We’ve seen the writing on the wall for a while: VW is dead set on finally making a profit in North America. In order be profitable, VW has to cut the manufacturing cost of its vehicles. As the Phaeton’s fate showed, America just isn’t ready for a VW that comes with sticker shock as a standard accessory. With the new “economized” 2011 Jetta in the wings, VW tossed us the keys to a 2010 Jetta TDI Cup Street Edition for a week as a farewell to the A5.
For those not familiar with VW’s TDI Cup racing series: It’s a single-make racing series sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America in 2008. The series is exclusive to North America and features modified 2009 VW Jetta TDIs being driven by 16-26 year olds. Harkening back to the simple days of stock car racing, the prizes are a modest $50,000 and “career advancement support” of $100,000, less the $45,000 entry fee charged by VW and the killer with teens behind the wheel: they bill you for damage to the car you drive.
With the series an apparent success, (despite the fact that nobody I spoke to had ever heard of it) VW decided that buyers in North America needed a TDI Cup car in their driveway. Coincidentally, manufacturers start releasing “special editions” of their cars in their autumn years as a raceway way of saying: this model is off to the knackers yard soon. With the GLI now unavailable, VW needed a boy-racer car to fill the gap. In their attempt to spur sales however, VW has fixed all the little items that were never wrong with the “old” Jetta.
The TDI Cup can be distinguished from its lesser brothers by the great gaping maw in the front bumper. It comes with a rear spoiler, side skirts, red painted brakes, large 18” wheels and a supersized price tag. It’s no wonder you can’t configure the Jetta TDI Cup on VW’s web site, you really need to be somewhere where you can be observed having a heart attack so that the kind VW dealer can call 911 for you. Our TDI Cup rang in at a jaw dropping $31,113. You would think that for this price you would at least get leather, but you’d be wrong. You think you’d get some sport seats from the GTI, but you’d be wrong there too. Also not included in the TDI Cup is the engine used in the racing series. Instead of the 170HP 2.0L diesel, the TDI Cup skates by with the standard 140HP / 236lb-ft engine from the regular Jetta TDI. I could understand the decision to use the lower output oil burner if the series’ engine was a one-off, but it’s sold in the EU in a number of different VW models. What gives?
For some reason, auto journalists always wax poetic about the Jetta. The handling is praised, the interior is for some reason always lauded as 99 percent of an Audi at Wienerschnitzel prices, but when I get in one I have to ask: Why?
Don’t get me wrong, the A5 Jetta is a good place to be, inside and out, but it’s not perfection, and it does not possess an interior worth $31,113. Even the base price of $24,990 without destination charge seems steep for what you get. At least you get a tiny A/C vent in your glovebox that keeps your schnitzel cold.
Out on the road the Jetta does redeem itself with an excellent driving position and feel. The steering is spot on and the steering wheel is a joy to hold with high quality control buttons. The same cannot be said of the latest VW radio however. Its operation is clunky at best. This clash between well executed and slightly off base defines the personality of the TDI Cup car. It looks fast but isn’t, its suspension handles well but VW shod the wheels with some cheap rubber which limits grip. The 6-speed DSG transmission (as tested) is however a willing partner at all times. It seems that VW has worked out some of the kinks from the earlier DSG units as there were only a few moments where you could tell it wasn’t your ordinary slushbox. Starts are smooth, hill starts are confident and it never hunts for gears like many econo-boxes. Our average mileage after a long week of mixed city and highway driving was 40.1MPG – which is downright excellent.
On the Autocross track, the Jetta TDI Cup is a hoot, the handling is self-assured, and having driven one with summer tires instead of the all-seasons our tester was equipped with, I can say it carves corners almost like a GTI. This of course makes sense as the Jetta TDI Cup is essentially a diesel GLI. In a race like the TDI Cup where everyone is driving the same diesel car, speed is unimportant; it’s all down to accuracy in the corners and driver skill. Aye, there’s the rub again: the Jetta TDI is an excellent car, but a sports car for the modern American it is not. The problem keeps coming back to power. Yes, it carves corners with aplomb, but when you exit that turn you’re left with a planted right foot and little scoot. On the race track, this is fine if everyone is in the same boat, but on the American highway drivers will soon discover that Camrys and Accords will outgun your schnitzel-racer every day of the week.
As our week with the Jetta drew to a close, the 2011 Jetta was introduced in San Francisco. I would like to say I am sad to see the A5 Jetta era draw to a close, but if this is the pinnacle, then bring on the New Compact Sedan. With a lower price tag, more of what Americans say they want and new 200HP Jetta GLI promised for next year, I doubt many of these expensive limited edition Jetta Cups will fly off the shelf. At the end of the day, the market spoke, VW listened and we get what we asked for. Of course if you really wanted the best diesel sports sedan for your $32K, just visit the Audi dealer and get an A3 TDI.
Readers who are following TTAC on Facebook were given the opportunity to ask reader questions of the Jetta TDI Cup. If you would like to ask questions of car reviews in progress, or just follow TTAC, checkout our facebook page. FB fans, here are your answers: Aamir: jackrabbit starts didn’t impact the economy as much as I thought, about a 3.5MPG toll on average. Mike F: I was unable to get the DSG to stall, on gravel, wet grass, dry road surfaces and dirt, not sure what C&D did or if VW fixed the issue. David B: Yes it is the middle road between the GTI and the Golf TDI, but for the price the A3 TDI is the better buy.
Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of diesel for this review.