When Jay Shoemaker reviewed the 2010 Prius, he castigated it for its dead-feeling controls, strange operating procedures and total lack of soul. He concluded: “But I have a feeling that one day soon we will be able to drive something that gets outstanding mileage while stimulating its operator in the process.” Mr. Shoemaker, your car has arrived. May I present the Volkswagen Jetta TDI?
VW took a different approach with its eco-warrior than Toyota. Instead of asking its drivers to wear their green/fuel economy on their automotive sleeves (cough Prius cough), the TDI is a model of subtlety. The only indication to the world that you’re driving anything more than an ordinary Jetta: the “TDI” badge on the rear end.
Both inside and out, the TDI is just a Jetta. That can be either a good or a bad thing, depending on what you think about the Jetta’s styling. Personally, I find it nice-looking in a wholesome “girl next door” kind of way. It’s not flashy, but you won’t be embarrassed to take it for a night on the town, either.
Inside, there are enough niceties like Sirius radio, trip computer, 115v outlet and heated seats to keep you from feeling you’re in a penalty box. For the gadget-oriented, a sunroof will set you back an extra $1K and sat-nav is a cool $2K. But that’s it for the toys.
Unfortunately, the TDI comes with only one choice in upholstery—V-Tex Leatherette (Mr. Shoemaker, your Naugahyde is ready). Only VW’s product planners know why Jetta drivers opting for the oil burner are condemned to plastic seating surfaces. During the summer months, owners in the southern climes may want to look into those beaded seat thingies taxi drivers use.
The TDI’s controls are logically placed and the manually-adjusted seats are firm in all the right places. Other than the upholstery (and the oppressive blackness of the test vehicle’s “anthracite” interior), the Jetta TDI’s interior is a pleasant enough place to spend a few hours. Or more. After three hours behind the wheel I felt like I could have easily done another three.
The fuel gauge said I could. I averaged about 43 MPG on a road trip that was roughly 80 percent highway driving and 20 percent city. And before all you Prius fans start pointing out that the Jetta TDI doesn’t get anywhere near the fuel mileage the 2010 Prius (51 city/48 highway), you’re right. The EPA rates the TDI at “only” 30 MPG in the city and 41 on the highway. But you know what? I’ll gladly sacrifice a few MPG to feel like I’m driving a car instead of playing a video game.
And that’s what sets the Jetta TDI apart from the hybrids. It provides more fun per MPG than any car with 2.0 liters churning out just 140 HP should. The secret: 236 lb·ft of torque that come on early and keep pulling. There’s no diesel clatter, no diesel smell. The only thing that indicates you’re driving a diesel (other than the mileage) is that you have to pull it up to a smelly diesel pump to refuel. That and the rev limiter that I kept bumping into when winding out the engine in first and second gears.
The TDI’s six-speed manual gearbox is well suited for the powertrain. While it didn’t offer the perfect snickity feeling of, say, the Miata’s six-speed, it slipped easily into gear. I never missed a shift trying to figure out where it was going.
On the highway, the TDI quickly settles down into fuel-sippin’ cruise mode. I had no problems keeping up with (and passing) traffic on long uphill runs. In fact, I’ll admit to feeling a bit smug as I sailed past an H2 at 85MPH, realizing that I was outrunning it while using a quarter (or less) of the fuel.
Everyone I asked overshot the TDI’s price by several thousand. The six-speed model stickers at $22,270 (for the DSG automatic, add $1100). A set of overpriced floor mats and truck liner ($199) were the only installed options. While your local VW store isn’t very likely to cut you much slack on the price, the feds will bless you with a $1300 tax credit.
The TDI is an impressive automobile. If trading my Audi for one wouldn’t be the financial equivalent of dropping my pants, bending over the hood and telling the sales staff to line up and take a turn, I’d be tempted. If VW ever decides to sell a decent convertible with this engine, I could be walking funny for a few days—figuratively speaking, of course.
[Volkswagen provided the car, insurance and a tank of gas fuel for this review. Read Justin Berkowitz's review of the Jetta TDI here.]