2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

The diesel returns to take on the hybrids

2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

After a two year absence Volkswagen has brought the Jetta TDI back to North America. In 2007 the German automaker was forced to stop shipping its cult favorite diesel models over here because they wouldn’t meet our emissions standards.

FAST FACTS

1. The Jetta TDI has returned now that low-sulfur diesel fuel is available throughout North America.

2. The diesel-powered Jetta may only make 140hp, but torque is a significant 236 ft-lbs.

3. EPA rated fuel economy is 29/40 mpg (city/hwy), although independent testing has rated the TDI at 38/44 mpg

Contrary to what you might think about polluting diesels, it was actually the low quality of diesel fuel available in the U.S. and Canada that was the problem – not the cars. Now that the regulations concerning diesel in North America have been changed and low sulfur diesel is the norm, the TDIs are back.

Traditionally, Volkswagen markets its diesels at a lower price-point, with fewer gadgets and gizmos than many of its gasoline models. This marketing strategy is due to the fact that VW sees the TDI as appealing more to an economy-minded individual who sees saving (and in particular saving at the gas pump) as a priority.

That being said, there isn’t a lot to talk about in terms of fancy options. There is, however, a lot to say about what is under the hood.

GREAT TORQUE AND IMPRESSIVE DSG TRANSMISSION

The Jetta TDI is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter powerplant and while 140hp might not sound like a lot, you are never left wanting thanks to 236 ft-lbs of torque from just 1750 rpm.

It’s actually surprising how much grunt the TDI Jetta has, although an adjustment in driving style can be necessary. Unlike dropping a gear in a gasoline car, a switch-down in a diesel results in an unexpected amount of torque. Normally you don’t need to drop gears because there is so much low rpm thrust, but when you do it’s often excessive.

I was actually surprised when I picked up the car to discover that it was not a manual transmission, but one of VW’s technologically sophisticated six-speed double-clutch DSG automatic units. Until this car, every diesel I had ever driven was a manual and it just hadn’t crossed my mind that they came in automatic form. As for the DSG box, it’s a real treat, with lightning-quick shifts. It can be operated in Automatic mode, in an Auto Sport mode or in a Manual mode through the gear lever. Don’t confuse this system with some of the manumatic boxes on the market; the DSG is flawless and since VW brought it to market everyone is following suit… even Porsche and Ferrari.

DIESEL FUEL-ECONOMY 29/40 MPG

 But enough with the performance, the real reason people buy a TDI is because of the fuel-economy. Volkswagen officially rates the Jetta TDI at 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. They do, however, also like to point out that in independent testing the car achieved 38/44 mpg (city/hwy) – an improvement of 24 percent.

Our numbers fall closer in line with the latter. In fact, these new TDI models should be handled differently by the VW press folks. While a standard vehicle loan is one week, it should be two with a TDI. Chances are most journalists won’t even be able to get though a single tank of gas in just seven days.

When compared to a gasoline version of the Jetta, the improvement in mileage is impressive, as standard Jettas get 21/29 mpg (city/hwy). And as for the availability of gasoline over diesel, that really isn’t an issue. Unless you live in an extremely remote area, almost every major chain of gas stations carries diesel.

As for that typical diesel clack-clack sound, it doesn’t penetrate into the cabin, but from outside the car it won’t take a diploma in tractor repair to guess there’s a diesel under the hood.

FAUX-LEATHER GIVES UP-SCALE BUILD QUALITY A MATCHING LOOK

In terms of standard equipment and amenities, the TDI gives you essentially the same goodies as the gasoline SE model, minus the sunroof.

Inside the cabin you will find air conditioning and cruise control, one-touch power windows and locks with remote keyless entry, a tilt and telescopic wheel with audio controls, 8-way manually adjustable heated front seats with a power adjustable back and manual lumber support. There’s also a 10-speaker AM/FM radio with a six-CD changer, MP3 capability, Satellite radio ready and an auxiliary input (with an iPod specific input optional).

The shift knob and wheel are both leather-coated and a multi-function trip computer lets you keep an eye on how little diesel you’re burning over every mile. The rear seats have their own ventilation system, while up front a three-blink light-tough signal adds convenience, as do three power outlets (as well as one 115 household outlet).

Some unique features include the novelty of being able to open and close the windows with the key, as well as one ingenious invention, an indicator that tells you when you brake pads need replacing.

Aesthetically, the interior of the Jetta TDI is well put together and thanks to VW’s V-Tex leatherette upholstery it looks like the robust and high-quality German product that it is. (A note to Canadian readers here; while V-Tex seats come standard in the U.S. they are optional in Canada… the same goes for the wheel-mounted audio controls).

Those who do want to spice up the interior further can do so with a Navigation system at a cost of $1,900. Letting a little light in through an optional sunroof will run you $1,000.

In the safety department the Jetta has the usuals like ABS, EBD and Brake Assist. There are six-airbags with additional rear side airbags available at a cost of just $350. Stability control is standard, as it is in all VW models, and the Jetta comes with a tire pressure monitoring system as well as a system that automatically locks the doors above 8 mph.

THE DRIVE

Behind the wheel the Jetta TDI surprises with plenty of horsepower and Volkswagen’s impressively solid chassis. Steering is direct and the driving experience is an enjoyable one.

We thought the stock 205/55/16 tires were more than adequate, although those looking for an even sportier time can’t go wrong with the wider and lower profile optional 225/45/17s. And for just $450 it’s money well spent – if only for the added looks of some 17-inch rollers.

With all the available torque there is plenty of power, especially for passing. Volkswagen rates the car at 8.2 seconds to 60 mph with the manual and 8.5 seconds with the DSG transmission – although it feels faster. What’s odd about that statistic is that in every other VW car the company lists the DSG-equipped model as having a faster time than the manual.

Once up to speed the Jetta TDI settles in nicely and loves the open road. There’s no denying the car was built with the autobahn in mind.

THE VERDICT

At just $22,270 to start the Jetta TDI is priced attractively for a quality product – especially if you subtract the available $1,300 federal income tax credit. Volkswagen also offers a SportWagen starting at $23,590, with twice the trunk space (32.8 cu.-ft.) and 66.9 cu.-ft. with the rear seats folded.

It gets great gas mileage although consumers really should take a look at some of the latest hybrid offerings and make a decision based on what type of driving they do most. Volkswagen may not want to admit it quite yet, but hybrids appear to be winning the hearts of fuel-conscious consumers – at least in North America.

Generally it’s a great car to get behind the wheel of, with excellent handling and a solid feel, although low-rpm diesel powerplants just don’t make for a very exciting drive.

The only other issue I have with the car is the styling. Not being a huge fan of the standard Jetta design, it might really help Volkswagen to change the hearts and minds of Americans by giving the TDI a little sex appeal – something like a GLI aero kit would be perfect.

PLUS

Fuel-economy
Solid driving feel
Quality interior

MINUS

Blasé exterior
Excessive thrust when tranny downshifts
Still sounds like a diesel outside

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