Diesel torque? Fuel efficiency? Compact three-box sheetmetal? You only have two non-premium choices in the U.S.: the Chevrolet Cruze and this, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI.
That’s a serious dearth of variety.
Even after expanding body style and size limitations to mid-size sedans, hatchbacks, and coupes, that still only includes two brands offering up all of the available diesel cars in the non-premium bracket. More importantly, Volkswagen has embedded itself into the collective diesel consciousness and Chevrolet isn’t even a blip on the radar. You need to actively think of today’s diesel options before you remember the Cruze even exists.
VW’s ingrained diesel association and the Jetta’s more affordable compression-ignition cost of entry compared to the Cruze shows in the sales numbers. The Jetta TDI outsells the Cruze 2.0TD by more than 5 to 1. In fact, GM sells so few Cruze diesels, a California DMV employee is more likely to register a new e-Golf – yes, the all-electric VW Golf that wasn’t even on sale last year – or the California compliance Fiat 500e than a Cruze diesel.
So, when it comes to arrive-and-drive-away compact diesel sedans, there’s only one real option. But, does that alone make the Jetta worth buying?
2015 Volkswagen Jetta TDI SEL [USA]/Highline [Canada]
Engine: 2.0L DOHC I4, turbodiesel w/ intercooler, direct injection (150 horsepower @ 3500-4000 rpm, 236 lbs-ft @ 1750-3000 rpm)
Transmission: 6-speed automatic, DSG with Tiptronic
Fuel Economy (Rating, MPG): 31 city/46 highway/36 combined
Fuel Economy (Observed, MPG): 42 mpg, approx. 60% highway
Options: Technology Package (Canada, similar to Driver Assistance and Lighting Package in the U.S.)
After four years of taking its beatings over the decontented sixth-generation Jetta, Volkswagen has said they’ve had enough and won’t be phoning it in anymore. For 2015, the Jetta receives a laundry list of improvements as part of a mid-cycle refresh – though you wouldn’t know it to look the compact sedan square in the face. While it might be cliche, it’s what’s inside the Jetta that counts.
For starters, the Jetta receives a new version of the ubiquitous 2.0L TDI I4, now pumping out 150 hp and 236 lbs-ft of torque, up 10 hp over last year. Even with the power uptick, the new engine will stretch a tank of diesel farther than before, now rated at 36 mpg combined versus 34 mpg pre-refresh. This particular tester, the exact same Jetta our resident sales expert Tim Cain tested back in March, returned a stellar 42 mpg in my hands. Tim did even better at 44.4 mpg, though this is likely down to Mr. Cain’s home being located in a suburban neighborhood versus my more urban digs.
While fuel economy and torque are key with diesels, I’d have given up a bit of either – or both – for improved drivability. The Jetta refused to wake up when given a moderate application of throttle from a standing start. Yes, it’s a diesel. I get it. However, even during multiple attempts to compensate for the Jetta’s lack of gumption by giving it more pedal only resulted in some fairly embarrassing launches that caused my passenger to question my chosen profession. Over the span of a week, I did eventually find a happy medium, but it was finicky at best and didn’t inspire much in the way of confidence as I tried to navigate intersections with heavy cross traffic.
On the bright side, shifts from the 6-speed DSG automatic were as crisp as one could hope and completely devoid of the abrupt engagements felt in the ZF-sourced automatics found equipped in some Chrysler and Land Rover products. Also, since CVT isn’t part of the Volkswagen lexicon in North America, we don’t have to listen to the hollow, shiftless version of the diesel inline-four’s drone.
Ride quality rates fair with road imperfections exacerbated by 17-inch wheels and thin sidewalled rubber. However, thanks to suspension upgrades over the past few years, the Jetta is at least a better handler than before. While you’re not about to start another Jetta TDI Cup with the latest batch of sixth-generation sedans, it could actually be called fun to drive, even if it felt a bit heavy in the bends.
What wasn’t fun were the brakes. While it might have been just this particular tester, the first inch or so of pedal travel was soft and lacked any kind of engagement. This wasn’t the first diesel VW I’ve experienced laden with squishy brake pedal syndrome, but I can’t really find or explain a cause. It was easily rectified by just giving it more pedal and I never once felt in any danger of not stopping.
Just like the Jetta’s driving dynamics, the interior is a mixed bag. While all the materials in this top spec model were of a much higher calibre than those of just a couple years back, there were still some glaring deficiencies.
For starters, the infotainment system was a bust. If you really like a sharp looking 7- or 8-inch display sitting proudly within the dash, look elsewhere. The Jetta got nuthin’ for you. Same with USB ports. Not a single one to be found in the VW. And before you say, “But VW said they’ll be putting them in next year!”, you’ve just proved my point – wait until next year because 2015 doesn’t cut it.
On the bright side, this sunroof-equipped Jetta did surprise me in one very important way: I had head room. At 6-foot-1, I am not a giant, but I am far from being short and can greatly appreciate headroom in cars equipped with sunroofs. Yes, I do put my seat all the way to the floor when I can, but some other cars still encroach my aerial space in the same seating configuration. Also, having my butt on the floor wasn’t the only position in which I felt comfortable. I found no less than three different seating/steering wheel positions where I felt completely at ease. If there’s one thing this car had, it was adjustability for drivers of all shapes and sizes.
Speaking of shapes, the Jetta still rocks a classic three-box sedan look that’s slowly becoming extinct in the compact segment. As most of VW’s competitors are chasing sloping roofs and higher beltlines, Volkswagen is content with its conservative approach. That’s not a bad decision. Critics have been quick to point out the Jetta is a bit dull looking, but I think this is all by design, literally and figuratively. I challenge you to point to any of the previous Jetta designs and say they haven’t aged gracefully. Individual Jettas in the real world, well, that’s a different story.
Does the Cruze offer up anything to justify the need to hunt one down versus just showing up at any VW dealer and signing on the dotted like for a TDI? Nope. You still have more options with the Jetta, even a manual transmission if you so choose.
That doesn’t mean you should buy the TDI. The 1.8 TSI is now the superior choice for the fuel agnostic. However, if you are dead set on an oil burner, this is the only viable compact sedan option, for better or for worse.