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2015 Volkswagen Jetta SEL TDI Review By Steve Purdy

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By Steve Purdy
The Auto Channel
Michigan Bureau

In spite of owning some mighty dismal diesels back in the 1970s and 80s - smoky, noisy, slow and crass - I’m still a fan. The mileage, massive torque, cruising range and long-term durability make that power source charming, in my view. Modern diesels barely resemble those we criticized back in the day. The new ones are quiet, clean and peppy in addition to the other charms listed.

Other than the TDI badge you would never know this Jetta is a diesel. I suppose if you are particularly knowledgeable or experienced you might be able to tell from the sound as it starts and idles that it is a compression-ignition engine rather than at typical spark-ignition, but most people would think this an entirely conventional car.

The Jetta line is VW’s compact, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger sedan competing with Focus, Cruze, Elantra, Dart and lots of others. All of these small cars have moved significantly upscale with most recent redesigns and Jetta is no exception. Jetta, though, might be the most conservative of the bunch in terms of style and design. While simple and unremarkable in design, it exudes quality and practicality.

Exterior styling, just updated for 2015, makes the Jetta look even more like larger sibling Passat with simple but attractive Teutonic looks. The roofline is higher than most of its competitors making ingress and egress much easier for those of us who are bigger and/or taller than average. Nice, but conservative alloy wheels measure only 16 inches with no larger option. Again – rather staid, but plenty practical.

Inside we find a pleasant and practical cockpit where nothing superfluous mars the flow of information. We have a small multi-purpose screen for navigation, audio, climate and the usual functions. I did not find the navigation system particularly easy to manage or informative. But, to be perfectly honest, I don’t need much of that stuff anyway. If you’re a technologically-demanding driver don’t dismiss this car out of hand, though, take a look at it yourself.

Here is a great example of what a modern diesel is like and why I like the car – the new Jetta TDI turbo-diesel makes just 150 horsepower but and amazing 236 pound-feet of torque. The EPA rates the Jetta TDI at 31 mpg in the city, 46 on the highway and 36 combined. With a 14.5-gallon fuel tank we have a potential cruising range of well over 600 miles. I easily managed the listed highway mileage and even made it to 50 mpg on a couple of less demanding drives. The turbo kicks in smoothly and quickly as I noticed little lag. The standard 6-speed manual transmission added significantly to the fun quotient, I thought. The clutch take up is a bit jerky so you’ll need to get used to that because that diesel will stall easily.

The Jetta TDI SEL starts at $26,410 and includes six-way power driver seat, Fender premium audio, Homelink, dual-zone climate control, Navigation rearview camera, keyless access and push-button start, fog lights and Lancaster 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels. A variety of options can dress it up and add some extra technology and the DSG (quick-shifting, dual-clutch, 6-speed automatic transmission) adds $1,100 to the price. Fortunately, our test car has the standard, much-more-fun, six-speed manual. Out tester has the Driver Assistance & Lighting Package costing $1,690. With the destination charge we’re looking at $28,920 on the sticker’s bottom line.

VW’s only competitor in this category of main-stream compact diesel sedans is the Chevy Cruze that has more torque and has a standard automatic transmission. The GM automatic is not as sophisticated as the VW unit and Chevy doesn’t offer a manual. The price is very close and overall content is similar.

The extra cost for a diesel version of either car is anywhere from $1,100 or $4,300. It’s difficult to make an accurate comparison since content differences may not match up perfectly. So, we’ll try to run some numbers, but take them cautiously. Considering the extra cost, fuel efficiency and fuel cost, does it make sense fiscally?

The fuel economy difference between a gasoline-powered Jetta, or other conventional compacts, and the diesel is about 20%. If the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel is that far apart there would be no fuel cost advantage. As I write this AAA reports just a 13-cent spread between regular and diesel. That makes a 4.5% gap so it would save you some money. In fact you would be paying a 4.5% premium to gain 20% in mileage. At that rate the payback for the extra cost of the powertrain might make sense depending on how much you drive. The more you drive the greater the savings. You should run your own numbers and decide what is most important to you.

So, what’s it like to live with the Jetta TDI?

Very nice, indeed.

For a small car the 3,200-pound (admirably light) Jetta has lots of room even for a big guy like me. Interior volume feels larger than most of the compacts I’ve reviewed lately with easy access. A cavernous trunk with 15.7 cubic–feet of volume begs to swallow our stuff. It’s quiet inside even at extra-legal speeds with neither engine nor road noise encroaching on our serenity. And, particularly with the manual transmission, it is reasonably entertaining to drive. You need to give it a generous amount of throttle for full thrust with the turbo-diesel, but gentle driving can be gratifying as well for maximizing fuel economy.

Handling is fairly quick and agile with decent road feel. This is not a sport sedan and don’t expect it to be track worthy, but it is a reasonably entertaining car to drive. Ergonomics are good and all the touch points have the feel of quality.

VW’s new car warranty covers the whole car for 3 years or 36,000 miles and the powertrain for 5 years or 60,000 miles.

As long as fuel prices hold with little gap between diesel and gasoline this will continue to be a great car for commuters or traveling salespeople who drive a lot of miles. The more you drive the more you’ll save with the TDI.

VW fans tend to be loyal and though the Rabbit diesel I had in the 1980 was so slow it couldn’t get out of its own way, and the very second the fuel needle touched the “E” it was out of fuel, and if you wanted to pass on a country road you had to make a reservation a week in advance, I would still consider the new Jetta TDI.

ęSteve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved

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