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2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Review

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Clean Diesel Sedan and Sportswagen
The 50-State Contender
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

Why don’t we embrace diesel automobiles here in the US? After all, in Europe more than half of all automobiles, big ones and small ones, cheap ones and pricy ones, are diesels. They get close to 30% better mileage and when properly maintained (and they don’t need much) they run nearly forever – hundreds of thousands of miles is not unusual.

Our reasons for dissing diesels are many and understandable. Historically, diesels were noisy, smelly, and slow. I remember them well. Perhaps worst of all, some really dismal diesels were sold to US buyers by GM that were just converted gas engines. They had all the above bad habits and also broke easily and often. I had an Olds 88 Royale diesel that lost its valve train at about 60,000 miles. I also had a VW Rabbit diesel that was so slow it couldn’t get out of its own way. And when the fuel gauge just barely touched the empty mark it was out of fuel allowing a little air into the fuel lines. The VW handled great and was fun to drive once up to speed. It just took forever to get to speed.

But that was then, and this is now. I’m ready to have another look and VW is ready to show me. We’re in Santa Monica this week to drive the new 2009 Jetta Clean Diesel TDI– the first diesel car in its class to be emissions-compliant in all 50 states. That means this turbo-diesel must match or exceed the emissions of gasoline engines. How do they do that?

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There’s nothing really new about the Jetta itself. This is the car we’ve had for a few years, VW’s biggest seller in the US. The news is the all-new clean diesel engine.

Of course another reason we American car buyers are not flocking to diesels is that diesel fuel costs considerably more than gasoline, which just about negates the savings due to mpg. Alan Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, explains that the world demand for diesel fuel is intense because of the burgeoning Asian economies that need it for construction equipment and all the other uses that come with explosive economic growth. That’s not about to change, Mr. Schaeffer notes, however he has counted more than 30 new vehicles coming to the US in the near future that will be diesel powered.

Let’s move on with a little debunking. Modern diesels are no longer dirty, smoky, smelly or slow. There’s no question they used to be all of the above but because diesel fuel was cheaper than gasoline and mileage was considerably better with a diesel engine making for a nicely extended range, many of us were willing to go that route, particularly my brother the MB 220D lover whose job had him on the road a lot.

Diesel fuel is now what they call “ultra-low sulfur” - 97% less sulfur than the old stuff. It was sulfur that made it so smelly in the first place. Additionally, the smoke you saw coming from diesels in the past was primarily “particulate” carbon. That’s now being filtered out in the exhaust system. I counted at least 3 filtering systems and 3 separate catalytic systems between the exhaust port and the outside air on VW’s new clean diesel. Independent engineers have told me that the air coming out of the exhaust pipe is cleaner than the air going into the engine’s intake. They don’t even have to vent the exhaust when working on the engine indoors.

You may have heard of the Bluetech diesel exhaust system used by Mercedes and some other luxury brands to make them compliant with emissions regulation in all 50 states. The difference is that the Bluetech system involves injecting urea into the exhaust system in addition to all the other filters and catalysts. VW doesn’t need to do that because of the size of the Jetta. On a car any larger, they acknowledge, a urea injection system might be needed.

That sophisticated and complex exhaust system plus better insulation and probably some acoustic attenuation mean that these diesels are no longer noisy either. Only an experienced ear will detect that the power plant under the hood is of the compression-ignition persuasion. In the old days the sound coming from under the hood was like a platoon of elves knocking away with their little hammers. Now it’s just a barely audible tickiness.

And with direct injection and turbo charging they are no longer slow. Zero-to-sixty times are quite adequate and turbo lag is barely perceptible. The Jetta TDI comes standard with a smooth, quick six-speed stick transmission and the slick six-speed DSG automatic is optional. Anyone who has driven the DSG (a dual-clutch design that shifts quicker than you can think about it) sings its praises.

Among the TDI’s green credentials is that it uses less total fuel per mile driven potentially saving that much more imported oil. If diesels really caught on here and a large percentage of us favored that technology, as do the Europeans, we could save billions of gallons from needing to be imported. The VW folks think we may get to as much as 15% by 2015. There are a lot of variables in that equation, I’d say.

After the technical presentations we mounted our diesel steeds in front of the hotel. The drive route would take us out for a couple hundred miles of winding canyon roads and along the famous Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) through Malibu. We were challenged to maximize our fuel mileage with the winning team being awarded a nice prize. Well, my young codriver Jeff and I knew within 10 miles that we wouldn’t be in contention. We just didn’t have the self discipline to go easily and gently. After all, these are great driving roads and this is a VW.

The winner was a team of experienced journalists who took this challenge very seriously. They managed just about 42-mpg climbing the hills gently but charging fast downhill so as not to lose any momentum approaching the next hill. We did about 32-mpg pushing hard and having fun. But just think about that. We were thrashing and pushing and downshifting at every opportunity and still got 32-mpg in this competent, comfortable sedan.

The Jetta Clean Diesel TDI and Jetta Clean Diesel TDI Sport Wagon are at your VW dealers now. Prices start at $21,990 for the former and $23,590 for the latter. The basic car comes very well equipped with all the power stuff we expect, 6 air bags, stability control, six-speed manual transmission, leatherette seating, trip computer, split folding rear seats, Euro-tuned 4-wheel independent suspension, 16-inch alloy wheels. The optional automatic transmission is the quick-shifting six-speed DSG with Tiptronic manual mode. You can also get two extra airbags, a panoramic sunroof, navigation system, an integrated 30 GB hard drive, iPod adapter, 17-inch Avignon wheels.

So, let’s run the numbers before we finish. The TDI costs about $2,000 more than the comparable Jetta, but it’s eligible for a $1,300 Federal tax credit – not a deduction . . . a credit. That makes the net about $700 extra, if my math is correct. The TDI’s fuel mileage is about 30% better than its gasoline-powered sibling but diesel fuel costs usually about 15% more than gasoline.

With a negligible purchase cost differential, an amazing range, admirable durability, excellent performance and handling, and none of the historical diesel disadvantages, this diesel might be the car for you.

© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved