It was a deflating feeling, because part of me misses the warm, fuzzy time when the world smiled on the cheerful and torquey motor that did it all. In reality, I'm left with fond memories of a time that never was.
You might say I'm stuck between an inexcusable cheat and an unrealizable fantasy. That fantasy, of course, was that the TDI engine really could offer remarkable power and economy with compliant emissions, without resorting to expensive exhaust after-treatments to quell nasty pollutants. Clever German engineering, we thought, in the spirit of Honda's CVCC engine that met then-new emission standards without a catalytic converter. It seemed plucky VW had a real winner.
The inexcusable cheat? You've read all about it, too, and at least know the broad strokes. Owners were sold a bill of goods, and perhaps the years of glowing praise we and our automotive media peers heaped on the engines informed their decision.
That hurts. We take our role as critics seriously, offering advice to you the readers, but also to our family and friends. We have the unique perspective afforded by driving hundreds of new cars a year. Multiply that experience by all the car reviewers who have driven and recommended the TDI, and we collectively threw a lot of credibility Volkswagen's way.
There was no VW-branded Kool-Aid to drink. By the criteria we measured the car, our enthusiasm was more than justified. The TDI was a great engine, installed in cars that were practical, fun to drive, and supposedly good for the environment. The problem was that as we were enjoying driving them around, they were emitting a serious amount of pollution, while VW was lying to our faces (and your faces).
Remember the "Clean Diesel" campaign? With one hand, VW was blithely engineering its cars to subvert emissions controls and emit far more NOx particulates than allowed by law. With the other, it cheerfully claimed the diesels were good for the environment, and that brought a lot of environmentally conscious buyers into showrooms. It's infuriating, isn't it?
Do not construe our admiration for the TDI engine as an apology for what VW did. We're furious, and also disappointed. We use our expertise to sort the PR chaff from the real-world wheat. The TDI claimed to be economical and fun to drive. We drove many of them over the years, and you know what? All of them were. A few of them were my favorite vehicles in their respective classes.
The Jetta TDI SportWagen was an especially brilliant vehicle. First appearing in the Mk. IV generation, it was both a very traditional and practical station wagon that in TDI form was also both economical and fun to drive. It appealed to a certain active, outdoorsy set that recognized they didn't need a thirsty, heavy crossover. We encouraged these people by pointing out that the Mk. V SportWagen raised the bar with a more powerful TDI engine, and things got even better with the Mk. VI (which was renamed Golf SportWagen, but was basically the same car).
Even the regular Golf TDI was a hoot. A normal hatchback on the sporty side of things, stuffed to the gills with torque and great economy – that's pretty much the perfect recipe for a first-time car buyer or young parents who like to drive, isn't it? We begged the company to bring over the GTD and GTD SportWagen, diesel-powered counterparts to the GTI, to little effect. Maybe it's a good thing we didn't get our wish.
We were fooled, not because we were complacent, but because the cheat was so audacious.
We were fooled, not because we were complacent, but because the cheat was so audacious. Even the people who sniff tailpipes for a living were, because the cheat was aimed right at their testing regimen. It took a tenacious researcher in West Virginia to find out what was going on, which is a great story in and of itself.
Meanwhile, we're left with anger and disappointment, but also some hope. Direct-injection turbocharged gasoline engines have thankfully picked up some of the slack, providing serious low-end grunt and good fuel economy. Like diesels, including the now-disgraced TDIs, they also run out of breath early in the rev range and clatter a bit at idle. Unlike diesels, you don't need to hunt for a station that sells the fuel, as long as you're ok paying for premium.
Homogenous charge compression-ignition engines – essentially diesel-like engines that use ultra-high compression to squeeze gasoline to the point of ignition without a spark plug – are on the horizon, too. Think even greater efficiency and lower emissions. This technology, once its numerous technical issues are solved, could render the argument for diesels entirely moot. It doesn't help those TDI enthusiasts looking for a non-cheaty alternative in the present, but it may in the future.
And for the hardcore torque junkies, pure electric vehicles are nearing the tipping point. Affordability and longer range get closer every day. Expensive EVs like the Tesla Model S can roast similarly expensive sports cars off the line, and even some of the cheaper and less practical ones like the Fiat 500e are sort of a riot.
As a diesel enthusiast and jilted TDI lover, I hope that the American perception will soften enough to allow another manufacturer to sell small, sporty diesels in this country again. Furthermore, once-chastened regulators and jittery automakers won't take chances under intense diesel emissions scrutiny.
Mazda has been dragging its feet with the Skyactiv-D for years, and surely the TDI scandal frightened its engineers to no end. But Mazda's lineup of fun-to-drive cars is perhaps the closest analogue to VW's driver-oriented recipe. All the 3 and 6 need are a jolt of torque. Maybe the Mazda 3 can become the Golf GTD we always wanted, without the guilt.