Volkswagen has pumped huge time, effort, and money into its latest diesel offering, a 2.0-liter common rail, piezo-electric-direct-injected four. They call it good, clean diesel fun, but anyone with a memory that stretches back to the early 80s will immediately laugh hysterically at such a claim.
I took a whif near the tailpipe of the Candy White 2009 Jetta TDI Sportwagen and detected zero odor. Only a little wisp of humid air purred forth from the twin pipes.
VW has a storied history with fuel-sipping diesels; from the old Rabbit diesel that kicked just about every other econocar in the pants with its unbelievable economy up to the most recent 1.9-liter TDI that still enjoys a cult following, VW diesels are long-lived and legendary. They had no choice but to get this new engine perfect on the first try.
I think they did a fantastic job. Number one, the characteristic clatter is gone. The engine thrums its four-cylinder hum a bit louder upon cold warmup, but once underway is no louder than a last-generation Honda four-cylinder. In fact, it sounds for all the world like a gasoline four except at idle, where combustion is noticed mildly but hardly rates as annoying.
Number two, torque production (236 lb-ft) is stellar. As low as 2,000 rpm, a tap on the accelerator results in a nice shove in the back. No need to downshift, just leg the throttle and you're off or passing slow-moving Kias in the left lane. With all this torque, VW was able to fit the manual with six ratios, the last two nice and tall for low highway rpm and thus excellent economy.
The rest of the car retains all of the basic Jetta goodness; taut handling with a comfortable ride, a standard vinyl interior that looks and feels for all the world like leather, industry-best controls/gauges/interior surfaces, and of course the convenient and capacious cargo hold with fold-down rear seats and a sliding security cover.
VW has been fighting quite a fight with the EPA, who rated the Jetta TDI Sportwagen manual (and the sedan) at 30/41. While these ratings are 9 and 10 mpg better than the 2.0-liter gasoline four, respectively, and 9/11 mpg better than the gasoline inline five, VW kept promising mileage in the 50s. They were so upset with the EPA's ratings that they had AMCI, an independent testing agency, do a thorough assessment. AMCI managed 38/44 mpg. Still not satisfied, VW tapped Australian mileage-busting couple John and Helen Taylor to do a 9,419-mile U.S. efficiency run in a stock '09 Jetta TDI. They managed a staggering 58.85 average mpg.
Wondering if the Taylors drafted their way around the U.S. behind 18-wheelers, or perhaps fitted their car with motorcycle wheels and tires inflated to 150 psi, I set out on two journeys to see what our test Jetta TDI Sportwagen could manage.
The first journey was a hill-climb from Atlanta to the North Georgia mountains. I filled up with Shell ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel (same as the Taylors), climbed over 1,800 ft. to Amicalola Falls State Park, accelerated moderately but slowly, and always stayed within 5 mph of the posted speed limit. Upon completing the 195.3 mile round-trip and returning to Atlanta, I filled the tank back up with Shell diesel and made my calculations: 40.99 mpg overall. I guess EPA testing now stipulate hillclimbs for diesels.