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2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sedan - VIDEO ENHANCED

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One Solution for the Fuel Mileage Problem
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

Diesel automobiles have not been particularly popular in the US. On this side of the pond they have sort of a cult following, but not much more. VW, Audi, BMW and Mercedes are the only mainstream manufacturers offering diesels in the US market, while in Europe more than half of all cars are diesel. Jeep offered a diesel Liberty but I don’t know if that survived the bankruptcy. Automotive News this week reported that nine diesel vehicles planned by other makers – from Honda to GM to others – have been canceled because of “costs and other problems.”

One of the other problems revolves around the federal government’s formula for estimating fuel economy which gives an advantage to hybrid systems. Diesels generally get about 30% better fuel mileage than comparable gasoline engines and a diesel’s naturally higher torque numbers can make one feel very powerful. Diesels can also be more costly, particularly when it comes to the exotic systems required to clean the exhaust systems. The larger, more expensive automotive diesels have gone to a urea-injection system using 2 catalytic systems and two filtering systems to clean the exhaust. VW has avoided that big expense while still meeting the 50-state emissions limits. Instead of urea injection the VW TDI uses an NOx storage catalyst that holds onto the noxious emissions until they build to a specified point at which they are burned off.

The cost of diesel fuel is another big issue. During the height of the fuel price spikes of 2007 and 2008 diesel fuel was as much as 30 to 40% higher than gasoline, effectively negating the efficiency advantage. That was when the world economy was cooking along with China and India running up the price for diesel to support the massive amounts of construction going on in their economies. Since the economic meltdown diesel fuel costs have dropped dramatically and stayed significantly below gasoline.

While Volkswagen’s Jetta Diesel is small enough to avoid the necessity of the complex and expensive exhaust scrubbing systems they’ve incorporated turbo-charging and direct injection to bring this mid-size sedan up to performance standards that allows it to compete with anything in the segment. We attended the launch of the new Jetta TDI in California a little over a year ago and came away mighty impressed. We’ve just had our first chance to live with it for a week – and we’re still impressed.

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Least impressive is Jetta’s appearance. Even though it’s a relatively new design the styling appears a bit dated, plane and uninspired. This is, after all, meant to be a car of immense practicality, and the styling reflects that image. Exhibiting the characteristic VW goatee chrome grille the Jetta is easy to spot coming down the road, but viewed from most any other angle it can be mistaken for a number of other white-bread sedans.

Most impressive are both the Jetta’s performance and handling.

The updated, cleaned-up 2.0-liter turbo-diesel makes a modest 140 horsepower but an amazing 236 pound-feet of torque. It’s the torque, after all, that you feel and that gets you going expeditiously down the road. Below 1,800 rpm performance is tepid to say the least, but from there to 4-grand it’s amazing. As you approach the rpm limits, just beyond 4-grand, it begins to peter out quickly. So, stick to the sweet spot – 2,000 to 4,000 rpm - and you’ll be happy. And, you’ll be getting somewhere between 30 and 41-mpg. Some folks claim they get as much as 50-mpg.

My only complaint is the clutch. Our test car had the six-speed manual transmission and the clutch seemed unusually harsh on the uptake. Now, I’m about as experienced at driving vehicles with manual transmissions as anyone anywhere, but I was still stalling the thing after days of living with it. Perhaps it was an adjustment issue, so we’ll not contend that it is a defect in design. But it was certainly unpleasant. I don’t recall having such a problem during the California launch last year.

Handling, of course, is usually the forte of VW products – and this Jetta is no exception. A distinctly European feel to the ride and handling is what we expect of VWs, and we were not disappointed. It was firm, but not harsh, and quick to respond to our every input. The body structure felt mighty rigid as we hit a neglected railroad crossing without slowing.

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The inside environment is as expected as well. The Jetta feels quite roomy for a mid-size sedan. The Sport Wagon even offers 33 cubic-feet of cargo area behind the second seat and an impressive 67 cubic-feet with the rear seat folded. And the trunk of the sedan is amazingly cavernous as well. Materials, fit and finish are excellent, though not overtly luxurious. A classically Teutonic functionality characterizes the aesthetics and the controls. Tactile elements are excellent.

Sales of the Jetta TDI sedan and Sport Wagon are brisk. In fact, they represent more than a third of Jetta sales in the US – and Jetta is VW’s best selling vehicle here. Dealers are reporting that they cannot get enough of the TDI models.

The basic warranty covers the whole car for 4 years or 50,000 miles. The powertrain is covered for 5 years and 60,000 miles and protection against corrosion lasts for 12 years with unlimited mileage.

The 2009 Jetta TDI starts at $22,270 – that’s about 5-grand more than the base Jetta S model - and comes equipped about like the gasoline powered SE version. That actually represents about a 2-grand premium for the diesel powertrain. A Federal government tax credit of $1,300 still applies making the actual extra cost about $700 to have the diesel VW. Figure in at least a 30% increase in fuel economy over a comparable sedan and assume that diesel fuel will remain at or below gasoline prices (a safe assumption until the world economy starts to surge again) and you’ll find a pretty favorable cost/benefit ratio.

So, take a close look at this one and run the numbers. I’m sure you’ll be impressed too.

Click PLAY to watch The Auto Channel's RoadTrip in-depth look at the VW Jetta TDI

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved