• Sep 19th 2008 at 11:58AM
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2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI – Cick above for high-res image gallery

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

My friends know that I'm a geek about cars. When it comes time to buy any kind of transportation, friends and acquaintances often gravitate toward me for counsel. When asked what's the best car for the money, I almost invariably respond with my own barrage of questions. I don't believe there is one best car for everyone, so it all depends on your combination of needs, desires and resources. Hard as it is for some to believe, there are a folks for whom a big SUV makes sense. I don't know any of them personally, but I can definitely imagine who they are. But we're not here right now to discuss SUVs.

The subject matter today is a more personal and perhaps sensible kind of transportation. Something in a compact to mid-size car. Not too minimalist, but certainly not a luxury car. 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 record highs and credit increasingly tight, I've had several people ask for advice on buying a vehicle that won't break the bank at the showroom or at the pump. For nearly a million people in recent years, the only answer has been the Toyota Prius. But before I offer up Toyota's green machine, I always ask, "Do you like to drive?"

Well do you? For many Americans, the answer to that question is a resounding "No!" And there's nothing wrong with that. Most people just want to get from one place to another in the shortest possible time with the least amount of stress. They want their driving time to be peaceful and 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 who like to get in a car and find a route to our destination that does not minimize the directional changes, or the distance between the origin and terminus. For those of you in this group, Volkswagen now offers the Jetta TDI. The Prius has many admirable qualities, but "fun to drive" is not one of them.

Volkswagen's small to midsize cars have had reputations for being fun to drive going back to the original Rabbit 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 for sale in the U.S. The Rabbit grew a trunk in 1979 and became 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've been among the best-selling VWs available and 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 Hybrid. The Jetta TDI lags behind its Japanese rivals in terms of official EPA numbers with the German being rated at 29/40 mpg with a 6-speed DSG transmission and 1 mpg more with a manually-operated clutch. The Prius scores 48/45 and the Civic Hybrid rates 40/45. We managed 37 mpg when we tested the Civic Hybrid recently, and the Prius got 44 mpg while in the Autoblog Garage. You should also know that the EPA's new test cycle is generally believed to underestimate real world mileage by 15-20 percent. Realizing the Jetta TDI's numbers sounded a little low, VW contracted an independent testing company called AMCI to run some real world tests that yielded 38 mpg in the city and 44 on the highway.

Those numbers are closer to the 38-40 mpg typically reported anecdotaly 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 TDI a little later. 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 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 rim that's easy to grip and 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 leather 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 well rested. The gauges are clear and easy to read and all TDIs come standard with a trip computer that displays a variety of information in the center of the cluster.

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

On the road, the dual clutch DSG transmission offers completely automatic shifting for those who want it with the option of manual control sans a clutch pedal. Unlike other applications of this transmission in the R32, GTI and various Audis, the Jetta TDI doesn't get steering wheel-mounted paddles. So manual shifts require reaching for the stick and tapping forward for upshifts and back for downshifts. Either way, the shifts are smooth and manual requests are realized very 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 of the 2.0L four-cylinder common-rail direct-inject turbodiesel is easily accessible and provides plenty of grunt for passing or merging onto freeways. When the road transforms 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 car's back end ever try to get out of phase with the steering command.

The only slight note about the handling is the all too common light steering effort just off center. Things tighten up once you turn in a bit more and the Jetta has decent steering feedback. The canyons in the area of Malibu will put any car to the test and the 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 50 other journalists in attendance were trying to see who could get the best mileage, my driving partner and I decided to find out how much driving style affected our mileage.

We didn't do any jack rabbit starts or race for the lights, but knowing that VW aims for fun to drive, we decided to see how much driving for fun would cost. 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 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, mileage 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, but the top driver pair of the day 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 TDI Sportwagen, this car is a great deal for those looking for excellent fuel economy 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 this 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.

2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
Price From $21,990 ($23,590 for SportWagen)
Body Style Four-door sedan or SportWagen
Layout Front-wheel drive
Engine 2.0L four-cylinder turbocharged commonrail diesel
HP/Torque 140 hp @ 4,000 rpm / 236 lb-ft @ 1,750 rpm
Transmissions 6-speed manual / 6-speed DSG with manual control
EPA MPG 30 city / 41 highway (29/40 with DSG)

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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

This review was originally published by AutoblogGreen.com on 9-18-2008

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
      • 7 Years Ago
      The staff from World Class Driving had a new Jetta as their trail car at the event I attended near Elkhart Lake, WI recently. I don't believe it was the TDI, I think it was the 2.0T. I rode along with the 'little VW that could' during one of my off rotations, and was really surprised at how well the car was able to keep up with the exotics (which included a Gallardo Superleggera, 430 Scuderia, R8, GT-R, and Maserati GranTurismo). The staffer driving the Jetta was not a race car driver (although the pace car *was* driven by a race car driver) but she had no problems blasting down the same wooded country roads as everyone else.

      Overall the group drove safely and sanely, but some of the posted speed limits were quite fun given the curvy, hilly, nature of the roads, and even with 3 passengers in the Jetta it was a blast to ride in while chasing down the exotics.

      +1 to VW for a well sorted, fun to drive econobox.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Are dealers still marking them up $2500? I can't find a Sportwagen anywhere. Dealers say VW is dealing every week for some reason or another.
        • 7 Years Ago
        Some might be and others might not. best to shop around.

        But, also don't confuse the additional cost for the TDI for a markup. The engine is an option that runs about $2000 over the cost of a gas(2.5L) Jetta. There is also a $1300 Federal tax rebate available that softens the majorty of that extra cost.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Nice car. I've had BMWs for years, my wife has an Audi and I really liked the TDI I test drove. While not sharp in corners, it's decent. If i really had to get a car or cared more about mileage, the TDI would be my choice over many, many vehicles.
      • 7 Years Ago

      Why does it seem that VW in North America has such a bad reputation for reliability when in Europe they seem to have the reputation of solid,well built cars?
        • 7 Years Ago
        Yeah, that's odd, in Europe they're considered to be somewhat boring but very well built cars. People would also find it quite strange you think of VWs as "fun to drive"...
      • 7 Years Ago
      On Monday, diesel was only $0.19 more than regular on the NATIONAL average.

      • 7 Years Ago
      good thing about this is, revo technik should have a reflash for this engine and it will make it a lot faster from 140hp to 185hp and from 236 lb/ft to 290lb/ft
      • 7 Years Ago
      Great review!
      • 2 Years Ago
      Well, to the people complaining about the fuel mileage numbers for the Jetta, think about this: Volkswagen tests fuel mileage differently than EVERY OTHER BRAND!! Most brands test their cars by feathering the gas pedal around a city and freeway and get their numbers from there. VW, on the other hand, tests their fuel mileage at full throttle and that's it. So, the numbers that VW says compared to a Jetta TDI owner/third party testing company, are different because of the way things were tested. In my household, we own a 1979 Pontiac Firebird, a 2010 Jeep Commander HEMI, and two 2009 VW Jetta TDI's (one silver w/ stick-shift, one black w/ DSG Auto, and moonroof). The two V8's have especially bad fuel economy, mostly because of what they are, but the Jetta's are averaging almost 50mpg in mixed driving (DSG being slightly less)
      • 7 Years Ago
      "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."


      The truth of the matter is that while the gas engined VWs tend to have a $500-2000 non-warrantied kaplooie every right after the warranty dies and every 10K thereafter, the Diesel has a $300 kaplooie that requires multiple returns to, and eventual litigation with, the repair shop that doesn't know how to work on the hideously over-complex and over-engineered little misery bucket that is a VW TDI.

      And yes, that repair shop includes the one at the dealer.

      So ironically, this is a car for people who love occasional driving. Other cars for this group include mid-80s Fiats, Peugeots, and Jaguars .
        • 7 Years Ago
        It's true that VW dealerships tend not to have anyone on staff who know how to diagnose problems with TDIs, and frequently tend to throw parts at problems until they accidentally stumble upon a solution.

        But there are countless independent VW shops that specialized in TDIs... often operated by master mechanics who used to work at dealerships but didn't care for that environment. These TDI specialists are worth searching out.

        • 7 Years Ago
        I'm sure the fanboys are going to chime in here and say they have a million miles on their TDI an no problems but I live in Canada, and I've seen first hand what happens to these cars in a cold, salty climate. VW electronics do not mesh well with winters here. The days of diesels being as reliable as a wood burning stove are long gone. The electronic components of a modern diesel and just as numerous and sensitive as those in their gas powered turbo engines. The poor VW/Audi dealer here actually has to retain a tow truck in winter just to go retrieve these things when they won't start. AFMs, glow plugs, relays. It's one of those things that's the culprit if you're lucky, if not the dealer may NEVER find the problem and oyu'll live in fear every morning of the dreaded "no start" condition.
        • 7 Years Ago
        And my friends would love it if you paid them back all the time and money that was wasted. Perhaps we can organize a series of dinner parties at expensive restaurants where you apologize on Volkswagen's behalf and try to convince them their crappy cars and horrendous dealer experiences were flukes.

        And while we're asking for unreasonable non-sequitor things... I know some kids who want ponies. Let's get working on that.
        • 7 Years Ago
        my passat has 125K on it and no serious work has had to be done on it.
        • 7 Years Ago
        Interesting comment - whenever I read reviews all I see are raves about how TDI is so awesome and how fun VW is to drive. However everytime I am on the road the car that is spewing black smoke is almost always %99 a TDI.

        I think these cars with their complex catalytic converters are very hard to maintain and quite often their owners just stop maintaining them. Couple that with general poor dealer experience at VW and I think people should look into the long term reliability of these cars more than just initial reviews like this one.

        4 friends of mine have the golf, passat and bug respectively and all of them swear to never buy VW again due to gremlins and poor dealer service
        • 7 Years Ago
        Woot, unfortunatly, I can't speak for 'friends' who own tdis, I can, however, speak to the reliability of the TDIs i own. One is approaching 200,000 miles trouble free (2002 Mark IV), the other 150,000 miles (2005 Passat).

        I'd love to know the specifics, if you're 'friends' can provide them, of what occured with their TDIs.
        • 7 Years Ago

        My acquaintances have a Jetta and a Golf, both TDI and here are some of the more "fun" incidents

        Volkswagen dealer put regular oil into the engine. Resulting sludge took a week to clean out.

        Volkswagen dealer (a different one) disconnected intercooler piping. Forgot to reconnect.

        Volkswagen dealer (an even different one) somehow managed to reprogram the autotragic transmission to think it has only two gears from time to time. A different repair shop was only able to figure out what was going on the 5th or so visit after finally being able to reproduce the problem.

        So while the TDI never gave them many issues (although there were a few)... they somehow never got to drive them much.

        So while it's lovely that you have a lovely Passat that has been lovely... There seems to be a growing number of people who have had a Volkswagen that was one of the most unreliable and expensive cars ever: They charged a premium for the car, they charged a premium for service, and they needed service a whole lot more than other cars.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Good review Sam.
      People are alwasy asking me for car advice as well and like you my first question is alwasy "do you like to drive". Jetta's are fun to drive and I think the new TDI is going to be a big hit. If I was commuting further for work, i'd have one in my garage. Sorry Toyota fans, the Prius is just too damn boring for me.
        • 7 Years Ago
        x2, I'm glad to read an auto review from a reviewer who gets their subject and others. Averaging what the 2.0T gets on the highway is pretty cool. All in all a great review.
      • 7 Years Ago
      That's fantastic, and the car isn't very expensive either. I hope the Brazilian government finally gets rid of the law that prevents cars from having diesel engines and we can have something nice like this one.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Don't forget, for 2009 VW has chopped a year and 14k miles off of the bumper-bumper warranty. That little fact caused me to take VW off my new car list. I really like the Jetta, but it's hard to justify spending the $$$$ on a new car with only a 3/36k warranty. Especially a historically problematic brand like VW.
        • 7 Years Ago
        If you believe VWs are unreliable, then the longer warranty period would be preferable. If you don't, you now get free scheduled maintenance, although with 10,000 mi intervals that's only 3. Isn't the power train warranty still 5 yr/60k mi?
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