Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL
It's about a six-hour drive from the East Bay of San Francisco to AB contributor Michael Harley's place in Newbury Park near Los Angeles, and after living with our long-term Jetta TDI
for the last three months, I'm convinced few attainable vehicles are better suited to the task. Yes, it might not be the most plush way to consume U.S. 101 at 80 mph – a top-shelf Merc SL
would surely do the deed with more luxury and speed – but the Street Cup Edition eats up the miles with surprising aplomb, the lazy diesel finally cracking the 40-mpg mark about 20 miles outside Paso Robles (the EPA
officially pegs the Jetta
TDI at 30 city/42 hwy/34 combined).
Four hours in and the TDI proves its worth as an exceptional cruiser. The plaid buckets haven't numbed my rear, hands-free calls are a few clicks away and Germany's ability to insulate without isolating keeps wind and road noise just outside the cabin. Even the 18-inch wheels, slightly stiffer springs and marginally larger anti-roll bars – all pulled from the last Jetta GLI
– haven't compromised the TDI's composure over some of the rougher sections of road. In nearly every environment, the TDI simply sings, albeit with a muffled staccato racket when ticking over at 1,500 rpm.
After arriving at Harley's, we give the Jetta a thorough bathing (he's got detailing toys I've only dreamed of) and head out to meet photog Drew Phillips at our shoot location. This will be the first time anyone else on staff has had a crack at our long-termer and I'm looking forward to his first impressions.
"These seats are great. Are they the same as the GTI's
?" Harley asks swinging open the door. Unfortunately not. While suitably bolstered and coated in the same red, gray and black pattern, the TDI's front chairs are less sporty than those in Volkswagen's
hottest hatch. Stuck in the back, Harley's son, who's spent the last few days in the Infiniti M
set to serve as our camera car, prefers the VW's
thrones over the luxed-up Nissan
. Automakers take note: Apparently plaid is a hit with tweens.
Kiddies safely delivered to grandpa's, an hour later we arrive at our super secret shoot location and meet Drew, newbie Jeff Glucker and the Honda CR-Z
. Having driven Honda's
attempt at a green sports car
for the past few days, Drew comes off as unimpressed. Then again, he's a GTI
driver with Mustang
ambitions, so the CR-Z
obviously isn't his cup of tea. And when I catch sight of the gray wedge parked along our ticket-me-red Jetta, there's a tinge of worry. Maybe this was a bad idea...
Even before we decided on this undertaking, we fully recognized these are two completely different riffs on the notion of green performance. But each car's purpose is still the same. One is a three-door, two-seat hatch with a peaky engine, a hybrid drivetrain and a six-speed manual. The other a compact sedan with four doors, five seats and a trunk, along with a bone-stock diesel, dual-clutch transmission and a slightly tweaked suspension. The discrepancies are obvious, but so is the question: What's the more entertaining steer for a green-minded individual?
Within minutes of our arrival, an impromptu drag race breaks out; Drew in the CR-Z and Harley in the TDI. While we've seen independent 0-60 times for both vehicles – each generally hovering around the nine-second mark – within the first 100 feet the TDI has it. Considering there's barely 250 horsepower between our two competitors, it's the TDI's diesel torque – 236 pound-feet compared to the CR-Z's hybrid-assisted 128 – that rewards off the line acceleration. After another couple of tries, we regroup, Harley mentioning that the CR-Z's six-speed manual lets it "launch smartly off the line, but the Jetta's torque easily carries it past once speeds increase." Having driven the CR-Z before, I know what he's on about, but we both admit this isn't the kind of testing we're particularly interested in. "Obviously, neither of the two would be ideal drag racers," he clarifies, "but the Jetta wins on grunt alone."
Drew starts shuffling cars around, changing lenses, repositioning tripods and trying to catch the quickly diminishing light, and soon after we pack up and I head to the hotel. Having spent more than enough time in the Jetta, I snag the keys to the CR-Z and hit the highway, though I won't be on it long enough to see if Honda's hybrid matches its official EPA ratings of 31 mpg city, 37 highway and 34 combined. The fact that these two disparate fuel sippers share an official combined rating of 34 mpg, however, lends a little more legitimacy to our choice of rivals.
The Jetta's turbocharged inline-4 produces 140 horsepower and 238 lb-ft torque
The CR-Z's hybrid-assisted inline-4 produces 122 horsepower and 128 lb-ft torque
What a difference a wheelbase makes. Well, that and an autobahn-tuned interior.
It's not that the CR-Z feels rattly – just slightly unrefined
when compared to the Jetta. The materials are a grade or two below what's on offer from Volkswagen, the switchgear doesn't have the same reassuring tactility and the seats are comparatively flat, with thin padding and insufficient bolstering. Aside from the disco dashboard, the two shining lights inside this Honda remain its slick-shifting six-speed manual and the small-diameter steering wheel. As per usual, Honda's shifter can shame machinery costing four times as much, with short throws, defined feedback and the slightest hint of notchiness. It doesn't beat the DSG's ease-of-use in the Jetta, but with a shifter this smooth, I'd be more than happy exercising my left leg on the 405. But at prolonged speeds above 50 mph the CR-Z is buzzy – not entirely unlike its CR-X forebearer – so depending on your proclivities, you'll either consider it a curse or character.
Before heading to bed, I spec up both testers online and it becomes painfully obvious the Jetta's uprated materials, auto 'box, extra doors and seats come at a cost. The base price of the Jetta TDI Street Cup Edition is an entirely reasonable $24,990, but tack on the body kit, DSG and a few other options and our as-tested prices rings up over $31,000. And that's without navigation. On the other end of the spectrum lies the full-kitted CR-Z EX – sat-nav and all – that stickers for $23,310. That's a serious discrepancy, but again, this is hardly an apples-to-apples comparison, and the Jetta's utility alone justifies at least part of its bolstered price tag. Besides, the Honda's aging navigation system didn't let me enter a house number, so...
The CR-Z's interior is highlighted by the smooth six-speed shifter and the small-diameter steering wheel
The Jetta TDI's interior features better quality materials but comes with a higher cost
The next morning, Harley and I rendezvous at the bottom of one of his favorite canyon roads for the real test: Back-to-back-to-back-to-back runs in both cars with ten-minute breaks on either side of the hill. Having arrived in the CR-Z, I take it out first and watch Harley and the TDI disappear into the distance. He knows the road. I don't. But by the time we hit the halfway point, I've got a clear sense of how fast and how hard the CR-Z can be pushed. Here, the elements that make the CR-Z a slightly uncomfortable cruiser become assets. The short wheelbase suits the road perfectly, pivoting around my hips as I turn from lock to lock, the CR-Z's steering easily beating out the Jetta in the communication department.
The road evolves from an endless series of tight, low-speed bends into a wider, longer and more velocity-friendly section, and several minutes later, I'm stopped a few hundred yards from the ocean. Harley's parked perpendicular to the road when I notice smoke billowing from the CR-Z's five-spoke wheels that are wrapped in P195/55R16 Dunlop SP Sport 7000 all-season tires. The brake pads may have been toasted, but there was barely a hint of fade.
Harley comes over to inspect the damage (none to speak of) and I (knowingly) ask how the Jetta's 225/40R18 Pirelli P-Zero Neros are holding up. He looks up and shakes his head. "The all-seasons were cooked five minutes in," he admits, "after that, it was just a sloppy mess." The mud and snow rated meats are the single reason we haven't taken the TDI to the track yet, and for this test, we wanted to keep things showroom stock. Unfortunately for the Jetta, that means it's hobbled out of the gate.
We give the cars a few minutes to cool down while we exchange notes and hop back in. Again, me in the CR-Z and Harley in the VW. This time, I keep up, and when we reach the more technical low speed section, I've already disabled the traction control after the electro-underwear cuts the (meager) power one too many times.
With a better feel for the road and car, I begin braking later, holding the middle pedal into the turn and letting the weight of the rear-mounted battery pack act as a pendulum, swinging the torsion beam rear end out and tucking the front tires in towards the apex. When I finally – and admittedly, rather quickly – reach the limits of the 195/55 R16 tires, the e-brake handle starts playing a role for quick rotations in hairpins. It's fun, if not fast, and when we arrive back at our starting point, I've got a politician's grin stretched across my face.
Harley hops out of the Jetta and I can tell he's enjoying himself, even if he's a little flustered. "Those additional 500 pounds are making the brakes work hard, and with the tires overheated, I was into the ABS in nearly every corner." I ask if he's bottomed out at all and he confirms hitting the bump stops over one sudden dip. The Honda never had an issue, but it's not nearly as softly sprung as the Jetta. It's not harsh, it just isn't as yielding.
Back into the Jetta and one thing becomes instantly apparent. While the CR-Z was developed from the onset as a compact runabout with sporting pretensions, the Volkswagen is, for all intents and purposes, just a tarted-up diesel Jetta. The immediate difference in size and feedback manifests itself with a slight disconnect and hesitation, but once I get back into the rhythm of the road, the size bleeds away and the Jetta's point-to-point abilities begin to shine through. The suspension breathes with the road across the faster, sweeping bends, and while not as viscerally rewarding as the CR-Z's manual 'box, the DSG's ability to drop down two gears with a couple of quick pulls makes the experience less intense and just as much fun. That rather relaxed sensation lasts right up to the point where things get truly twisty.
The brakes are already getting mildly mushy and those high treadwear tires just aren't up to the high-temp task of scrubbing speed then being thrown into a bend. Understeer comes on hard and fast, requiring nearly every turn to be a slow in, slow out affair. Whereas the CR-Z never went into severe plow mode, just pushing outward into a wide drift, the Jetta relentlessly skidded to the outside despite exercising my left foot on the brakes. As soon as the terrain began to unwind, all the Jetta's strong points came back, but by the time we make our final pass, it's obvious which car is the better backroad play toy.
"You work a lot harder in this," Harley says exiting the Honda, "but it's fun and the six-speed is a dream out here." Harley's complaints about the Jetta's DSG mirror my own, namely the automatic upshift at 4,500 rpm. "Dual-clutch gearboxes rock when you have tons of power behind them, but with the TDI, I kept trying to downshift in search of torque that was never there."
I ask Harley about my favorite feature of the Honda – the battery pack and its affect on handling – and he admits it was startling at first, but "the weight transfer was easy to control with some steering input and throttle once you got used to it. It almost..." he pauses, "it almost has a mid-engine feel." I suggest he's been drinking, but I get his point.
When asked which car we'd take out for one last run, both Harley and I point to the Honda. It's simply the better driver's car here, and considering what each vehicle was developed for, that's no surprise. On these roads, the Honda has the home field advantage. But when asked which of the two we'd pick as a daily driver, neither of us hesitated: We'd take the Jetta every time.
"You really can't beat the Jetta when it comes to practicality," says Harley, "and the TDI engine boosts fuel economy
to hybrid-rivaling levels. Add in the Cup package and its like a diesel GTI." I can't disagree, and when faced with the mindless six-hour drive ahead of me, I'm thankful I'll be piloting the Jetta. It might not be the driver's car of the duo, but on balance, it's hard to deny the TDI's blend of functionality, frugality and fun. And given better tires and uprated brakes, there's a good chance the Jetta could have hung with the Honda all morning. Maybe it's time to call the Tire Rack