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2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Review

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2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

SEE ALSO: Buy a Deisel or Hybrid?
SEE ALSO: Volkswagen Specs, Reviews, Prices and Comparisons


2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

Diesel is not what it once was. If your association with Dr. Rudolf Diesel's namesake engine includes the words "underpowered", "slow", "noisy", "smelly", or "sooty", you need to be brought into the 21st Century. Modern diesels, as exemplified by Volkswagen's latest, in the 2009 Jetta TDI, are none of the above. They're clean, quiet, and powerful. Except for four wheels and a Volkswagen badge, a new Jetta TDI is not at all like an old Rabbit Diesel...

Diesel is undergoing changes analogous to those with gasoline and gasoline engines over thirty years ago, when unleaded gasoline and catalytic converters were introduced. Ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel has allowed use of catalytic converters, somewhat different in implementation than those used with gasoline engines but similar in intent, and particulate traps to clean up diesel exhaust to levels comparable to that from a gasoline engine. Electronic, instead of mechanical, fuel injection allows more precise timing and measurement of the fuel injected directly into a diesel's cylinders, and lessons learned over the past decades in spark-ignition (that's for gasoline or alcohol fuels) engines are being applied to compression-ignition engines. In a diesel, the fuel-air mixture is ignited by the heat of compression, not a spark. Torque increases with compression, and diesels, with high compression, excel in torque. Torque is the force that moves a vehicle, and torque is what you feel when you step on the accelerator pedal.

The Jetta TDI's 2.0-liter turbocharged diesel engine produces a maximum of 140 horsepower, at 4000 rpm. This may not seem too impressive -- on paper. It also makes 236 lb-ft of torque, from 1750 to 2500 rpm, as much as many 3.0-liter gasoline engines. Diesels don't rev as high as gasoline engines, and most fade in power output far beneath redline. VW's TDI engine will happily run into the rev limiter, with only a small loss of output in the upper 500 rpm of its range. Sport diesel, anyone? Even with that, the 2009 Jetta TDI is clean enough to please even the California Air Resources Board, with the result that it's legal in all 50 states. It's also quite fuel-efficient, rated by the EPA at 30 mpg city, 41 highway in manual-transmission form and 29/40 with an automatic. YMMV... VW commissioned independent testing company AMCI to real-world mileage testing. Result? 38/44 with the automatic. With the stick, a six-speed, I got between high 20s and mid-30s around town and low 40s on the highway -- with absolutely no attempt at trying for high mileage. Mostly the opposite...

Which means mileage similar to that of many hybrid sedans -- in a car that is much more fun to drive. The Jetta TDI is a Jetta first, and that means a sporty-but-comfortable compact sedan with ample space for four, and an occasional third rear passenger. It's also offered in wagon form, for something larger and with more cargo ability than a Golf hatchback but still smaller outside and more nimble than a small crossover. The TDI is equipped in a similar manner to the upper levels of the gasoline models. Other Jettas get a choice of five-speed manual or six-speed torque-converter automatic (with Tiptronic® manual shift); the TDI has a six-speed manual or six-speed DSG twin-clutch automanual.

Besides my recent week with a manual-box TDI, I've driven manual and automatic examples at the press intro in the Santa Monica Mountains north of Los Angeles, and a stick at a track day. The automatic is expected to be the popular choice, and works well with the engine's torque. The stick is more fun, as expected, and can be surprisingly quick. The suspension is meant for the real world, and provides good comfort and handling for daily use, even when playing on twisty mountain roads. It's too soft for the track, no surprise, but any performance-oriented TDI buyer will be acquainted with the aftermarket to solve that issue. The VW Jetta TDI has character that is missing from hybrids, with little compromise in fuel economy.

APPEARANCE: How to tell a TDI from other Jettas? Badging. Don't look for clouds of smoke, and there is only a subdued diesel sound audible from outside.

COMFORT: Differences inside? Again, few. There's a little more vibration than a regular Jetta when the engine is cold. Other than that, the TDI is similar to any other upper-level Jetta. No complaint there, that means a compact but space-efficient design, well-designed instrument panel with complete instrumentation and a convenient information system/trip computer display, a leather-wrapped manually-adjustable tilt and telescope steering wheel with cruise and auxiliary audio controls, V-Tex leatherette seats (heated in front), with power adjustment for the driver's back angle, a locking, air-conditioned glove box, AM/FM/XM/CD(including MP3) audio with a jack for an audio player or an optional iPod interface, and lockouts for the trunk, fuel door, and 60/40 folding rear seat, which also has an armrest and passthrough. The trunk is commendably commodious, with external struts to prevent luggage damage -- and a *real* spare tire underneath. Easy-to-clean rubber floormats were among the few options on my test car.

SAFETY: Safety equipment in the Jetta TDI is comprehensive, with six airbags, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, and, like all 2009 Volkswagens, the ESP electronic stability control system all standard. Rear-seat side airbags are optional. Also, as with all `09 VWs, all scheduled maintenance for the first three years or 36,000 miles is free.

RIDE AND HANDLING: As with most Volkswagens, the Jetta TDI's suspension is tuned softly, for comfort even on poor road surfaces, but with good damping, for good control. Driven enthusiastically but sanely on the street, it still works very well -- corners on its door handles, as the saying goes, but does an admirable job. When pushed harder, the limitations of the standard setup show. No problem there for the vast majority of buyers, and for those who want something sportier, you know the aftermarket sources for a DIY TDI GLI, so to speak.

PERFORMANCE: Yes there is a "performance" section in the description of the new TDI. Life with it is not life in the slow lane, merely life in the fuel-frugal lane. Acceleration, not much of a possibility with an old Rabbit Diesel, is just fine here: 0-60 in just over 8 seconds. No terror on the onramp. Credit the 2.0-liter turbodiesel's 140 horsepower (at 4000 rpm) and, more importantly, 236 lb-ft of torque from 1750 through 2500 rpm. The six-speed manual allows best performance use of the engine's power, which feels strongest at around 3000 rpm, between the torque and horsepower peaks, and only starts to fade slightly around 4500 before the rev limiter cuts in at 5000. This is a diesel that likes to play! The DSG changes the car's character, more toward near-luxury and away from rambunctiousness. It's the same twin-clutch automated manual as found in other VWs, but here has been re-programmed to shift more slowly, even in manual mode, to better deal with the engine's torque. It works as well as any torque-converter automatic, and better than most, in "D", and also in manual mode, although with less driver involvement than with the standard manual gearbox. There is no real penalty in fuel economy. Speaking of mileage, my experience during test week was high 20s to mid-30s around town and over 40 on the highway. During the press intro, I had a clear road on many of the famous LA canyon roads and tried to get the mileage down as low as possible. Even with plenty of traffic and construction to stop the fun, I couldn't get below a 32mpg average -- in a driving situation where, in a similar gasoline car, low 20s would be good. So figure a 35 mpg average in real-world use, easily.

CONCLUSIONS: Volkswagen calls the Jetta TDI "Good clean (diesel) fun". They're right. Great mileage, too. What's not to like?

2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

Base Price			$ 22,270
Price As Tested			$ 24,169
Engine Type			single overhead cam 16-valve
				 turbocharged direct-injected 4-cylinder 
				 diesel with common-rail fuel
Engine Size			2.0 liters / 120 cu. in.
Horsepower			140 @ 4000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			236 @ 1750-2500 rpm
Transmission			6-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length		101.5 in. / 179.3 in.
Curb Weight			3230 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		23.1
Fuel Capacity			14.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement		ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel
Tires				205/55R16 91H Michelin Energy mxv4
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc, ABS, ESP, 
Suspension, front/rear		independent McPherson strut/
				  independent multilink
Drivetrain			transverse front engine,
				 front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		30 / 41 / 35
0 to 60 mph				8.3  sec

Power sunroof			$ 1,000
Rubber mats and trunk liner	$   199
Destination charge		$