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2009 VW Jetta TDI - First Drive

Finally, we have a chance to silence Prius owners!

Greg Emmerson
Jan 1, 2009

With the arrival of another eagerly awaited VW, we can finally start to enjoy respectable fuel economy without having to drive one of those politically expedient pious Prius!

Eurp_0901_01_z+2009_volkswagen_jetta_tdi+front_view Photo 1/3   |   2009 VW Jetta TDI - First Drive

The new 50-state compliant VW Jetta TDI boasts 30% better fuel economy than the equivalent gasoline engine. In this case, the EPA has deemed the car to return 38mpg city and 44mpg highway. However, we saw superior figures during the car's recent US launch.

On California's notoriously challenging canyon roads, and with limited freeway use, we returned an average of 45mpg. That's simply astonishing.

And with steady freeway use, we were able to see over 50mpg. In fact, our daily commute had been returning an average of 18mpg in our BMW 135i, but we've cut it to 28mpg with the TDI using only Los Angeles' infamous clogged city streets.

Even pushed hard in the national TDI Cup race series, these Jettas are returning 25mpg. That's at full race speed. And we learned the racetrack owners are now bidding to have TDI Cup races at their venues given the low emissions and reduced noise the action-packed series offers.

What's more, with a starting price of only $21990 for the Jetta TDI, free servicing for three years and eligibility for a $1300 advanced lean burn technology federal tax credit, this car answers all the questions you're asking.

The TDI differs little from a regular Jetta. Only a badge and low-energy Michelin tires distinguish it outwardly. Transmissions include either a six-speed auto or manual, while the interior is unchanged from the gasoline models.

Under the hood is a 140hp version of the 2.0 liter SOHC 16v common rail, direct injection turbo-diesel so highly regarded in Europe. Besides its frugality, the TDI's second best trick is its 236 lb-ft of torque. This gives the car uncanny in-gear acceleration to ensure you won't be embarrassed under acceleration.

Although the new TDI is a little sluggish off the line, it picks up pace once the turbo kicks in, so forget your old perceptions of diesel. These are no longer the sooty, slothful oddities of yesteryear. European carmakers have developed diesel technology to the point where 50% of VW's European sales are now TDI models. What's more, we're going to see more of them on our roads, with BMW, Audi and Mercedes joining VW in the US market. However, none of them will offer the same value for money as this VW.

Eurp_0901_02_z+2009_volkswagen_jetta_tdi+front_interior_space Photo 2/3   |   Familiar Jetta interior remains although the fuel gauge doesn't seem to work properly-it almost never moves!

And none of them will be as easy to own. Because of its smaller engine, the clean-diesel Jetta doesn't require the urea injection system fitted to most diesels sold in the US (see First Drive: BMW 335d elsewhere in this issue). This helps keep the cost down and means less to worry about as the car gets older.

So what's the TDI like to drive? Well, we're incredibly fortunate to have been loaned a car by VW for the next year, so we'll be able to bring you regular reports in the Our Cars section of the magazine. We'll also be throwing a few parts at it to give ours a more distinctive appearance, while continuing to enjoy the diesel economy.

As we stated, the mileage on our daily commute is at least 30% better with the TDI but we'll have to concentrate to see the claimed 38mpg city - it's definitely possible but we're lead-footed!

We've had limited experience on the freeway but are determined to beat the stated 44mpg. We know it's possible because we met an Australian couple - John and Helen Taylor - who set a Guinness World Record in a Jetta TDI. They covered 9419 miles in 20 days at an average of 853 miles from each of the 11 tanks of fuel. That equates to 58.82mpg and is the lowest fuel consumption recorded for crossing the 48 US states.

You can read about the couple's adventures at www.fuelacademy.com where you'll also find tips to help save fuel. Most are common sense solutions but by checking your tires (3%), removing unnecessary weight (2%) and roof racks (5%), as well as using the correct oil (2%), you can make the most of a gallon of fuel whatever you drive.

With virtually the same chassis as a regular Jetta 2.5, the TDI provides a comfortable, slightly sporty ride, although the brake pedal requires a firm push to make it stop. We plan to address both of these areas on our new project car, and will be looking for a little more grunt as well.

The Europeans get a more powerful (and torquey) 170hp TDI motor and while we were initially told it wouldn't meet US emissions standards, it later emerged it might... We're not sure what that means, but we were also told the difference in the two engines is predominantly software, so you know we're going to try and unlock that hidden potential.

Eurp_0901_04_z+2009_volkswagen_jetta_tdi+vw_tdi_cup Photo 3/3   |   2009 VW Jetta TDI - First Drive

For now, we'll make do with what we have, which is pretty darn good compared to the first-generation diesels introduced in the Rabbit back in 1977. Since then, VW has become a leading supplier of diesel vehicles in the US, selling 800,000 to date.

With the Mk4 Jetta, diesels represented 20% of sales in states where it was available. With the Mk5, VW is hoping to increase those numbers, and expecting 50% of Jetta Wagon sales to be TDI models.

Such figures seem achievable provided fuel prices remain high. At present, a gallon of diesel is more expensive than gasoline, but it's starting to drop as demand and availability increases. At present, 42% of gas stations (50% in California) carry diesel, with more expected soon. But even if diesel remains more expensive than gasoline, remember you can drive up to 30% further on each gallon...

What's more, the residual value of your diesel vehicle should be higher than a gasoline model. Secondhand values of the existing VW diesels are skyhigh, although these may drop as more cars become available.

So with a bargain price tag, government tax relief, stingy mileage, low emissions and respectable performance, the Jetta TDI is going to be kind to your wallet and better for the environment than whatever you're currently driving. If these things matter to you, it's time to visit your dealer and place an order.

The cars are currently flying off the floor at VW dealerships, which sadly led to the cancellation of the proposed TDI Sport model since it wasn't needed to shift more cars. But it does leave the door open for something similar in the future, possibly with the more powerful engine the Europeans enjoy so much.

By Greg Emmerson
1078 Articles

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