(Clifford Atiyeh/Globe Photo)
Right when I heard the solid ca-chunk of the driver door clamping shut and felt my bony rear wrapped in a firm, bolstered seat, I wasn't sure where all the negative talk of Volkswagen quality control was coming from. Issues with vibrations, rattles, and electrical problems – especially on VW's highest-selling models, the Rabbit and Jetta – have been well-documented in the industry. It's no secret Volkswagen hasn't been near the top of J.D. Power, but then again, part of those surveys involve people complaining about window switch locations, rather than answering if those switches actually work.
I like where the switches are on this white 2009 Jetta TDI, but more importantly, I like how this compact sedan drives like a much more expensive car. I’ve made a helpful seat-of-the-pants rule for all road tests: if a car can handle Boston’s potholes, crudely-filled patches, bumps, dips, and expansion joints without scraping the wheel wells and unsettling the occupants, then the suspension is truly well-sorted. Should the automakers need to cut back more of their R&D budgets, they can just drive here, where the wretched road conditions are far more abusive than any manufacturer proving ground.
Aside from luxury barges like the Lexus LS and Cadillac Escalade, which literally swallow road imperfections, it’s hard to find a smoother, more tied-down four-door than the Jetta. Steering kickback is almost nil, body shuddering is nonexistent, and pitch and roll are so tempered that you become more relaxed, and more apt to pay attention to where you’re going than trying to avoid deep asphalt chasms. Most cars under $30,000 lose their composure on such Third World roads, but not the Jetta – all the more surprising given the firmer spring rates typical of German cars.
Come to a stop, however, and the Jetta’s smooth demeanor vanishes and the quality controversies reappear. At first you’ll think the only jerk in the car is you – after all, every brake pedal has a different initial bite and feel. But after a few more times, the culprit becomes obvious: it’s the 6-speed Direct Shift Gearbox, Volkswagen’s version of the latest transmission fad, the dual-clutch automatic.
The dual-clutch is a true hybrid transmission. It shifts automatically, but unlike a conventional automatic, there’s no torque converter. Instead, the gearbox is divided in two: one clutch controls the odd gears, while another controls the even gears. During a shift, the inactive clutch pre-engages the next gear while the active clutch disengages the current gear. This results in quicker upshifts without the lag of a typical automatic, or the momentary cutoff in fuel as required by a manual.
On paper, it sounds great to have this advanced gearbox in an average car, the same in principle as the 7-speeds on the latest Porsche 911 and Volkswagen’s 253-mile-per-hour Bugatti Veyron. On the way up, shifts are indeed quick and smooth, delightful even, thanks to the diesel four-cylinder’s generous 236 pound-feet of torque. But like a drug addict, the high literally comes crashing down.
In every transmission mode, the DSG delivers abrupt downshifts from third gear. It's mild for the most part, but the forced engine braking ruins the ability to coast and stop gently, even with the lightest of brake pressure. Stop-and-go traffic makes you realize what it’s like to be a bobble-head doll, and the DSG even has the audacity to shift into first while the car is still moving. There’s no rev-matching feature to abate the feeling, and it never goes away. Granted, it’s helpful for engine braking, but that should be the sole job of the Tiptronic mode. In short, the DSG - at least in the Jetta TDI - feels sloppy and better suited for high-performance cars where a jerky ride is more of an expected shortcoming. Volkswagen has introduced an improved 7-speed DSG for its Passat CC sedan in Europe, but we'll have to wait a while before it arrives here.
Thankfully, there’s a 6-speed manual that will happily accept your own downshifts and save you $1,100. Even if you’re halfway decent, you can do it better.
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