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2009 Jetta TDI, part 3: With cheaper diesel, it's a better buy

Posted by Bill Griffith  June 19, 2009 03:50 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

Read our March reviews of the Jetta TDI here.

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.

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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.”

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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12 comments so far...
  1. I've driven diesels in Europe and am sold...or would be if I could buy one here.
    Can a hybrid diesel be far away???

    Posted by fierte June 20, 09 09:48 PM
  1. Thanks for the review. I think VW made the diesels for Volvo, & they were working on an 80 MPG hybrid diesel.. Maybe they could make them for GM.
    I still miss my 2002 Diesel Beetle (50 mpg on highway). My wife made me trade it in last year JUST because it was too small for a family.

    Posted by tom June 21, 09 08:02 AM
  1. I'd be concerned about reliability and cold weather starts in New England. Diesels don't like cold weather. VW isn't known for reliable vehicles. In contrast, Toyota hybrids enjoy top notch reliability.

    If I were going to spend 25 grand on a vehicle that sips fuel, I'd buy either a Prius or Camry hybrid. For well under 20 grand, you can't go wrong with very reliable economy cars like the Civic, Elantra, and Corolla.

    Posted by wiseoldfart June 23, 09 11:17 AM
  1. I won't buy until they make a 200 mpg. I know they have this technology. the dailykos told me so.

    Posted by tinfoilhat June 23, 09 12:21 PM
  1. it's a DSG twin clutch automated manual gearbox- not a traditional slushbox with torque converter. a pedantic point for most people, but i found it misleading to refer to the DSG as an "automatic transmission" in a car review.

    Posted by drew June 24, 09 10:36 AM
  1. I heard that diesel engines last longer than than regular gas powered engines. I would be interested in looking at a long-term study on this subject.

    Posted by Dave Steinberg June 25, 09 07:44 AM
  1. drew - what's the difference? dsg and slushbox? does a slushbox have only 1 clutch and can you shift 'manually' as with dsg? is it smooth?

    Posted by woody June 25, 09 10:30 PM
  1. "slushbox" is just slang for a traditional automatic transmission with a torque converter. these have no clutch at all. a dsg is a dual clutch automated manual transmission (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct-Shift_Gearbox).

    some automatic transmissions have a manual shift option (e.g., tiptronic), but it's really not the same thing as dsg at all.

    Posted by drew June 26, 09 04:01 PM
  1. We have had a TDI since 1999 and have been completely satisfied with it's performance. Very few repairs and great on fuel. We will be buying a new one very shortly. The 2009 seems to have many improvements not to mention the fact that is a green car. This other impressive thing about the 2009 TDI is the room inside. I am 6" 3" and needs lots of room. This car fits very well and is comfortable.

    Posted by James Brown June 27, 09 10:48 AM
  1. This is a nice car

    Posted by maggot4life June 30, 09 06:30 PM
  1. thanks drew.

    I just got my 2009 tdi.

    yeah, jerky slowdowns - but switching over to manual, if just for stop signs and traffic lights, helps smooth 'em out. fast stops are the worst and no amount of brake pedal finesse seems to help there. getting used to it and learning to anticipate should help. otherwise, its lots of fun to drive!

    Posted by woody July 1, 09 09:22 PM
  1. I love my 09 TDI but don't you believe the 58 MPG hype. I get about 40 MPG overall. For tall drivers this is the car. Tons of leg room and a very comfortable to drive car.

    Posted by Dave July 16, 09 11:12 AM
 

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