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Monday, November 3, 2008

Initial thoughts on the new VW Jetta TDI

Odometer: 2662 mi

Say hello to the newest member of the Motive long-term test fleet, a 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI dressed in attractive Campanella White. The options on our Loyal Edition model, which comes standard with leatherette seats, are limited to just one: a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Along with destination, the $1100 transmission brings our tester up to a sticker price of $24,190. There's a point to the minimal option offerings — skip the sunroof and a few other luxuries, and the premium Volkswagen charges for the diesel engine becomes less relevant. Instead of just calling it a more expensive powertrain, think of it as the "Extended Range, High Torque Option Group." Our purpose for spending a year with this Spartan little Jetta is to answer the question: Can speed freaks, green freaks, and cheap-asses all ménage a trois in one single car, and is this unnassuming Volkswagen it?

To that end, we've already made one small modification to the car in its first month of service. The stock steering wheel was thin and covered in stiff, cheap vinyl, and when a Jetta GLI wheel magically fell into our hands, we didn't hesitate to do a swap. The new flat-bottomed unit is contoured for a better grip, and it has paddle shifters to work the DSG with two hands on the wheel.

With a 5000-rpm redline and a 140-hp, 236 lb-ft diesel that's willing to rev, shifts come rather often. And that's already been a hot topic of discussion. "I'm not sure that DSG is the best match for this engine," one editor writes in the logbook. "The old TDIs used a four-speed automatic, and the torque of the diesel was enough to give it some serious scoot between 0 and 30 mph. First gear on the six-speed DSG is short and seems to rely on the engine's willingness to rev, when it feels like it would be better served by a taller gear that lets the engine stretch its legs more." While we all agree that first gear runs out too quickly, some of us are impressed by the overall engine/transmission match; the smooth torque of the TDI and the quick, unobtrusive shifts of the dual-clutch work in harmony.

Transmission issues aside, we all agree that Volkswagen's new 50-state clean diesel is a wonderful block of metal. Questions like "Why doesn't it smell?" or "Why isn't it noisy?" have been so common we've considered putting the answers on a small dash-mounted placard. Says production editor Wes Grueninger, "The clean-diesel engine is so far-and-away better than the old TDI in terms of NVH that it makes me forget the old engine even existed. At idle, it's nearly impossible to tell that it's a diesel. Cold starts fire off without a hitch, and unlike the old TDI, this one doesn't hiccup on tip-in until it gets a few miles under its belt."


lt5_right_1.gif Early fuel economy reports have been floating between 30 and 45 mpg, depending on the driver and situation. One editor claims to be getting 41 mpg no matter the situation: "Last week I did my commute from downtown Chicago out to Lombard and got 41 mpg in mixed driving. This past weekend it was all highway to Detroit and I returned the same 41. I guess that's just my number. But the last time I drove a Jetta GLI to work, I got an indicated 23 mpg. That's huge jump for the same basic car with the same transmission."

And while that's true, the actual cost savings can vary. In the Chicago area, diesel is just 20 cents or so more per gallon than premium fuel. On that editor's drive to Detroit, Michigan's price margin was closer to a dollar. For some buyers, the final gas bill will likely be a complete wash between cheaper gas and more efficient diesel. As such, our early inclination is that diesel is a preference-based decision, not a cost-based one.

Right now, our preferences are leaning toward the diesel. It boast a noticeable performance advantage over hybrid economy cars like the Prius or Civic Hybrid. On hills, in traffic, and while passing, the diesel is able to stay in one gear and silently use its torque to muscle its way through traffic, while most small four cylinder gas engines in the same situation get noisy and feel peaky. In that regard, the Jetta TDI feels like it is powered by a very small, very efficient V-8. All our little Jetta needs is a different wheel and tire combo, along with a sportier suspension kit, and we think we may find that cheap, green enthusiast car we've been looking for. Stay tuned.


pizza4all November 8, 2008 at 11:12 AM  

My colleague Louis-Alain tested a brand new Jetta TDI Clean Diesel on a 160-miles drive. Got a 55mpg by cruising at an average 55 miles/h on a trip from Montreal to Quebec City, therefore showing that buy adopting some ecodriving tips, you can save even more. I for myself gave it a try with a mazda3 and saw a 25% difference of consommation between driving at regular speed and at an ecodriving speed.

Enjoy your year!