Volkswagen Jetta TDI — Simple and economically compelling

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI sedan and wagon are unexpectedly green and predictably fuel efficient without the need for batteries, sophisticated computer equipment and long-term warranties on the electrical system.

Volkswagen’s new diesel — certified in all 50 states — works well in the compact Jetta sedan giving frugal families a very alluring alternative to the current crop of complicated hybrid vehicles.

The price premium over a comparable gas-powered Jetta is small and there’s a $1,300 tax credit attached to the purchase.

So what’s wrong with this attractive picture?

After seven days behind the wheel of a base sedan, carrying a sticker price of $23,169 including destination charge, we say very little is wrong. If modern diesel doesn’t catch the imagination and snare the pocketbooks of considerably more customers in the coming months and years we will be surprised.

The economics of a modern diesel are compelling. Actually, the diesel has been compelling to us for years, but now that manufacturers such as Volkswagen have created bigger, quieter and more powerful engines that get stellar mileage and can be sold in California and the Northeast states, they are even more compelling.

So let’s see how the Jetta TDI sedan stacks up economically speaking against its gas engine Jetta brothers.

We scoured the Jetta’s five trim levels to come up with a model that compares in amenities to the TDI, and we found that the the top trim Wolfsburg Edition is almost a mirror image of the TDI with the exception of transmission. Both vehicles are loaded with the same standard equipment — enough we think to satisfy most people without the necessity of purchasing options.

The Wolfsburg is powered by Volkswagen’s bread-and-butter turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder making 200 horsepower. The TDI is propelled by the new 2.0-liter turbocharged diesel making 140 horsepower and a prodigious 236 pound-feet of torque.

The Wolfsburg Edition gets a six-speed automatic transmission for a base price of $23,145 including destination charge. The TDI has a list price of $23,169 with a six-speed manual. Add the automatic and the price rises to $24,269.

Figure in the federal tax credit and the cash outlay is virtually identical.
Now here’s the good part for the diesel buyer. The TDI is rated at 30 mpg city and 41 highway with a 34 mpg combined rating. Many people should get even better mileage based on third-party certifier AMCI, hired by Volkswagen, which disagreed with the EPA numbers. AMCI set the mileage at 38 city and 44 highway. The standard 200-horsepower gas engine is rated at 22 city, 29 highway.

The fly in this ointment was at one time diesel prices, which had been running high. But in recent months diesel has dropped on average to the price of mid-grade gasoline and lower. In fact, in the last several months the price of diesel in many markets has dropped below the price of regular. If prices stay in that range, the TDI is a brilliant choice. We figure diesel would have to cost 30 percent more than gasoline to reach a break-even point using the TDI and the 200-HP VW gas engine as the example.

And here’s another thing — Volkswagen has sold more than 850,000 diesel cars in 32 years, and resale has been consistently higher than almost any car in its price class. VW officials say a used 2006 Jetta TDI now sells for more than its original sticker price.

Even if you agree with the economics of a diesel, you may be leery of the diesel’s performance. That was a concern years ago, but the new engine has the ability to move the Jetta from 0-to-60 in around 8 seconds, that’s very acceptable in our book. And when you hit the accelerator and feel the 236 foot-pounds of torque, you will be amazed. You may even hazard a smile at the smooth, reliable power available. Between stop lights there is nothing more important than torque.

But if performance is king in your world, then we admit the turbocharged four-cylinder gas engine is the way to go. But if you compare the diesel to the standard 2.5-liter Volkswagen four-banger, we think you will be more satisfied with the turbocharged diesel engine.

So what about diesel smell and diesel clatter? Gone and gone.

And unlike the new BMW and Mercedes diesel engines, which require an expensive replacement of a chemical called urea every 12,000-to-15,000 miles to control nitrogen oxide emissions, the Volkswagen diesel needs no more maintenance than a gas engine. A nitrogen oxide trap is used as well as a particulate filter for soot. Both are then burned off.

And by the way, the common rail direct-injection engine was named one of Ward’s Automotive “10 Best Engines for 2009.”

Today the fly in ointment is that in the U.S. there are few believers in diesel power. Past perceptions are unfortunately dictating to today’s shoppers. Ask a Canadian or Mexican or a European and they laugh at that precept. Many think that kind of thinking will eventually change. But right now only European manufacturers are taking the risk of a hopefully changing market. Virtually every other company, Asian and American have put diesel technology on the back burner or have taken it off the stove completely.

But if you want to proclaim your greenness or announce to the neighborhood that you march to the beat of a different drummer the VW diesel may just be the thing. There’s only a small TDI logo on the trunk to advertise your unique driving choice so you may want to put a sign in the rear window.

Regardless of trim level, the 2009 Jetta has one of the most attractive interiors in the compact ranks with exceptional materials and excellent fit and finish.

The satellite radio readout — artist and song title — is easy to read while driving, unlike radio units in some cars. The gauges are easy to decipher and the switchgear is intuitive. The Volkswagen/Audi information screen between the tachometer and speedometer is a well-designed setup. And we still think Volkswagen’s traditional blue-gauge lighting is nifty.

The Jetta is surprisingly spacious. The front seats are comfortable, even for big bodies, and the rear seating area is adequate. Legroom is decent for a compact although a tall person may need some seat-moving cooperation from the front-seat passenger. The trunk has a cavernous 16-cu.-ft. of very usable load space.

Standard equipment abounds on the TDI trim level. It includes such safety features as side-curtain airbags, antilock brakes, stability control and tire pressure monitoring. Also standard are full power equipment including automatic down/up windows, heated outside mirrors, cruise control, 10-speaker audio with 6-disc changer and XM-Sirius satellite radio, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and three years or 36,000-mile free routine maintenance.

Our test car with no options carried a bottom line of $23,169. Popular available options include a six-speed automatic transmission, power sunroof, 17- inch wheels and rear side airbags.

The Jetta is easy to drive with excellent center on steering; it’s well balanced with top notch handling and a compliant ride. Both the six-speed manual and the six-speed automatic equate themselves well with smooth shifting an outstanding feature of both transmissions.

We think the TDI is a wonderful piece of automotive equipment that will save its owner money through the years and provide a very welcome resale value at trade-in time.

Base price: $23,169; as driven, $23,169
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder diesel turbo
Horsepower: 140 @ 4,000 rpm
Torque: 236 foot-pounds @ 1,750 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 101.5 inches
Length: 179.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,230 pounds
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 16 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (diesel)
EPA rating: 41 mpg highway, 32 city
0-60: 8.1 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Toyota Prius, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid

The Good:
• Exceptional fuel economy
• Diesel prices now in line with gas prices
• Also comes in wagon configuration

The Bad:
• Only Europeans are bringing diesels to the U.S.

The Ugly:
• Few believers in the U.S.