact that we barely had to lift a finger - let alone open a wallet - to keep the Passat in peak-performing condition. VW's impressive no-cost warranty took care of all scheduled maintenance stops through the 2-year, 24,000-mile (38,600-km) warranty, and even covered the not-so-routine breakdowns.

So keeping the Passat TDI on the road cost roughly $760 - the cost of diesel fuel needed to turn the engine for the 32,023 miles (51,500 km) we had it.

In all, the TDI's economy amounted to an almost ludicrous 46.4 mpg (5L/100km) overall average.

More impressive than the paltry sum necessary to run the Passat was the performance delivered for the price. In voting the TDI one of the Ten Best Engines of 1997, we recognized immediately the deceptiveness of the 90-hp and 149-ft.-lb. (202-Nm) specifications. Who would expect those numbers to create "awesome 'pull-away' power on the highway at 70 mph (113 km/h)," as one WAW editor noted?

The fact is, the Passat's engine, the torquey 1.9L TDI direct-injection turbo-diesel I-4, pulls a carload at any speed.

Several editors found it difficult to adapt to the TDI's inherent diesel characteristics however, and our complaints no doubt reflect Americans' relative unfamiliarity with diesel operation generally.

One evidently race-happy staffer noted the TDI "redlines WAY before I'm ready to shift!" Admittedly, most of us reached the fuel cutoff limit at least once, though some seemed to adapt their driving styles to use the torque, not the horsepower.

Overall, the Passat TDI was the office favorite for longer trips, particularly after its first over-the-road duty - a round trip between Detroit and Chicago - cost one editor $12 for fuel. Try that in an Expedition.

1997 Ford F-150

Unless you're a farmer, construction worker or horse owner, does anybody really NEED a truck, we automotive journalists snootily ponder? After all, a soccer ball and groceries fit just fine in your average family sedan, and have for some time now.

But as much as we like to gripe about the gluttonous suburban appetite for trucks and their annoying propensity for clogging our concrete arteries, we unapologetically adored our long-term F-150. Period.

Yes, the 9 mpg (26L/100km) we squeezed from the behemoth in its first few hundred miles underwhelmed at best. Even with sub-$1 gasoline, the thought of filling the F's

25-gal. (95L) tank every other day was, to say the least, somewhat daunting.

But within a couple of weeks the electronic engine management system settled on a more reasonable algorithm, finally averaging about 15.4 mpg (15.3L/100km) since its delivery some 30,819 miles (49,597 km) previous.

It towed boats and planes with ease, the 5.4L Triton SOHC V-8 barely breaking a sweat in doing so.The extended-cab F, with its useful passenger-side third door, swallowed everything we needed to carry. More important, this truck also proved to be ultra-reliable. Nothing broke. Everything was - and remained - assembled beautifully. And the Triton-powered 4-wheel-drive drivetrain feels like it'll last forever.

And the styling, to our editorial eye, is spot-on perfect. One editor, in a particularly glowing log book entry, sums up our feelings perfectly: "Bottom line: This truck makes you feel like you rule the road. I want one!"

Ford has scheduled an update for the F-150/250 next year. The engineers have their work cut out - we can hardly think of a thing we'd change. Except perhaps for the addition of a driver's-side grab handle: That first step up, after all, is a doozy!