by Dan Carney
While hybrids have garnered all the headlines and hype, diesel engines have maintained their traditional position, toiling away in anonymity while providing similar fuel economy to their shiny new hybrid brethren.
The availability of sleek-looking, fun-to-drive diesels like the Jetta TDI, along with the influence of VW’s sister company Audi’s recently announced diesel-powered Le Mans sports racer, should begin to boost the diesel from that anonymity.
The Jetta TDI isn’t just “fun for a diesel.” It is a genuinely entertaining ride, even for enthusiast drivers. The engine pulls strongly when it is on the turbo boost and the slick-shifting five-speed manual transmission slips easily into the intended gear every time, with the revs seemingly perfectly matched. The combination is an involving, amusing powertrain that conspires to keep the driver engaged even during the dullest commute, all while sipping its fuel oil at a miserly 40-ish miles per gallon.
Diesels past and present
While hybrids are the new kids on the block, Volkswagen has been here all along, selling its diesels to a group that dwindled dangerously close to cult status (see www.tdiclub.com).
Today’s VW diesel can barely be compared to the wheezing, smoking, gutless 48-horsepower oil burner that timidly urged the Rabbit and Dasher forward during the '70s oil crunch. Modern turbodiesels make so much power, so seamlessly and quietly that they can barely be discerned from gas-powered cars at highway speeds.
2006 Volkswagen Jetta
The engine’s only slightly coarse character is little different from that of the inline five-cylinder gasoline engine that is standard equipment in the Jetta, and while the diesel’s 100 horsepower is significantly lower than the 2.5-liter five’s 150 horsepower, its 177 pound-feet of torque give it similar scoot when the turbo is spinning.
From a dead stop, at low revs, it is easy to stall the TDI doing the usual maneuver of pressing the throttle at the same time as lifting the clutch. Instead, you have to goose it with the right amount of throttle to get the engine into the boost before easing off the clutch pedal.
Feel through all the pedals and the steering wheel is excellent, keeping the driver informed of the car’s activities and exemplifying the concept of “European car” feel. The TDI is no GLI or R32, but in many ways that is good. The TDI is fun to drive in its own right, even if it doesn’t imply delusions of Daytona. That fun is easier to enjoy in a world of high fuel prices knowing that it will be a long time before you’ll have to refill the tank, in contrast to VR6-powered VWs.
2006 Volkswagen Jetta
Another great cabin
The seat heaters, like many other details, seem shared directly with the Jetta’s more costly Audi cousins. One Audi detail I miss is the nifty scroll wheel for the steering-wheel-mounted volume control. In its place on VWs is a pair of cheaper blister switches, like those that drew so much criticism in the C5 Corvette. While hardly a disaster, I miss the Audi’s scroll wheel.
The Jetta’s extra size for ‘06 is especially beneficial in the back seat, where real adults can ride in comfort. The trunk is also much more useful now, rather than seeming like a cramped afterthought. The gas strut-supported hood is a touch that keeps the driver from feeling like the Jetta is an economy car, even while it returns great mileage.
Outside, the Jetta also evokes its Audi counterparts, with a smooth, up-to-date appearance. Unfortunately, its conservative styling looks too much like the current-generation Toyota Corolla from the rear three-quarter view, and also suffers the same tall, narrow, up-on-tip-toes look that prompted Acura to tweak its RSX with lower suspension and wider-set wheels.
2006 Volkswagen Jetta
front, the vast chrome expanse of the front bumper fascia below the grille looks
better when split by a wide European license plate than with a comparatively
Other VWs we’ve seen have displayed impact cracks from the inevitable road debris. These cars are going to look old before their time, like those early-’80s GM intermediate-body sedans with faulty adhesive that allowed their tacked-on exterior trim strips to trail behind them. Perhaps a layer of clear protective film installed before the car leaves the dealer would be a good investment.
From the driver’s seat, you’ll never see the chrome bumper anyway. You won’t have to get out of the car very often, thanks to its stupendous fuel range, and you won’t want to, thanks to its luxurious interior, which flatters its $25,390 sticker price and embarrasses pretty much everything under $30,000.
2006 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
Price: $25,390 (as tested), $21,290 (base)
Engine: turbocharged 1.9-liter, in-line four diesel, 100 hp/177 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 101.5 in
Length x width x height: 179.3 x 70.1 x 57.4 in
Curb weight: 3197 lb (manual)
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 36/41 mpg
Safety equipment: Front, side and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control
Major standard equipment: Power window and door locks with remote keyless locking; 16-inch alloy wheels; six-disc CD changer; anti-theft system; power driver seat
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles