Car Review: 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

September 7, 2009

Hybrid or diesel?

For car buyers seeking the highest possible fuel economy, this is one of the most basic questions that must be asked. Both powertrains offer higher mpg ratings and fuel-tank ranges than conventional gasoline engines. Of course, both also offer different driving experiences.

Volkswagen hasn't been shy about advertising the fuel-economy promises of the turbodiesel engine available in its Jetta compact sedan, and recently, I had the chance to put those promises to the test when a 2009 Jetta TDI showed up at my door. My friend John and I were heading east for a wedding--a nice little jaunt from Chicago to Detroit and back would give me a chance to see how realistic the Volkswagen's EPA ratings of 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway are. It was also a chance to see just how far one tank of diesel could be stretched--could the entire round trip be made on one tank?

This experiment would be performed under real-world driving conditions--no hypermiling here. We're Americans, darn it, and that meant we weren't going to forfeit our right to air conditioning. Nor would we crawl along in the slow lane at 55 miles per hour--Michigan has 70 mph speed limits on rural interstates, and we were going to take full advantage. Finally, the Jetta would be carrying a load--a weekend's worth of luggage for two people.

Powered by a 2.0-liter turbodiesel 4-cylinder that makes 140 horsepower, the Jetta TDI can be had with either a 6-speed automatic or a 6-speed direct-shift gearbox automatic transmission.

The TDI tester arrived with a base price of $22,270. For that price, buyers get standard features such as cruise control, heated front seats, a 6-disc CD changer with MP3 capability, satellite radio, a 60/40 split-folding rear seat, and heated power sideview mirrors, among other things. Available safety features include ABS, an antiskid system, traction control, front side airbags, and curtain side airbags.

Options included a $1,990 navigation system, the $1,100 DSG automatic transmission, a power sunroof ($1,000), 17-inch wheels ($450), a rear spoiler ($329), and rubber floor mats plus trunk liner ($199). With options and the $700 destination charge, the total price as-tested was $28,038.

Our trip started around 11 a.m. CST on Friday, with nice late-summer Midwestern weather promising us mostly sunny skies for our drive and a full tank of diesel fuel that was pumped at a Mobil station at Sheridan and Broadway on Chicago's North Side. A decade ago, John and I used to make the Chicago-to-Detroit drive all the time as college freshman. We used to pass the time by talking about cars, sports, and girls. Ten years later, we found ourselves discussing the same topics--apparently, not much has changed. Armed with cell phones and iPods, we were off.

As we made our way across Chicago, the torquey turbodiesel had no trouble keeping up with traffic, although the direct-shift gearbox occasionally displayed some wonky behavior, including an unusually slow throttle response that made merging into busy traffic into a bit of an exercise in advance planning. Another DSG quirk is its habit of engine braking while coasting at slower speeds. In a true manual, this would feel natural, but in an automatic, it takes some getting used to.

Our first speed bump came in northwest Indiana--road construction on I-90 had slowed traffic to a crawl. Crawling along in bumper-to-bumper traffic sure wasn't going to help the old fuel-economy average. Still, the needle on the fuel gauge stayed on the full mark until almost 92 miles into the trip.

On the open road, I found the Jetta to be a willing partner for the most part, although it has some flaws. Tire noise is way too intrusive at highway speeds, and some engine and wind noise creeps in, as well. Moderate body roll in turns is also an issue. But the steering is nicely weighted and accurate, and the car generally feels planted, although it's a bit susceptible to cross-winds. The ride is on the firm side, but it's never too stiff.

On the inside, there's more than adequate headroom and legroom for taller folks, but the somewhat stiff seats grew tiresome on the long drive--I found myself constantly shifting in place to keep my lower extremities from falling asleep. John did appreciate the fact that the passenger side reclines nearly flat--a food coma struck him just outside of Kalamazoo and he spent the rest of the trip napping. I, as the driver, had no such luxury.

John also complained about the seats, as did my friend Ajay, who rode back to Chicago on the return trip with me (John had a scheduling conflict and had already returned to Chicago). John had agreed with me that the seats were too stiff, while Ajay's beef was that the seats were too narrow for true long-haul comfort. Still, the cabin isn't an unpleasant place--soft-touch surfaces abound, and the design is handsome overall. Also, the switchgear works with plenty of precision, and almost every knob or button is placed right where it should be.

At least our luggage was riding in plenty of comfort--the Jetta offers a spacious trunk with easy liftover. There appeared to be plenty of room for cargo, it wouldn't have been difficult to fit luggage for four or five folks in the trunk.

It's a good thing the trunk is so large, because storage space is meager otherwise. The center console is essentially useless, and the glovebox and map pockets are about average size. At least the rear seat offers a shallow fold-down storage tray, and there is a sunglasses holder mounted aft of the sunroof-switch. Extra-large door-mounted cupholders upfront were also useful.

Due to my goal of achieving high fuel-economy numbers, I found myself constantly distracted by the driver's information screen, as I flipped between the remaining fuel range, the instant mpg, and the overall mpg. The driver's info screen takes a bit of getting used to, but it's generally easy to adjust via the steering-wheel mounted buttons.

When we left Detroit to return to Chicago, we had used about a half a tank of diesel and the trip odometer indicated we'd traveled 333 miles, including some traveling around the Detroit area. Could we make it back to Chicago without getting fuel?

Somewhere around Kalamazoo, we stopped to stretch our legs and put some more caffeine in our bodies. Ajay wondered if I needed to get fuel, but not yet--we still had a quarter of a tank to go. We were going to stretch this baby out.

We reached northwest Indiana before the "low fuel" chime kicked in. With only about 40 miles left, Ajay and I started searching for gas stations that carried diesel. Some concern started creeping in, as we were on a stretch of Interstate 94 where exits are spread a little further apart--and not every gas station we saw carried diesel.

Finally, with perhaps 20 miles left on the tank, and with neither Ajay nor I harboring any desire to push the car, we pulled off at U.S. highway 421 south of Michigan City. Final numbers? 540.6 miles traveled since the initial fill-up, at an average of 39.2 mpg. Throughout the car's entire stay with me, the Jetta averaged 36.3 mpg.

While the Jetta has plenty of positives going for it--the torquey diesel, the exemplary fuel-economy numbers, and the large rear trunk, it has some drawbacks. In addition to what's mentioned above, my passengers and I had some other complaints.

The nav system is a bit slow on the job sometimes--while searching out the restaurant for dinner on Friday, the system told me to turn left as I was already passing the entrance from the right-hand lane, thus necessitating a trip around the block. The available MP3 player did not work with my iPod Touch or John's iPhone, forcing us to use the less convenient auxiliary hook-up. And for $28K, I'd expect a car to have Bluetooth and dual-zone climate control.

Still, the Jetta made for a great road trip companion, particularly for those folks who loathe stopping frequently. Around town, it was generally a joy to drive as well, some DSG quirkiness notwithstanding. And there is no "green" smugness associated with this car, only a TDI badge on the rear decklid and the typical diesel soundtrack at idle--which is almost inaudible with the windows rolled up--identify this car as a diesel.

It's a bit pricey, and it requires the use of an alternative fuel. But it's hard to argue with those fuel-economy numbers, and the upscale cabin and useful trunk aren't something to sneeze at, either. If high-mileage means something to you, the Jetta TDI is worth a very long look.

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