Great fuel economy. Check.
Fun to drive. Check.
Reasonably priced. Check.
On paper, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI meets all of the criteria for a best-selling vehicle in these days of economic and environmental uncertainty. It's exactly the kind of car they say we should all be driving. Time will tell if it rockets to the top of the charts, but its greatest asset may also prove to be the biggest hurdle to getting there.
You see the 'D' in TDI might as well stand for diesel, as the Turbocharged Direct Injected engine under the hood burning that fuel is what makes this car special. Unfortunately for VW, diesel also remains a dirty word for those who still associate it with smoky school buses and bad 1970's movies about convoys; images that endure in spite of the fact that the latest breed of oil burners have to meet emissions standards in all 50 states that are as stringent as those for gasoline-powered cars. And the VW does it without requiring any fuel additives like many of the larger diesels hitting the market these days.
VW, along with a number of other manufacturers, is trying to change this perception with a "Clean Diesel" campaign to freshen up the fuel's reputation. They’ve already made some inroads as the TDI was named 2009 Green Car of the Year by the Green Car Journal, which is about as eco-friendly of an honor as being nuzzled by a bunch of forest animals, a la “Snow White.”
A potentially higher obstacle is the recently high price for diesel compared to gasoline. Just a few months ago the spread was more than $1 per gallon in some parts of the country, scaring a lot of people off of the stuff. But as gasoline prices have risen again, diesel has done the opposite, and now costs just 10 percent more than regular, and more or less the same as premium. Since it gets 30 percent better mileage than the standard Jetta, or even the turbocharged GLI that runs on premium fuel, the TDI looks really good at the pump – for now, at least.
Outfitted with a 6-speed manual transmission, the TDI gets an EPA highway rating of 41 miles per gallon. Only the Toyota Prius and Honda’s hybrids can stretch a gallon further. The city rating isn’t quite as impressive compared to those cars, but 30 mpg is still 2 mpg more than you get out of a subcompact MINI Cooper. A six-speed dual clutch automatic transmission is also available, and with it those numbers drop just a tick to 29/40.
Click here for PHOTOS of the Jetta TDI
Outside of the EPA’s test center, the results are even better. I regularly saw as high as 44 mpg on the highway without employing any intentional fuel stretching driving techniques, in fact, the opposite is probably true.
Aside from the engine, and a sticker on the dashboard to remind you which pump to pull up to at the service station, the TDI is identical to the compact sedan we know and mostly love. Big legroom for the driver, good space in the rear, and a 16 cubic foot trunk make it accommodating and useable. For those who need even more functionality a SportWagen station wagon version is also available with double the cargo room – seats up.
The suspension, comprised of Macpherson struts in front and a multi-link arrangement in the rear, provide that sublime combination of comfort and balanced handling Jettas are known for, regardless of what’s under the hood.
Of course the engine in the Jetta TDI deserves great regard for much more than its economical bent. With 236 pound-feet of torque, the stuff responsible for acceleration, the car is blatantly brisk. Up to 60 miles per hour, it’s precisely as quick as the standard Jetta, but with a much more relaxed power delivery that feels more like a 80’s-era V8 than a small 4-cylinder. It offers just as much thrust during passing maneuvers and even has a 1 mph faster top speed. 128 mph, in case you get lost and end up on the Autobahn.
To push this ‘economical but fun’ point home, Volkswagen has organized a one-make racing series featuring slightly modified versions of the TDI. I took my street legal version to one of the tracks the series competes on, Thunderbolt Raceway at New Jersey Motorsports Park, and spent the afternoon racing against myself.
I still ended up in the mud once.
While not quite as entertaining as a GLI would’ve been, the low-end grunt that the TDI offers felt great coming out of the turns, and the car’s handling was well-behaved through the tight chicanes, though the all-season tires mounted on 16-inch wheels could hold on for only so long. Down the straights the main difference between compression and spark ignition became very apparent as horsepower maxes out at 140 hp at just 4,000 rpm. Given this kind of power delivery, the 6-speed transmission is a boon, and you quickly come to understand why semi trucks come with 10 gears or more.
Out on the highway among the 18-wheelers, the TDI chugs along without a care in the world, the engine slowing turning over, accompanied by a soft throaty thrum. Only at idle do you hear much of the chatter diesels are known for, and it imbues the TDI with a bit of euro-taxi chic that makes you feel like you’re on vacation every time you start it up.
The TDI comes well-stocked with a base price of $22,270. The only major options are the automatic transmission, sunroof, and VW's new touch-screen satellite radio/navigation system that's substantially better than the old buttons and knobs edition. Factor in the $1,300 federal tax credit you get for saving the country from the scourge of imported oil, and it basically costs the same as a similarly-equipped gasoline model.
Finally, less may actually be more. More or less.
2009 Jetta TDI
Base Price: $22,270
As Tested: $22,440
Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger, four-door sedan
Engine: 2.0L Inline-4
Power 140 hp, 236 lb-ft torque
Transmission: six-speed manual
MPG: 30 city/41 highway
What do you think of the Jetta TDI?
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.