The Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Cartography (SCIAMACHY) satellite spectrometer provides detailed information on the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) content in the planetary boundary layer. NO2 tropospheric column retrievals of SCIAMACHY and its predecessor Global Ozone Monitoring Experiment are characterized by errors of the order of 40%. We present here a new SCIAMACHY tropospheric retrieval data set for the year 2003. The cloud free satellite observations are compared to surface measurements and simulations over western Europe performed with the regional air-quality model CHIMERE. The model has a resolution of 50 km similar to the satellite observations. For these comparisons, averaging kernels are applied to the collocated model profiles to remove the dependency of the comparison on a priori NO2 profile information used in the retrieval. The consistency of both SCIAMACHY and CHIMERE outputs over sites where surface measurements are available allows us to be confident in evaluation of the model over large areas not covered by surface observations. CHIMERE underestimates surface NO2 concentrations for urban and suburban stations which we mainly attribute to the low representativeness of point observations. No such bias is found for rural locations. The yearly average SCIAMACHY and CHIMERE spatial NO2 distributions show a high degree of quantitative agreement over rural and urban sites: a bias of 5% (relative to the retrievals) and a correlation coefficient of 0.87 (n = 2003). On a seasonal basis, biases are smaller than 20% and correlation coefficients are larger than 0.75. Spatial correlations between both the model and satellite columns and the European Monitoring and Evaluation Program (EMEP) emission inventory are high in summer (r = 0.74, n = 1779) and low in winter (r = 0.48, n = 1078), related to seasonal changes in lifetime and transport. On the other hand, CHIMERE and SCIAMACHY columns are mutually consistent in summer (r = 0.82) and in winter (r = 0.79). This shows that CHIMERE simulates the transport and chemical processes with a reasonable accuracy. The NO2 columns show a high daily variability. The daily NO2 pollution plumes observed by SCIAMACHY are often well described by CHIMERE both in extent and in location. This result demonstrates the capabilities of a satellite instrument such as SCIAMACHY to monitor the NO2 concentrations over large areas on a daily basis. It provides evidence that present and future satellite missions, in combination with CTM and surface data, will contribute to improve quantitative air quality analyses at a continental scale.