New Car Reviews

2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

With the economy on the verge of melting down, fuel prices at outrageous levels, and global warming threatening to torch your prized rhododendrons, it might be wise to look for a more economical car when the lease on your current Volkswagen Jetta ends. You could replace your Jetta with a smart fortwo, use about a third less fuel, and drive around with a smug smile on your face in the belief that your little car is saving the world. Then again, you’d have to throw out your significant other, find a new home for the dog, and sell the kids, because the Smart isn’t big enough to carry all of you. Oh, the dilemma.

Fear not. Volkswagen has the smug-smile solution to all of your Jetta needs. The new Jetta TDI (turbocharged direct injection) achieves 41 mpg – the same fuel economy as the diminutive Smart, and since it’s essentially the same Jetta you’re leasing now, it seats five comfortably, has a huge trunk, and drives with all that German-engineered sportiness. As a bonus, the new Jetta won’t have puppy puke stains all over the back seats like yours does.

So how does the same old Jetta suddenly get such phenomenal fuel economy? Well, it turns out that the Jetta TDI has a diesel engine under the hood. Maybe you’ve never thought of buying a diesel, but Volkswagen has sold almost 850,000 oil burners in the United States since the first diesel Rabbit clattered, chugged, and smoked its way out of a VW dealership in 1977. More diesel engines have found their way into Jettas than any other VW model, and although their availability has been somewhat inconsistent over the years, every successive diesel engine generation has become more refined and more powerful. The new Jetta TDI sips fuel with the same impressive restraint as the earliest diesel Jettas, despite outweighing them by more than half a ton and having almost three times the horsepower.

Unlike the diesels of twenty years ago, the new TDI suffers from no severe drawbacks. It will start instantaneously in cold weather, it won’t make your teeth vibrate, and it doesn’t smoke. Thanks to multiple exhaust-emissions controls (oxidation catalyst, particulate filter, nitrous-oxide storage catalyst, and hydrogen-sulfide catalyst), the 2009 Jetta TDI runs cleanly enough to pass the latest California emissions regulations. And unlike the bigger diesel engines coming from other German manufacturers, it passes those emissions standards without the use of urea injection. The Jetta is also quiet enough that the driver of a 1980s Jetta diesel – or even someone who bought the last Jetta TDI in 2006 – won’t believe that it’s actually running. At idle, the TDI is nearly as quiet as a gasoline-powered Jetta, and during acceleration, it seems quieter inside than the current Jetta with a gasoline engine. If you listen carefully, you can hear a distant staccato thrum in place of a smooth hum, but it’s so hushed that your passengers will probably never notice the difference.

Credit for the quietness goes to a switch to common-rail fuel delivery, a system that uses piezo fuel injectors and 26,000-psi delivery pressures. Precisely metered fuel and fast-reacting injectors allow up to five squirts per power stroke, reducing noise, vibration, and wasted fuel. Displacing 2.0 liters and breathing through sixteen valves, the four-cylinder engine produces 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. For reference, the 2006 1.9-liter, eight-valve diesel produced only 100 hp and 177 lb-ft, and it didn’t pass the same emissions standards.

As with most turbocharged engines, there is some lag off idle, and consequently, it’s not terribly difficult to stall a Jetta TDI equipped with the standard manual transmission when you’re trying to take off from a stop. The optional, $1100 dual-clutch automatic takes care of this problem, and since it changes gears with no interruption in power, there’s no waiting for boost to return after a shift.

Nevertheless, the TDI does have some drawbacks. First of all, you’ll miss out on the base Jetta’s throbbing five-cylinder sound track, and the TDI isn’t as responsive or as engaging as the gasoline engine. On a practicality front, only about 40 percent of this nation’s service stations carry diesel fuel, and those that do are currently charging some 30 cents per gallon more than regular gasoline. And speaking of price, the Jetta TDI – available as a sedan and a wagon – carries a price premium of about $2000 over a comparably equipped Jetta with the 2.5-liter gasoline five-cylinder. The federal government recently announced that the purchase of a TDI, however, qualifies owners for a $1300 federal tax credit, reducing that effective price premium to a much more palatable $700.

When you look at the full financial picture, the Jetta TDI is a monetary no-brainer in the long run. Even with elevated diesel prices, the oil-burning Jetta’s $700 price premium is earned back in about 20,000 miles. Moreover, used, high-mileage Jetta TDIs historically have been worth significantly more than their gasoline-engine siblings.

The financial argument alone makes the TDI the top Jetta engine choice for the mileage conscious. We’ve just added one to our Four Seasons fleet to see if it meets the needs of an office full of enthusiasts.

VW has sold almost 850,000 diesel-powered vehicles in America since 1977, ranging from the 48-hp, 1.5-liter four-cylinder in the 1978 Rabbit to the 310-hp, 4.9-liter V-10 in the Touareg. The best-selling diesel-powered Volkswagen in the States is the Jetta. Here’s how the 2009 edition stacks up against its most frugal oil-burning predecessors:

  • Body
  • Year
  • Size
  • Power
  • Torque
  • EPA City*
  • EPA HWY*
  • Mark 1
  • 1982
  • 1.6 liters
  • 52 hp
  • 72 lb-ft
  • 36
  • 52 mpg
  • Mark 2
  • 1985
  • 1.6
  • 52
  • 71
  • 31
  • 41
  • Mark 3
  • 1996
  • 1.9
  • 90
  • 149
  • 34
  • 44
  • Mark 4
  • 2003
  • 1.9
  • 90
  • 155
  • 35
  • 44
  • Mark 5
  • 2006
  • 1.9
  • 100
  • 177
  • 30
  • 37
  • Mark 5
  • 2009
  • 2.0
  • 140
  • 236
  • 30
  • 41

*Highest EPA fuel economy ratings achieved by manual-transmission Jettas, adjusted to 2008 standards.

One couple, one Jetta TDI, 48 states, 59 mpg

In September, Helen and John Taylor averaged an astonishing 58.82 mpg over their 9419-mile journey through all forty-eight contiguous U.S. states in a stock, manual-transmission 2009 Jetta TDI, setting a Guinness record and chalking up their thirty-seventh world record for fuel economy. We met up with the miserly Australian couple in Santa Monica, California, about halfway through their continental journey.

Your Jetta is rated at 41 mpg on the highway. How are you averaging almost 60 mpg? Observation skills are very important – we find that American drivers tend to run up to traffic lights at full speed and then slam on the brakes. We downshift and coast toward red lights. Quite often, as you approach the red light, it’ll turn green. Our Web site ( has thirty tips to improve your fuel economy.

Is this drive only on the interstate only? Most of it, but we did drive through New York City at 5:30 p.m. in bumper-to-bumper traffic. And then it took us two and a half hours to get through Boston the next day. And we made it over some major mountains. In Montana, we climbed to 7200 feet.

Is it true that you met each other during a fuel economy challenge? John: Yes, I was recruiting a team. I set the benchmark, and Helen beat it. I took her to the challenge, and she smashed the world record. Then she did the same thing in Australia. I figured it would be cheaper to marry her than to pay her wages.

Racing the Jetta TDI

It’s been two years since Audi’s R10 TDI racing car first won both the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and yet nobody dreams of diesels when they think of racing cars. That didn’t stop Volkswagen from creating a race series around their oil-burning Jetta. The TDI Cup series consists of thirty identical factory-prepared Jettas piloted by aspiring young racers looking to break into professional motorsports.

VW boasts that the Jettas not only achieve 25 mpg under race conditions, but that each will complete the entire eight-race series on just two tanks of fuel. The Jettas are equipped with European-spec, high-output versions of the same 2.0-liter diesel engine in the U.S.-market Jetta TDI, producing 170 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Four-piston brakes from the rear of the Audi R8 peek through the front wheels, and Passat rear brakes are mounted to aluminum rear suspension components from the all-wheel-drive Euro-market Golf. Eighteen-inch Ronal wheels are shod with Michelin slicks taken from the front of Porsche Cup racing cars. The Jetta uses a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (with beefier internals from the R32) that pushes power through a limited-slip differential. The interior is fitted with a complete roll cage, a Recaro race seat, and a fire-suppression system.

We drove a TDI Cup car at Portland International Raceway, and the car’s predominant characteristic was… quietness. Despite having a mufflerless exhaust – only a catalyst and a particulate filter – the TDI is barely audible at track speeds. From the outside, a faint turbo whoosh is drowned out by the sound of the big Michelins clawing at the pavement. With 170 hp on tap to propel 2844 pounds of racing Jetta, the TDI Cup Car isn’t outrageously fast in a straight line, but with phenomenal grip and unfadeable brakes, it will easily leave street cars in the dust on a racetrack. Especially when those thirsty street cars run out of gas.

A no-compromise diesel from Honda

VW’s new TDI engine is really good, but Honda’s four-cylinder diesel is even better. This engine – which we expect to appear in the 2010 Acura TSX – is smoother than almost any other four-cylinder on the market, gasoline or diesel. It might just be the world’s first no-compromise diesel: we drove a European-spec Honda CR-V equipped with the diesel and preferred it to the U.S.-spec gas engine in every way.

In terms of sound, the CR-V is almost unrecognizable as a diesel. Open the hood with the engine idling, and this engine ticks away as quietly as a sewing machine – and without the use of sound-absorbing engine covers. Blip the throttle, and the engine responds immediately; engage first gear, and it pulls hard to almost 5000 rpm. The rev-happy diesel displaces 2.2 liters and produces 140 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque – 90 lb-ft more grunt than the CR-V’s 2.4-liter gasoline engine. Coupled to a light-effort, slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission, the diesel matches the automatic-transmission gasoline CR-V’s 0-to-60-mph and top-speed numbers, Honda claims.

And then you have a look at the fuel economy. Flat-footing an all-wheel-drive diesel CR-V through the hills of downtown San Francisco for half an hour, we couldn’t get the fuel economy display to drop below 25 mpg. More impressive, at a steady 65 mph on the highway, the SUV displayed a downright shocking 49 mpg – even better than its 41-mpg European highway-cycle fuel economy rating and almost double the gas CR-V’s 26-mpg EPA highway rating. Honda simply can’t bring this engine here soon enough.

Buying Guide
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2009 Volkswagen Jetta

2009 Volkswagen Jetta

MSRP $17,515 S (Manual) Sedan


20 City / 29 Hwy

Safety (IIHS):

Best Pick

Horse Power:

170 @ 5700