Volkswagen Jetta TDI — Fewer fuel stops guaranteed

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Forty miles on a gallon of gas has become the new benchmark for compact cars propelled by an internal combustion engine without help from an electric motor or a charging cord. This is the lofty goal in 2012 for bragging rights and increased sales — and to bring manufacturers closer to new gas mileage standards looming ahead.

This makes the Volkswagen Jetta TDI an interesting choice in the compact segment because of its exceptional miles per gallon combined with the kind of performance simply not available in the base four-cylinder gas engines powering such popular names plates as the Chevrolet Cruz, Ford Focus, Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra.

The diesel-powered Jetta with its 140-horsepower 4-cylinder engine makes a prodigious 236 pound-feet of torque at just 1,750 rpm carries an EPA rating of 30 mpg city and 42 mpg highway. In addition to the fuel economy, the Jetta delivers best-in-class performance measured at 8 seconds from 0-to-60 and an unrivaled 2.6-second time from 0-to-30.

And we found that the Jetta diesel, even in our normal lead-foot driving guise, more mimics the EPA rating than in any other vehicle we've tested over the past 12 months. We achieved a solid 34 mpg in 200 miles, which included numerous fast getaways and other "techniques" we would not recommend for stellar mileage.

But there is a downside to this idyllic picture. Isn't there always a downside? The base TDI at $23,545 including destination charge and the six-speed manual is priced about $1,600 more than the nearly identically equipped 2.5 SE with convenience package. That model comes with the standard 170-horsepower 5-cylinder gas engine at $21,945. Also, diesel fuel continues to sell from 20-to-40 cents a gallon more than 87 octane gas.

Perhaps because we've been "diesel people" for years, these slight disadvantages would not persuade us away from the TDI's superior performance and mileage. We think it has a more premium feel than the gas model, and better handling and road manners.

Our test car with a six-speed automatic transmission and navigation — which also includes fog lamps, keyless ignition and entry, and lumbar seat adjustment — carried a bottom line of $26,115. As noted, the Jetta diesel can be mated to either a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch automatic with automated and manual shift modes. Although for daily commuting the excellent VW automatic might be the better choice, we found the manual transmission one of most effortless to shift with good clutch feel.

Volkswagen has been criticized for cutting corners with the new Jetta by doing such things as replacing the independent rear suspension with a beam axle, using a large amount of hard plastics on the interior, eliminating or forgoing such useful features as a backup camera, replacing electric power steering with the more traditional hydraulic system, replacing the gas-strut linkage in the trunk with old-style gooseneck hinges, and offering far fewer equipment combination choices (reduced from 148 to 18).

None-the-less the 2012 Jetta TDI is a solid-feeling fun-to-drive family compact and Volkswagen has pulled off these "modifications" with no perceptible difference in overall performance.

On the other hand, the Jetta TDI gets as standard equipment one-touch up and one-touch down windows at all four corners (a feature rarely seen on other compacts), a power sunroof, heated seats, and the nice-looking leatherette upholstery VW has been using for several years.

There’s one big difference that should make current and former owners smile — a noticeable increase in passenger space. The wheelbase has been stretched 2.9 inches, addressing one of the big concerns with the previous iteration, giving backseat passengers mid-sized comfort. Rear-seat legroom has grown a substantial 2.6 inches from 35.5 inches to 38.1. No more cramped quarters even for a six-footer. At the same time, Volkswagen did not cut into the generous 15.5 cubic feet of cargo space in the trunk.

Inside the Jetta, the switchgear is intuitive, the gauges clear and easy to read, and the navigation system in our TDI test car was simple to operate. What we did notice inside was a little less Audi and a little more plastic than the previous car. But the workmanship — fit and finish — appeared first class.

Volkswagen has safety covered with standard traction and stability control, front side airbags, side-curtain airbags, and antilock brakes with brake assist. The Jetta TDI has a better-than-average 117 foot stopping distance from 60 mph.

If you can make the case for the Jetta diesel you will be rewarded with exceptional mileage and rewarding performance.

Base price, $23,545; as driven, $26,115
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder diesel
Horsepower: 140 @ 4,000 rpm
Torque: 236 foot-pounds @ 1,750 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 104.4 inches
Length: 182.2 inches
Curb weight: 3,161 pounds
Turning circle: 36.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.5 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (diesel)
EPA rating: 42 highway, 30 city
0-60: 8 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic, Ford Focus

The Good
• Fuel-efficient diesel
• Excellent performance
• Spacious interior

The Bad
• Cheaper interior materials than last generation

The Ugly
• Diesel fuel carries higher price