The diesel-powered VW Jetta TDI is quicker and sportier than most hybrids, but offers comparable fuel economy
If you're considering buying a hybrid vehicle such as the new Toyota (TM) Prius or Honda (HMC) Insight, be sure to check out Volkswagen's (VOWG) new diesel-powered '09 Jetta TDI before signing on the dotted line.
Diesel passenger cars have never caught on in the U.S. as they have in Europe, where they account for about half the market, partly because in recent years they had trouble meeting the stringent clean air regulations in states such as California and New York. But diesel-powered cars are an attractive alternative to gas-electric hybrids now that they can meet emissions standards in all 50 states.
VW's new Jetta TDI is quicker and sportier and handles better than most hybrids, yet its $23,000 starting sticker puts it in the same price class as the 2010 Prius and Insight. Indeed, the TDI costs only about $2,000 more than a comparable gasoline-powered Jetta, yet the TDI qualifies for a $1,300 federal tax credit, so the real price premium for most buyers is only $700. (By contrast, Honda and Toyota hybrids no longer qualify for federal tax credits.)
Roomy, Not Thirsty
The TDI, which seats up to five, also is the roomiest nonhybrid model that comes closest to rivaling the fuel economy of hybrids. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the TDI sedan at 30 miles per gallon in the city and 41 on the highway with a stick shift, 29/40 with an automatic. The 2010 Prius (51 city/48 highway) and Insight (41/43) do better, especially in the city. But Mike Omotosa, a powertrain expert at J.D. Power & Associates, notes that EPA tests tend to underestimate the fuel efficiency of diesels. VW had the new Jetta independently tested under real-world driving conditions and found that it gets 38 mpg in the city and 44 on the highway—which makes it competitive with every hybrid except the new Prius. TDI owners often report getting more than 50 mpg during highway cruising.
On top of all that, the price of diesel fuel—which had been as high, or higher, than that of premium gasoline—has plunged in recent months. As I write this, diesel costs an average of about $2.35 per gallon nationwide, vs. just over $2.50 per gallon for regular gasoline.
The front-wheel-drive Jetta TDI is powered by a 2.0-liter, 140-horsepower turbo-diesel engine. A six-speed stick shift is standard, and a dual-clutch six-speed automatic is available as an option.
The Jetta sedan comes with the same standard features as a midlevel, gasoline-powered Jetta SE, plus a fancy instrument cluster, a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, and a 115-volt power outlet. Major options are relatively inexpensive. Add $1,100 for the automatic transmission, for instance, and $1,000 for a sunroof. You can also customize the TDI in various ways. A "Ground Effects" package that includes a front spoiler, side sill extensions, and a rear valence goes for $1,699. Custom alloy wheels in a variety of styles and colors can be added for $1,350 to $1,799.
There's also a family-friendly "SportWagen" (i.e., station wagon) version of the TDI that rivals a small SUV or crossover vehicle in its cargo hauling capabilities. The TDI SportWagen starts at $24,570 and has nearly 33 cubic feet of luggage space behind its rear seats, rising to 67 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down. That's only slightly less hauling capacity than a Honda CRV.
The Jetta has four- and five-star government crash test ratings and earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's top "good" rating in frontal offset and side crashes. Stability and traction control and side and head-protecting side curtain airbags are all standard. Rear-seat side airbags are available as a $350 option.
J.D. Power & Associates predicts that diesels will account for only 1.9% of the U.S. market this year, and that most of the diesel vehicles sold will be being heavy-duty General Motors, Ford (F), and Chrysler pickup trucks. Hybrids will account for 2.9% of the market this year, J.D. Power figures, with most of those being cars. Power figures the same trends will continue through 2014: Hybrids will expand to 8.1% of the market, mainly cars, while diesel will expand to 7.6%, mainly pickups and other trucks.
However, the '09 Jetta is one of the strongest-selling models on the market, largely because of the additional sales generated by the new SportWagen and TDI versions of the car. Total U.S. sales of the Jetta fell only 3.2% in the first five months of this year, to 36,230, a far smaller drop than most car models experienced. The company says that diesels accounted for 30% of Jetta sedans sold so far this year, and in some months as much as 72% of all SportWagens sold.
Behind the Wheel
Diesel engines have a reputation for being noisy and smelly. Forget about that—it's history. If you stand outside the Jetta TDI while it's running, you'll hear a little bit of engine clatter, but from inside the car the engine is almost as quiet as a gasoline engine. There's no diesel odor that I could discern, even while I was filling the tank.
The advantage of a diesel engine is raw power. The Jetta TDI's 140-horsepower engine generates an impressive 236 foot-pounds of torque, enough oomph to make it very quick for such a fuel-efficient model. VW says the TDI sedan will accelerate from 0 to 60 in 8.2 seconds, and I clocked it at about 8.5. The SportWagen TDI is much slower: The company rates it at 9.5 seconds. But that's still faster than the 2010 Prius, which does 0 to 60 in 9.8 seconds.
The disadvantage of a turbocharged diesel engine is a phenomenon called turbo-lag, which my test Jetta TDI had in spades. At all speeds, there was a significant—and annoying—lag before the car took off after I punched the gas. The Jetta TDI has a kickdown feature when you punch the gas at highway speed, but the extra kick was largely negated by turbo-lag. On the other hand, acceleration is powerful at linear at speeds of, say, 25 mph to 60. This is a great car for tooling around on hilly back roads on summer evening.
The Jetta's interior isn't fancy, but it's attractive and comfortable. The front seat has a large amount of travel, making it a good model for tall drivers to check out. In the rear seats, headroom, shoulder room, and legroom are a bit cramped. The rear seats of the new Prius feel roomier.
On the plus side, the Jetta sedan's trunk is a relatively voluminous 16 cubic feet. The rear seats fold down in a 60/40 pattern, and there's also a pass-through from the trunk for skis and other long objects.
Buy It or Bag It?
For my money, the new Jetta TDI is one of the best buys on the market. The average selling price of the Jetta TDI is just $22,861, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), an indication that dealers can be haggled down on price. Yet the Jetta handles like a more expensive German car and rivals or surpasses the fuel economy of most hybrids if you do a lot of highway driving.
There are two big doubts about the Jetta TDI. First, if the world economy recovers, demand from China and other developing nations could once again push the price of diesel above that of premium gasoline, which would largely negate the TDI's fuel economy advantage. Second, VW has a reputation for iffy reliability. In the past, it has scored lower than Honda and Toyota, to say nothing of Ford and Nissan (NSANY), in J.D. Power's rankings of overall vehicle dependability, and there's no guarantee that its newest models will do better. (PIN and J.D. Power, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies [MHP].)
Still, there's a reason the Jetta TDI is a cult model with some buyers. If you check the used-car listings you'll often see older Jetta TDIs for sale with over 100,000 miles on them. They usually sell for a relatively high price, too, partly because diesel engines tend to be more durable than gas engines. My guess is that the '09 TDI will continue that tradition.
Click here to see more of the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI.