The Best Buy parking lot was full. Chevy Suburbans and BMW X5s cruised the aisles like sharks waiting to pounce on unsuspecting prey. Towards the front of the store however, more than a dozen spaces sat empty. They were saved for “fuel efficient” vehicles only. I heard a few groans as the big barges passed, kids in the back chirping excitedly with “there’s one mommy, there’s one!”
I maneuvered our Jetta TDI to a spot closest to the front door, got out and waited. Someone had to challenge my claim. I couldn’t wait to give them an earful on the advantages of diesel fuel technology.
I stood there a good five minutes, defiant, like I had just conquered Rhode Island or something. Come on… someone pick a fight with me. I dare you.
It never came.
I got a few stink-eyes at first until they saw the subtle TDI lettering. In truth, I bet few folks even knew what the acronym meant but it looked impressive, one of those new-fangled German cars. I suppose the advantageously placed VW-sponsored billboard across the lot didn’t hurt either. Touting its Jetta TDI with numbers like 45 mpg highway and 38 mpg city is damn good, especially given the TDI’s 236 lb-ft of torque and 140 hp.
I’m sure the brass at Best Buy envisioned a fleet of Honda Insights and Toyota Priuses at the front of their stores. Any engineer worth his salt will say the same thing: hybrids are not an efficient solution for automotive applications.
Rather than delve into the science of why diesel tech is such a good idea, I’d rather focus on what makes the Jetta TDI a good car. And with some six months behind the wheel, I have a pretty good idea.
Firstly, it’s easy to use. With the key lost deep within a pocket, its keyless entry system means simply touching the door unlocks it. While this may not seem like a big deal, try telling that to an overloaded parent doing eight things at once. I guarantee more than a few coffees have been spilled while juggling screaming kids, three backpacks, two soccer balls and a few days worth of groceries in the search for keys.
Once inside and buckled up, a simple button starts the Jetta TDI. Although I’m not a fan of where the starter button is (face up just in front of the shifter) I’ve got to admit its easy operation shaves points off blood pressure.
Secondly, its cabin is damn near bulletproof. Although I miss the tactile sensations of more expensive synthetics, the Jetta’s interior is tough, and more importantly, easy to clean. A few quick swipes with a damp rag is all it takes to get the stuff looking new. The Titan Black leatherette seat V-Tex material has proven to be puncture proof. This was learned the hard way with a forgotten screwdriver in a rear pocket. While the front seats are comfortable with good lateral support, their tilt function is sometimes difficult to engage. Although I wasn’t a fan of the older, hinge-located recline wheels, at least they were easy to find. The new design features the mechanism as a lower-back-mounted lever. It’s difficult to engage and has left new passengers in awkward situations. The seat height mechanism however, is brilliant. Pump down for down and up for up. Freakin’ ingenious.
As usual, the 40/60 fold-down rear seats are invaluable, especially when the Jetta’s already copious trunk is filled. I can stuff two RC helicopters, five WWII fighter planes, a few chairs, a large cooler, radio and batteries into the Jetta. I’ve gotten more than a few looks as the Jetta disgorges such sizable loads. Oh, just think if I had the Jetta wagon.
The Jetta’s cabin has had a few squeaks and rattles but they disappeared after a few squirts of silicone spray. Still, a total newbie might find them sufficiently annoying to warrant a trip to the dealership.
At first look, the Jetta’s RNS-315 radio/navigation screen appears simplistic and therein lay its beauty. Program an address into the system and you will get there with a minimum of fuss. The verbal commands are accurate and even the most complex interchanges are well negotiated. Though the screen is smallish, it manages to pack the important stuff you’ll need and the maps are decently detailed.
It took four months of not-so-subtle old-man jokes before I linked the Jetta’s Bluetooth to my phone. Yes, it’s nice and slick but it removes one more excuse for being incommunicado. Upon entering the Jetta, the kids first action is to link their iPhones through the interface in the glovebox. Why it’s not on the center bin is frustrating. Someone should make a retrofit kit for that. Personally, I’ve never linked my iPod as the Sirius satellite radio gives me everything from The Who to Flyleaf. The moment the Jetta’s three-month subscription ran out I was on the phone re-upping.
Our TDI was born with handsome five-spoke 16-in alloys and 205/55 all-season rubber. While the Jetta would look smashing in larger running gear, its current combination makes for a smooth yet spirited ride. Better tires, even 16-inchers, would make a noticeable performance upgrade, especially after our tuning session with the guys at Neuspeed. The TDI’s uprated powerband means First and Second gear are little more than a smoke show as the 280 lb-ft of torque simply rip the tires from the road. Thankfully, the brilliant DSG transmission is up to task; keeping up with its mad torque would be a full-time job. Most of the time, the shift selector remains in S mode where it excels in keeping the engine in the meat of the power curve. DSG is even there on the downshifts, matching revs like a champ. I want to marry this brilliant bit of engineering. The 2-liter direct inject turbo diesel engine could be my mistress. It’s powerful yet quiet demeanor is very sexy. I cannot help but wish I still had my beloved (yet despised) VW Vanagon. The TDI engine would have been perfect.
Our Jetta TDI carries an MSRP of $25,295, including three years of free scheduled maintenance and three-year/36,000 mile warranty. While Volkswagen dealers will cut deals on most of their inventory, TDI-powered cars are typically not among them. They carry a well-earned premium and rarely live on dealer lots for long.
Volkswagen has been the “mother brand” for legions of the Euro-performance crowd. We’ve watched the product line morph from docile 36-hp Beetles to leviathans like the V12 Phaeton. And all those cars in between, from first-generation Sciroccos to the latest Golf R have been engineered upward, each model better than the last. This latest Jetta TDI is something of a departure for VW. While it packs a terrific amount of technology, a well-versed fan-boy might see it as something of a step back, at least from a materials point of view. In truth, this latest generation of VW cars is made for people with little, if any experience with Volkswagen products. In time, they may even quest for more performance, more individuality. Like the first generation of VW Rabbits, an entire industry was spawned to make it happen. And who knows. Perhaps it will again.
2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
2.0-liter I4, dohc, 16-valve, turbocharged
30 city / 42 hwy
Peak Power: 155 hp @ 4000 rpm
Peak Torque: 286 lb-ft @ 1750 rpm
0-62 mph: 7.0 sec.
Top Speed: 130 mph
MSRP: $25,295 $770 destination charge
Price as Equipped: $26,065
From the hip
Brilliant engine and transmission, entertaining dynamics, stout build quality
Hard plastics, a few squeaks and rattles, no option to disable traction control