• Sep 18th 2008 at 3:27PM
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2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

The state of California has the toughest vehicle emissions regulations in the world with its LEV II (and the corresponding national Tier 2 Bin 5) standards. Those rules treat all engine types the same regardless of what type of fuel they use. It doesn't matter if the engine runs on gasoline, diesel or cow dung, the rules are the same. Those rules are so tight, that no manufacturer has been able to sell light duty vehicles with diesel engines in California and four other states for the last several years. That's all changing now beginning with last month's retail sales launch of the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI. The Jetta is the first new diesel-powered car to meet the T2B5 rules and it's fitting that VW invited the media out to the birthplace of emissions regulations to drive it. We spent a day driving the Jetta TDI in and around Santa Monica to gauge whether the Jetta has the right balance of Fahrvergnügen and low fuel consumption to make it a viable alternative to cars like the Prius, Civic and Focus. Continue after the jump to find out more.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

Those who know me, know that I'm both a car geek and a technology geek. When it comes to all manner of technology or transportation, friends and acquaintances often gravitate toward me for counsel when the time comes to buy. Often the question is what's the best car or computer to buy, and almost invariably my response is my own barrage of questions. You see, I don't believe there is one best car for everyone. It all depends on a combination of needs, desires and resources. Hard as it is for some people to believe, there are a few people for whom a big SUV makes sense. I don't personally know any of those people, but I can definitely imagine who they might be. But we're not here right now to discuss SUVs.

The subject matter today is a more personal and I think sensible kind of transportation. Something in a compact to mid-size car. Not to minimalist, but certainly not a luxury car. This is the kind of car that the average middle class person might use to commute to work, the gym, the grocery store, or out on a date. With gas prices still near their all time highs and credit increasingly tight I've had several people ask me for advice recently on buying a vehicle that won't break the bank either at the showroom or the pump. For nearly a million people in recent years, the answer has turned out to be the Toyota Prius. While friends hear the news that the Prius is the most efficient car available right now, when they come to me, I start with a question. "Do you like to drive?"

"Well do you?" For a great many Americans the answer to that question is a resounding no! There's nothing wrong with that. Most people just want to get in their car and get from one place to another in the shortest possible time with the least amount of stress. They want their drive time to be peaceful and utterly uneventful. For those people there are cars like the Toyota Prius and Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Taurus. Then there are the rest of us. Those who like to get in a car and find a route to their destination that does not minimize the directional changes, or the distance between the origin and terminus. For those of you that are in that group with your humble correspondent, Volkswagen builds the Jetta TDI. The Prius has a great many admirable qualities but "fun to drive" is not among them. For those of you convinced that there is no acceptable alternative to a Prius, you may as well stop reading now, because you just won't care what I think about the Jetta anyway.

Volkswagen's small to mid-size cars have had a reputation for being fun to drive going back to the original Rabbit back in the late 1970s. They've almost always been good handling cars with decent acceleration and reasonably good fuel economy. VW introduced a diesel powered version of the Rabbit in 1976, the first such small car on the U.S. market. The Rabbit grew a trunk in 1979 to become the Jetta and diesel-powered variants have been offered on and off ever since. During the periods when diesel Jettas, Rabbits and Golfs have been available, they have been among the best-selling VWs available. The return of the Jetta TDI has been anticipated by fans of diesels and Volkswagens for well over a year.

The most obvious competitors for the Jetta TDI in terms of size, price and fuel efficiency are the Prius and Civic hybrids. The Jetta lags its Japanese rivals a bit in terms of EPA numbers with the German being rated at 29/40 mpg with the 6-speed DSG transmission and 1 mpg more with a manually-operated clutch. The Prius scores 48/45 with the Civic rating 40/45. When we tested the Civic recently we managed 37 mpg while the Prius got 44 mpg. The new EPA test cycle that was implemented for 2008 is generally believed to underestimate real world mileage by anywhere from 15-20 percent. Following the release of the Jetta's EPA numbers, VW contracted an independent testing company called AMCI to run some real world tests on the Jetta that yielded 38 mpg in the city and 44 on the highway.

Those numbers are closer to the 38-40 or more typically anecdotaly reported by owners of older Jetta diesels. We'll be judging for ourselves when we get to spend an extended period of time with the Jetta. For this preview however, Volkswagen provided a route book in our DSG-equipped Jetta TDI that led us west from Santa Monica through Malibu and into Ventura County along a route that included some cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway and lots of runs up through the twisting canyons that comprise the region.

While Volkswagen has had a somewhat spotty record with the mechanical reliability of some its gas-engined cars over the years, the diesels are generally considered to be almost bulletproof. Similarly the interior build quality and materials of Volkswagens and their more premium siblings from Audi are considered to be among the best in the industry at their respective price points. Even a base Jetta starting at just over $17,000 has a classy look with no unfinished edges and materials that look like they belong in a $30,000 car. The leather-wrapped steering wheel has a pleasantly thick, easy to grip rim perfectly suited to commanding changes in direction. The location of the wheel relative to the driver is also adjustable with respect to angle and reach.

The seats of our test drive example were also wrapped in leatherette (a very convincing synthetic alternative) and had suitably supportive side bolsters that were up to the task of keeping the driver situated in front of the wheel. After three hours in the car, this driver's back side was also well rested. The gauges are clear and easy to read and all TDIs come standard with the trip computer that displays a variety of information in the center of the cluster. As with any proper driver's car, the gauges are also located directly in front of the driver rather than off in the center of the dash.

Visibility is excellent with pillars that aren't as exceptionally thick as they are on so many modern cars. The back seat is also quite roomy for two adults although as with all similarly-sized vehicles a third passenger would need to be on the slim side. The Prius does have a bit more rear leg room, but the Jetta has a particularly commodious and well shaped 16 cu ft trunk. Unlike its chief competitors, the Jetta is also available as a wagon that offers 33 cu ft behind the rear seats and 67 cu ft with the seats down.

On the road, the dual clutch DSG transmission offers completely automatic shifting for those who desire it with the option of manual control without having to operate a clutch. Unlike the other applications of this transmission like the R32, GTI and various Audis, the TDI eschews the steering wheel mounted paddles. So manual shifts require reaching for the lever and tapping forward for an up-shift and back to go down. Either way, shifts are smooth and manual requests are realized quickly. A completely manual three pedal version is also available. Right off the line, the DSG engages the clutch as smoothly as any torque converter automatic and no unruly behavior was apparent.

As with most diesels, drag launches are not the Jetta's forte, but then we don't buy a car with this kind of fuel efficiency to go drag racing, do we? Once underway, the ample 236 lb-ft of torque is easily accessible and provides plenty of grunt for passing or merging onto freeways. When the roads transform from linear to twisty, the Jetta's suspension truly shines. The TDI's 16 inch alloy wheels are wrapped in basic all-season tires, but the suspension makes the most of them. There is mild understeer but an admirable amount of overall grip. The springs and dampers keep the body well under control and rapid transitions from one direction to another never unsettle the Jetta. It just goes where you point it and neither the limited body roll or the direction of the back end of the car ever try to get out of phase with the steering command.

The only slightly note about the handling is the all too common light steering effort just off center. Once you turn in a bit more things tighten up and the Jetta has decent steering feedback. The canyons in the area of Malibu will put any car to the test and Jetta comes away with an excellent grade. VW invited the gathered media to participate in an informal competition to see who could achieve the lowest fuel consumption over the 125 mile route. Since most of the nearly fifty other journalists in attendance were trying to see who could get the best mileage, my driving partner and I decided to see how much driving style affected mileage.

We didn't do any jack rabbit starts or racing for lights, but knowing that VW aims for fun to drive, we decided to see how much driving for fun would cost. As such we made no real attempt during our handling evaluation to maximize fuel efficiency instead focusing on the fun. Nonetheless, even after a couple of stretches totaling about 15 miles of going mostly uphill and squirting from one turn to the next, the mileage according to the trip computer just barely dipped below 27 mpg. By the time we returned to the hotel the overall mileage according to the trip computer was up to over 31 mpg. Upon our return the VW crew refilled all the vehicles and calculated total fuel use. Steve Ewing of Winding Road and I averaged 30.7 mpg. The top driver pair for the day over the same route achieved an astounding 44 mpg!. So far John and Helen Taylor have covered over 5,000 mile of their trek through the lower 48 states and averaged 58.2 mpg in an identical Jetta TDI.

With a starting price tag for the sedan of just $21,990 (minus a $1,300 tax credit) for a well-equipped model and $23,590 for the wagon, this car is a great deal for those who are looking for excellent fuel mileage and a fun to drive car. Even with the current $0.58 / gallon premium for diesel compared to regular gas, you'll still come out well ahead. For those who see the car as nothing more than an appliance but find the Prius unavailable, a Jetta will still serve your needs more than adequately without ever disturbing you. And on the off chance you decide to check out a little Fahrvergnügen, it's right there below your right foot.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own – we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 8 Months Ago
      VW is making progress. I own a 2003 VW Jetta TDI Wagon. Bought it new for under $20K. Currently have 165,000 miles on it with very few problems. Expenses:
      Alternator at 92,000 miles
      Timing belt at 100,000 miles (regular maint.)
      Brake rotors at 140,000 miles (not unusual)
      Driver's side door lock mechanism at 155,000 miles

      Averaging between 47-48 MPG over the first 165,000 (mostly highway) miles.

      And WAY, WAY more fun to drive than any wimpy hybrid!
      • 8 Months Ago
      We bought 2009Jetta TDI and so far we have been back to the dealer 3 times. The check engine light keeps comming on, and they keep resseting it, and it comes back again. They kept our car for 2 days, and I just learned that we have to run it some more and that they will need to replace (I don't know the part name), the part that gives it fuel (not the pump though). Meanwhile the hassle involved getting late to work, and the problem is still not fixed, and we ought to comeback once the part totally braks down? I hope not while we are comping far from the city. 2 weaks ago we had an appt. with dealer to look to the problem, and when my husband got there at 6AM, thy said the appt. was canceled, except no one told us this. To summarize, we experienced a very bad costumer service, and the problem is not fixed. We will have to cambacke again when the part totally brakes down. I wonder who will be paying for the towing. In terms of milage we are doing around 29/30 city and 40/42 highway. Not too bad. But the mechanical issues worry me,because we just got the car. There should be no problems at this stage.

      • 7 Years Ago
      Sounds like VW traded power for efficiency. My '01 (with no focus on driving for maximum fuel efficiency) returns a 48mpg average. But then again, it only has 90hp and 155ft/lbs of torque (which, by the way, is more than enough anywhere in the country I've driven... 22 states from coast to coast at this point). Too bad, because that extra power isn't really needed, or even needed to enjoy driving the car.. but increased economy is never a complaint.

      Anyway, 160k miles and I wouldn't trade it for any other vehicle available in the US currently. :) I do look forward to trying to Diesel Subies and Volvos when/if they arrive.
        • 8 Months Ago
        Hi, I grew up with diesel rabbits and knew what I wanted. So I saved up for my 1999.5 Golf IV TDI and I love it! Only 95,000 miles.
        The only drawback is the hatchback doesn't have a flat floor, like the Jetta wagon, when the back seats are down. I'd like to occasionally sleep in the back. And the deep rim of the hatchback opening makes it hard to load and unload heavy stuff. Here the Jetta Wagon again has the flat entry rim, so it is easy to side stuff in and out!
        I am watching for a better mpg wagon, but not impressed with their mpg numbers. And I don't need more power.

        • 8 Months Ago
        BRian M. I agree, My 01 TDI jetta I would not trade fro anything here in the US yet. I only have 89k on mine so Lots of miles left on it.
        I won't read consumer reports after what they did the the Suzuki Samauri. Unbias I don't think so. They made me mad as h. on that one.
      • 8 Months Ago
      I have spoken to no owner of a VW built in recent years that would ever buy one again. The problems are endless. They all ultimately switch to Japanese cars. This holds true in Europe too where I spoke to a couple of mechanics in my family. Instead, the Europeans recommend the multi-jet diesel, which runs cleaner and more efficient than the TDI. They are also more reliable after the early production problems were resolved. Problem is, we can't get these better diesels here.
      • 8 Months Ago
      I have owned 4 Jettas over the years,my most recent being a 2007 model,and they are awesome cars.
      Good lookiing,fun to drive,lots of safety and luxury features,and the latest one is very roomy,with best interior and trunk in its class.
      I have also owned Ford and GM product,and this isuch better.
      And I find Toyota and Honda products too bland and boring.
      My next car WILL be a TDI Jetta.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I want to buy VW products, but their reliability is just awful. Talk to anyone who has owned a modern VW, and they usually will give you an earful about how they'll never buy another one.

      About the last 10 years, Consumer Reports has ranked every single VW model with a "black ball" and most of their models have topped the charts as "Cars To Avoid" because of their many problems.

      If VW had near Toyota or Honda-like quality (or even Chevrolet), they would absolutely dominate the market as their products are so much more interesting and fun. I hope VW improves its quality in the future. I passed on a new Passat I really wanted just because of its horrid record.
      • 7 Years Ago

      I've heard that the 50-ish MPG figures on longer highway cruises are the norm.

      As for the reliability issues - I've never had any problems - friends that have always have been able to trace it back to the mechanics both dealer and non-dealer. They usually evolve around improperly completed repairs or basic stuff - 'ASE trained' is meaningless in my book unless they like the cars.

      But I'm glad the diesels are back, too bad though about the Tiguan.......

        • 8 Months Ago
        Sounds to me that the 'cooling fan computer' may also run/control the compressor - or since it would be extremely unusual for the compressor to run all the time - it may also affect the ability of the fan(s) to cool effectively.

        It's all speculation on my part. But compressors have never been designed to run all the time. It certainly seems that there mat be more to the picture here than the dealer is telling or diagnosing properly - and it wouldn't be the first time. Remember that an extended warranty does not guarantee a proper diagnosis and I'd get a second or third oppinion,

        Shops and dealers make money off of selling parts - regardless of who is paying.
        • 8 Months Ago
        I just bought a new 2009 Jetta TDI sedan. I had read about the electrical problems VW had, but I chose to ignore them. So, I bought the car Thursday May 28th 09 and 2 days later on the 30th its in the shop because the cooling fan computer failed and neither cooling fan would work. Overall I love the car, but I am really glad I bought the extended warranty at the rate things are going! Also, I dont know if anyone has noticed or not, but the A/C compressor never turns off on the new cars....even when I have the A/C off and the fan inside off the compressor stills runs....whats up with that?
      • 7 Years Ago
      Anyone who knows the implications of the phrase "rubber timing belt" would beg to differ with your description of the VW TDI as "almost bulletproof."
        • 8 Months Ago
        You mean kevlar timing belt with a 120K mile maintenance interval?
      • 7 Years Ago
      Sam, Good review. This sentence summed it up well: "While Volkswagen has had a somewhat spotty record with the mechanical reliability of some its gas-engined cars over the years, the diesels are generally considered to be almost bulletproof"... My father-in-law owned a diesel VW Rabbit: motor excellent, the rest of the car, not so good. My son owned a gas Jetta... more mechanical problems than I care to discuss. So, if VW can cure their reliability problems (Consumer Reports is the most unbiased source of info... most VW's receive the feared "black ball"... BAD!) than I would consider this car. Remember: $21,000 is a "great deal" ONLY if the car is NOT in the shop all the time! Also, VW needs to fix its dealerships... my brother bought a VW van several years ago, and along with myriad of mechanical problems, the service rep at the dealer was a total jerk! Remember when VW dealerships had GERMAN mechanics AND excellent service? I remember, because I got my driver's license in 1970! So, if VW 1. Fixes reliability and quality issues of the Jetta and 2. gets dealers which treat you like Lexus or Saturn, then I shall consider this car... otherwise, I vote for the Toyota Prius.
        • 8 Months Ago
        "They're all made in Mexico."

        Only the Jetta 2.5 and New Beetle 2.5 are assembled in Mexico.
        • 8 Months Ago
        although there have been certain issues with each and every automaker over the years, VW included, there is one aspect of your comment that needs much review. You state that: "Consumer Reports is the most unbiased source of info... most VW's receive the feared "black ball"... BAD!" However, Consumer Reports currently RECOMMENDS the Jetta, the Rabbit and the Eos, and the Tiguan just received a score of very good. In addition, SEVEN Volkswagen models are currently TOP SAFETY PICKS from the IIHS. See if a Toyota ever got that designation...
        • 8 Months Ago
        The diesel Jettas are made in Europe, but the petrol ones are made in Mexico. I'll let you draw your own conclusions from there. :/
        • 8 Months Ago
        I had a 1980 VW Rabbit that was made in Westmoreland County, PA. Yes...the engine was "dirty" (by todays standards)when you started it. But once you got it going, it burned fuel VERY well. I took a "shakedown" trip from Philadelphia to Memphis...traveling at 65 mph on interstates, and the "Bunny" got anywhere from 57-60 mpg on diesel. The rest of the vehicle needed MORE engineering to keep it from falling apart (7 exhaust systems in 3 years, weak shocks, body rust, etc.). But the motor was like a tank; it ran & ran & ran & ran....with excellent mileage!
        • 8 Months Ago
        They're all made in Mexico, at least all the ones made for the North American market. Volkswagen's been building cars in Mexico since the 1960s; I think they've probably got the hang of it by now.

        I've been driving a VW diesel for about 130,000 miles with no (serious) mechanical problems, but I think I have been luckier than some. If nothing else, VW badly needs to improve their dealer service before they can start building a better reputation for quality.
        • 8 Months Ago
        I understand that a lot of the reliability complaints have been electrical in nature and therefore not related to whether it is a gas vs Diesel.

        I'm planning to buy one and cross my fingers and perhaps sell it once the warantee runs out.

        This car is really fun to drive.

        I suppose they are trying to play it safe and make sure Diesel doesn't get a reputation as a laggard. Hopefully they'll offer smaller engines in the future. I'd have bought another Audi but they insist on bringing over a 3.0L TDI with good but not remarkable mileage, and a huge excess of torque.
        • 8 Months Ago
        "Only the Jetta 2.5 and New Beetle 2.5 are assembled in Mexico."


        All Jettas are built in Puebla Mexico, by hardworking skilled laborers paid $30 a day.

        My ordered TDI Sportwagen has a 3 in the Area Code position of the VIN meaning North America and an M in the Assembly Plant location meaning Puebla Mexico. Every single VIN on every Jetta TDI I've seen listed at every dealer I've searched has indicated assembly in Puebla Mexico.

        The engine and transmission are built in Germany.
        • 8 Months Ago
        "(Consumer Reports is the most unbiased source of info... most VW's receive the feared "black ball"... BAD!)"

        Check your sources. The latest batch of golf-based VWs (A5-platform) have earned better than average reliability scores from Consumer Reports. The Rabbit even scored "excellent" reliability and thus obtained the #1 recommendation in its category.
      • 7 Years Ago
      The TDI doesn't have leather upholstery; it's "leatherette" AKA V-Tex AKA vinyl. It's actually more pliable than the leather portions of the leather/vinyl used in the SEL, and doesn't have the maintenance issues leather does, but I find it baffling that VW's marketing department thinks it's an upgrade over the nice cloth in the S to make it standard and sole choice in the SE and TDI.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I've got a 2000 Golf TDI. The engine and manual trans have been bullet proof. A few electrical problems but nothing major.

      My wife's 2002 Jetta TDI OTOH had the auto trans fail at 65k miles. I'm not sure what we're going to do with the car. I'd like to convert it to a manual trans as all the info I see on the various web sites leads me to believe the auto trans is junk.
      • 8 Months Ago
      I own a 2003 Jetta TDI wagon. I average about 45 mpg highway and over 30 in the city. Despite a few electrical issues and inside trim issues, like sensors failing and tail lights that seem to have to be replaced by the dealer (and not me), the car has been great. The back seat is a bit small for a baby seat, so we are going to buy a used larger sedan. If I were buying a NEW car, I would get the sportwagen TDI. And no, I don't work for VW...
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