For years, Volkswagen’s diesels were like cod liver oil: a worthy medicine that few American consumers could stomach. The stripped-down oil-burners hidden in the back of US forecourts seemed specifically designed for penny-pinching college professors and health food store managers. Customers who considered engine clatter, black smoke and lack of comforts (creature or otherwise) a badge of honor. When $3-a-gallon gas arrived stateside, hordes of “normal” customers suddenly joined the Euro-throngs clamoring for their daily dose of diesel. And no example was– is– more sought after than the VW Jetta TDI.
Obviously, the new Jetta TDI wears the same sheet metal as its petrol-powered sibling. In other words, it’s about as exciting as an all-nude Alan Greenspan revue. Fortunately, the TDI’s chrome moustache and silver-bearded grill add a touch of upmarket dignity. From the rear, the Jetta has a Jennifer Lopez thing going on. You can get a lot of junk in the trunk, but Ms. Lopez’s rear end looks better on her than a small sedan. While the new Jetta is to cutting edge car design what giraffes are to jazz, you can’t fault VW for erring on the side of conservatism; it’s what they do.
They also do interiors. The Jetta TDI's cabin is first in class, boasting build quality that redefines Toyota's Corolla as the place where budget-minded drivers have to sit for an automotive time-out. The TDI’s plastics are well turned-out, stylishly deployed and discreet. (A claim that certainly can’t be made for the Beetle’s tacky polymers). The faux leather trim is softer than Nicole Ritchie’s career prospects, the sunroof switch feels like it’s made from Godiva chocolate, the shift knob encourages the kind of over-fondling that’s illegal in several states, and the stereo controls are space shuttle cool but Playskool easy. Diesel and destitute may never again join hands.
Once upon a time, starting a diesel engine involved holding a plastic lever until a glow-plug indicated that the powerplant was… finally… ready… to… fire. These days, it’s twist and go. Gone too are the plumes of black smoke that coughed from the tailpipe, and back bumpers that look like they been left dangling in a chimney for days. The TDI is as practical and clean as any gas engine you can name– save those pesky particulates.
Once underway, the TDI displays a slight shudder–- a kind of subwoofer shake– when driven under 1500 rpm in first and second gears. Once you crest 20 miles per hour, the TDI’s direct injection, turbocharged powerplant produces a wave of torque smooth enough to charm a Prius owner right out of his/her/its hemp shirt. Sloth is the only other indication you’re not having a gas. The Jetta TDI shuffles from zero to 60mph in just over 11 seconds. While the TDI’s go-times are an improvement over the old non-turbo units, you still need to be careful which minivan you take on at the stoplight drags. (Hint: go for the one with the full soccer team and the Mom on the cell.)
At speed, when you eventually get there, the Jetta provides a rock solid ride. Its 109mph top end condemns it to the autobahn JV squad, but the car’s fast enough to make a lot of fuel-conscious Americans’ heads explode. At slower speeds, through the corners, the Jetta is a competent and predictable handler. A few challenging bends revealed the TDI’s tendency to understeer at the limit, but it’s no compact car killjoy. The steering is crisp and communicative. In the best Volkswagen tradition, the TDI is a car that favors driving over merely operating.
The payoff for the TDI’s piss-poor forward progress is, of course, high mileage and legendary engine life. We saw 40 mpg with more than a little city driving thrown into the mix. Owners of previous VW diesels take great joy in reporting (and re-reporting) an engine life span that exceeds their upholstery’s presentability, or 200,000 miles, whichever comes last. There is no reason to believe that the new smoother, quieter, more refined Jetta TDI won't outlive the original VW diesels' supporters.
If the old VW diesel was cod liver oil, the new Jetta TDI is more of a mixed greens salad with a raspberry vinaigrette. It’s not a steak, but it tastes good and it’s good for you. Given the current price of feeding-up a meat and potatoes V8, it’s no wonder VW’s diesel dining room is crowded. Dealers report that the Jetta TDI is selling as fast as Toyota’s Prius AND going for sticker. It’s enough to bring the Jetta TDI to the front of the forecourt, and finally give all those impoverished college professors and alfalfa eaters a plausible reason why they didn’t buy a pricey hybrid.