First Drive: 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

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 on 9-18-2008


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