When our 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI arrived at the office back in September 2008, the timing couldn’t have been better. Fresh off a two-year sabbatical during which it received a cleaner, more powerful, and more efficient engine, the diesel Jetta was ripe for time in the spotlight with a market that demanded practical, economical automobiles. Four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline, increasing fuel-economy standards, and a gasping economy were practically an advertising campaign for a car that returned 41 mpg on the highway and had a base price of less than $23,000.
Twelve months with our Jetta, however, have convinced us that there’s more to the TDI story than fuel economy. During its stay, our silver VW proved to be reliable, comfortable, and mature beyond its compact categorization. Sales have also proven that the diesel has sticking power beyond high prices at the pump; now that fuel is less expensive, the TDI still accounts for
40 percent of all Jetta sales.
Our particular test car was a Jetta TDI Loyal Edition (no longer offered for 2010) without any options. Despite the grandiose name, the Loyal Edition’s only additional equipment over a base TDI is a premium sound system. That’s not to downplay the TDI’s impressive standard equipment list, though, which includes satellite radio, an auxiliary audio input, keyless entry, and heated vinyl seats, all for $23,090. Those heated seats are especially valuable in the TDI, as it takes an exceptionally long time for the cabin heater to blow hot air on a cold day. The Jetta’s value is made even stronger by the government’s $1300 tax credit that’s still available for the TDI.
The diesel engine and its fuel economy benefits set the Jetta apart from other small cars. Early on, drivers griped that diesel fuel sometimes commanded a premium of more than a dollar per gallon over regular unleaded. Although Michigan appeared to be more affected than other locations, the price differential hovered at about sixty cents per gallon nationally at the end of 2008. By March 2009, diesel prices were closer to those of gasoline, fluctuating from fifteen cents less to twenty cents more than a gallon of unleaded. The comments on the price of diesel ceased, and drivers focused more attention on the Jetta’s impressive fuel economy. Overall, our Jetta averaged 37 mpg during its year with us, besting the EPA city/highway combined rating by 3 mpg. We also occasionally nipped at the 50-mpg-per-tankful mark when driving gently on the highway.
While we loved the efficiency of our oil burner, our experiences using the diesel pump threw us a few surprises. On more than one occasion, Web producer Evan McCausland had commercial vehicles lining up behind him as he refueled the TDI. One particularly impatient truck driver assaulted McCausland with a string of expletives for using a station’s only diesel pump. Another Jetta driver encountered a clerk who refused to turn on the pump until he personally verified, by looking at the filler cap, that our TDI ran on diesel.
The turbocharged diesel’s defining characteristic is a tower of torque – 236 lb-ft at 1750 rpm – that makes the Jetta a great car for suburban jaunts. Frequent shifting, though, is a requirement in all types of driving. The engine’s redline comes up quickly at 4500 rpm, and the power band needed for passing at higher speeds is quite small. The narrow window of performance also hinders any effort to drive the TDI in an aggressive manner. The six-speed stick never offended anyone, but the clutch regularly drew complaints for a lack of feel and an eagerness to stall the engine at low rpm. After we drove a TDI equipped with the optional $1100 dual-clutch automatic gearbox, several of us were of the opinion that we had opted for the wrong transmission in our car.
As with the engine, the Jetta’s chassis wasn’t up for dancing. Body control is decent and steering feel is excellent at low speeds, but on twisty roads, the Jetta doesn’t quite deliver the confidence, engagement, and agility of our favorite compacts. We also felt that the brake pedal was excessively soft, to the point that we asked the dealer to check it during a service visit. Nothing unusual was found.
So, sport is not the TDI’s forte, but the Jetta is packed with refinement. The word “smooth” frequently cropped up in the logbook, as drivers praised the steering, shifter, ride, and overall demeanor. Along with the TDI’s 500-plus-mile range and supportive seats, we loved the comfortable and quiet ride on long trips. The signature diesel sound track is noticeable with the windows down, but once you seal the glass, the muffled clatter all but disappears. “The diesel Jetta has a refinement that belies its price,” observed West Coast editor Jason Cammisa. “It feels so much more grown up than the 2.5-liter gas Jetta, or anything else at this price point. It’s even better than many cars costing five grand more.”
Indeed, many drivers drew comparisons with the Ford Fusion Hybrid, a car that is larger and about $5000 more expensive than the Jetta. The gas/electric Fusion bests the TDI in city and combined fuel economy, but the Jetta is better suited to long-distance commuters, due to its better highway fuel economy. Plus, the Jetta offers similar levels of sophistication and practicality, with a trunk and back seat that defy the VW’s compact-car status.
Normalcy – in the context of exceptional fuel economy – is one of the reasons to appreciate the TDI. As senior Web editor Phil Floraday noted, “It does a much better job of engaging the driver than your average hybrid.” The Jetta’s diesel character even fades from notice during long or relaxed drives. “For all that’s written and said about diesel technology, the really amazing thing about the Jetta is that you hardly ever think about its engine,” commented assistant editor David Zenlea. The TDI’s consistent reliability was also notable. Over its 28,720 miles with us, our Jetta fulfilled its duty without fault. Even better, regular maintenance was covered by VW’s three-year, 36,000-mile free-service program.
For 2010, Volkswagen has an answer to our call for more energetic handling. The TDI Cup Street Edition includes larger brakes, stiffer antiroll bars, and the sport-tuned suspension from the turbocharged gasoline-powered Jetta GLI. There are also special body panels, interior trim, and wheels to celebrate Volkswagen’s TDI Cup amateur racing series. We’re eager to sample that car, as the Jetta’s lack of sporting demeanor is really what kept it from wowing our drivers. We enjoyed the car for its frugality, maturity, and for being different. In the end, though, the small VW just didn’t have the charisma to move our inner tachometers. It sure makes a convincing argument for the tiny part of us that occasionally cedes to reason, but the Jetta TDI rarely makes appearances in our impassioned automotive dreams.
Pros + Cons
+ Cheap to buy and own
+ Comfortable cabin
+ Upscale refinement
– Sedate character
– No-feel clutch
– Anonymous styling
Prices & Equipment
Price as tested
ABS; traction and stability control; aluminum wheels; air-conditioning; keyless entry; power windows, mirrors, locks, and sunroof; heated front seats; leatherette seating surfaces; cruise control; six-disc CD changer; auxiliary audio input; Sirius satellite radio; 115-volt power outlet; tilting/telescoping steering column; front, side, and side curtain air bags
*Estimate based on info from intellichoice.com
2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
- 4 out of 5 Stars
- body style 4-door sedan
- accommodation 5 passengers
- construction Steel unibody
- Engine 16-valve SOHC
- turbo-diesel I-4
- Displacement 2.0 liters (120 cu in)
- Horsepower 140 hp @ 4000 rpm
- Torque 236 lb-ft @ 1750 rpm
- Transmission type 6-speed manual
- Drive Front-wheel
- Steering Power rack-and-pinion
- lock-to-lock 3.0 turns
- turning circle 35.8 ft
- Suspension, front Strut-type, coil springs
- Suspension, rear Multilink, coil springs
- Brakes f/r Vented discs/discs, ABS
- Tires Bridgestone Turanza EL400
- Tire size 205/55HR-16
- headroom f/r 38.5/37.2 in
- legroom f/r 41.2/35.4 in
- shoulder room f/r 54.8/53.1 in
- L x W x H 179.3 x 70.1 x 57.4 in
- Wheelbase 101.5 in
- Track f/r 60.6/59.8 in
- Weight 3328 lb
- weight dist. f/r 60.2/39.8%
- cargo capacity 16.0 cu ft
- fuel capacity 14.5 gal
- est. fuel range 540 miles
- fuel grade Ultra low-sulfur diesel
- Our Test Results
- 0â60 mph 9.5 sec
- 0â100 mph 28.5 sec
- 1/4âmile 17.4 sec @ 82 mph
- 30â70 mph passing 10.0 sec
- peak acceleration 0.47 g
- speed in gears 1) 25; 2) 46; 3) 71; 4) 95;
- 5) 119; 6) 125 mph
- cornering l/r 0.85/0.83 g
- 70â0 mph braking 178 ft
- peak braking 0.98 g