(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)
Sometimes life’s tosses coincidences your way.
These involve Volkswagen, diesels and Theresa Condict, a young race driver who is competing in this year’s nationwide Jetta TDI Cup series. She was the subject of a Globe story that ran Thursday, just before the June 19-21 TDI Cup races at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Coincidence No. 1: Condict, of Lexington, Mass., will be competing in those races located in Lexington … Ohio, that is.
Coincidence No. 2: This week’s test car is a 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI, the same model car Condict will be driving in the races.
Coincidence No. 3: Over the winter, the Jetta TDI was at the top of my want-to-buy list. I’d been waiting for years for it to be legal to buy new diesel-powered passenger cars in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, it was impossible to find the model Jetta I wanted – the TDI Sportwagen – over the winter.
So, for a lot of reasons, I was eager to get out on the road in this test Jetta.
Condict could tell us a lot about how the Jetta handles on the track. On the road, I found it to be quick and predictable, but hardly a race car. It seems amazing that there are 25 or more of them fighting for space on a racetrack.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder TDI engine is rated at 140 horsepower with the abundant low-end torque that’s part of the diesel package – 236 lb.-ft. in this version. Our test vehicle had a 6-speed automatic, and the setup was clearly programmed to maximize fuel economy. The top gears were on the overdrive side and the unit let the engine lug in higher gears (to keep engine revs down for economy) before downshifting. Then, when it did downshift as you slowed down before a stop, it felt like a hybrid using regenerative braking, using engine/transmission braking so aggressively that the driver gets nudged forward into the seatbelts. Using the manual mode and letting the driver control the shifting resulted in a more normal driving experience.
The Jetta with an automatic transmission is EPA rated at 29 miles per gallon in city driving and 40 on the highway. The manual transmission version adds 1 m.p.g. to each of those figures. Reality seems to indicate those figures should be higher.
Our Jetta’s on-board computer claimed we were getting 41.6 m.p.g. in mixed driving, and a quick fill-up and math pretty much agreed, coming out to 40.3 m.p.g.
The TDI’s introduction last fall coincided with diesel prices that were considerably higher than for a gallon of unleaded regular gasoline. However, the difference between regular and diesel has disappeared of late, making the diesel a competitive buy – especially at the TDI’s MSRP of $24,270. The bottom line on ours came to $25,270 with a $1,000 optional sunroof. Other available options include a navigation system ($1,990), 17-inch alloy wheels ($450), rear side air bags ($350), an iPod interface adaptor ($199), and Bluetooth ($275).
The EPA has said that if one-third of US vehicles were diesel-powered, the country would save 1.4 million barrels of oil per day – the same amount the United States imports daily from Saudi Arabia.
VW right now has this niche of the diesel market pretty much to itself, along with the chance to prove diesels can be clean, one of the reasons the company chose the TDI sedans for the Jetta TDI Cup series.
“When we first called racetrack owners [to set up the 2008 series], they wanted no part of us,” said Clark Campbell, VW’s motor sports director. “They considered diesels smoky, noisy, and smelly. They quickly found out that the truth is the diesels are just the opposite.’’
There were no special procedures to be following in starting or driving this diesel. Turn the key and you’re ready to go. With the windows down, if you listen closely, you can discern a slight diesel rattle when starting out with a cold engine.
The TDI comes nicely equipped with standard equipment, including air conditioning, a fully-featured stability control system, multi-function steering wheel, on-board computer, and keyless entry. Also standard this year are heated seats and washer nozzles, a nice double perk for New England drivers.
A leatherette interior is matched with a pebble-grained vinyl dashboard. It’s a step up from econobox standards but certainly more pedestrian than entry-level luxury leather. Audio and climate controls are intuitive and have good-sized knobs and buttons. The traditional blue and red VW interior lighting always has seemed to add a touch of class to my eyes.
The driver’s seat is a strange combination of power (the seatback), manual (back and forth control) and the VW crank-it-up handle for adjusting the seat height.
Nice touches are the turn signal lever, which only needs to be tapped once to get three flashes for lane changes and pulling out into traffic. And there’s a grab handle by each door.
Rear seat legroom is adequate. I’m a six-footer and like to drive with the seat positioned all the way back, though I keep the seatback upright. I found “sitting behind myself” acceptable for foot, knee and legroom. It was more comfortable than sitting in a Fenway Park box seat.
There’s a nice little storage area (and power outlet) at the bottom of the center stack, convenient for charging a phone and stowing oft-used items. An auxiliary plug in the center armrest worked well with an iPod.
Unless an automatic transmission is a must, the recommendation here would be to test drive a manual, too.
And, yes, the TDI remains on my “list.”
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