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2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI: Smiles, not smells, in this sporty four-door

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  March 12, 2009 11:06 AM

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2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI(Clifford Atiyeh/Globe Photo)

Part 2

Read part 1 of our drive here.

After a full week of daily driving in our 2009 Jetta TDI, I began to forgive the DSG transmission for some of its jerky behavior. I learned to anticipate gear changes ahead of time, which made it much more tolerable (but still not acceptable, in my opinion).

Volkswagen fashioned the rest of the driving experience very well. You won't notice the diminished horsepower from the turbocharged 2.0 liter four-cylinder (at 140, it's down 30 from the base Jetta S, and another 60 from the SEL wagon). Normally this would be cause for complaint, but since the TDI sips diesel, there's a big grunt of torque (236 pound-feet, 29 more than the SEL wagon). In every situation short of passing acceleration, there's never a need to dip into the throttle as peak torque arrives at 1,750 r.p.m. Sport mode, with its higher-rev shifts, doesn't add any more excitement, just noise. Never has there been so much joy below the two-grand mark in a compact sedan.

Matching the fun is high mileage. From 238 miles of city and highway driving (about 60 and 40 percent, respectively), I averaged about 28 miles per gallon, all the more impressive considering the frosty weather still hugging the Northeast. On the highway, the trip computer - which unfortunately resets itself at every startup - was showing 40-plus miles per gallon. Many TDI owners, I'm told, boast numbers well over the official EPA 29/40 rating (with a light foot, 50 miles per gallon might not be out of the question).

A Scottish man in South Boston saw the big "TDI" decals on the Jetta and remarked how popular diesels were in his home country. "I guess you guys just like gas," he said. We sure do, but our distaste for diesel is changing. Since 2007, the EPA began a nationwide rollout of ultra-low sulfur diesel, which at 15 parts per million is a 97 percent reduction from standard diesel. It's widely available but not mandatory until 2010, so if you can't see a label for "ULSD," move on.

The TDI isn't as tolerant of lower-grade fuel like that of a gasoline-powered car. The catalytic converter is specially designed to burn off harmful nitrogen oxide emissions without additives (like the urea-based BlueTec system in Mercedes-Benz vehicles), and the particulate filters attached to the exhaust would quickly get clogged with the heavier soot from traditional diesel.

There's an occasional whiff of sulfur when the Jetta idles for a long time, but there's no smoke even during a cold start. Mild clatter fades as the engine warms, and then it becomes unnoticeable. If diesel was a buck-fifty a gallon now, this car would be topping the sales charts.

Unfortunately, diesel pump prices aren't likely to come down, thanks to reduced diesel refinery capacity and the higher cost of removing sulfur (and other reasons that would bring this story to a tangent). I filled up at a Hess station near the Globe for $2.35 per gallon, 46 cents higher than regular unleaded. But the TDI's $22,270 base price is just $2,175 more than the similarly-equipped SE. Factor in a $1,300 federal tax credit, and the difference comes to $875. That's less than typical hybrid premiums, especially for models like the Prius which are no longer eligible for IRS tax credits (a silly, numbskull rule).

The Jetta's conservative styling is offset by a handsome chrome fascia, but there's not much else that calls out the body in traffic. The interior comes off as a bit austere, but everything is simple, easy to find, illuminated, and clicks and presses with a fine, weighted touch.

Gripping the three-spoke steering wheel around turns is where the Jetta stands out. Moderately light at low speed, the wheel tightens with authority under cornering loads, and body roll is well-controlled. The brakes are equally strong, but the pedal feels too soft, which doesn't inspire driver confidence. Our tester had a little over 6,000 miles, so perhaps some other rabid journalist had been mashing the brakes into mush.

If you don't mind the diesel premium, the Jetta TDI is a fuel-efficient bargain that won't drain your enthusiasm for driving. But whenever you get sick of paying high pump prices, you can always join other savvy TDI owners in evading the IRS and filling up with used restaurant cooking oil.

Read part 1 of our drive in the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI here.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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25 comments so far...
  1. So why would you pay a premium for this car if it comes out even with the gas version in cost of running it? This gets 28/40 mpg, but the fuel costs 25% more. The Jetta S engine gets 21/30, so about 75% of the mpg. So you're getting about the same miles per dollar. The premium for a hybrid often takes a long time (years) to pay off in fuel cost savings, but at least there is some hope. And you'd have to prove to me that the special low sulfur diesel fuel is equivalent in it's damage to the environment to gasoline per gallon in order to have that argument to use. I've never seen that comparison made. It's pretty hard to justify this car in this country with the current fuel prices.

    Posted by Shaggydog March 12, 09 01:22 PM
  1. Maybe where you are at, but here in Montana I just bought diesel at 1.89, .04 cheaper than regular unleaded.

    Posted by densul March 12, 09 08:43 PM
  1. Shaggydog, 25% less fuel consumption sounds like enough justification to me ....

    Posted by prinzlmeisl March 12, 09 10:57 PM
  1. 1) The car gets better than 28/40mpg particularly for people who drive the interstates a lot, like sales people. So the cost per mile is equal or better than gas. 2) Diesel engines last longer. It is not uncommon to have 150-175k miles on a diesel engine where a gas engine would be very worn at this mileage. 3) cars consume energy in manufacture. Every part from ore mine to assembly line uses fuel and has a disposal "cost" to the environment. Diesel minimizes these costs via a longer vehicle lifespan and a lower disposal impact than a hybrid. 4) Biodiesel is a fuel option if governments rethink unrealistic emission expectations on cars. A priority on older trucks would be a better priority.

    Posted by Charles March 12, 09 11:41 PM
  1. $875 (accounting for the tax credit) more than an SE is a premium? Anyhow, I drove both versions a couple weeks ago on a test drive and the TDI is worth every penny. Anyhow, I calculated the figures and based upon the fuel prices above, the City/HWY ratio above, and 12,000 annually I get the following cost per year for fuel:

    Jetta SE: $925
    Jetta TDI: $702
    Savings/Year: $223

    So, I get a car that's more fun to drive, and it pays for itself in under four years. Chalk one up for the oil burner! Oh yeah, I'm buying one in two days now.

    Posted by Path_Tech March 13, 09 02:12 AM
  1. Diesel is coming down in my area of Maryland is down to $2.05. The highway milage of the TDI nearly double the gas version. My cost per mile is 4 to 5 cents versus 7 to 8 cents with the gas version.

    Posted by Brent March 13, 09 07:02 AM
  1. Diesel and gas fluctuate relative to each other. The price difference isn't always so much.

    You can also run it on biodiesel and then aren't buying any sort of petrol at all. Plus, biodiesel is far cheaper.

    Posted by Nell March 13, 09 07:42 AM
  1. Diesel engines have fewer moving parts than gasoline engines. The western MA company can also outfit your diesel to accept used vegetable oil in addition to diesel. The batteries in hybrid cars use dangerous heavy metals (like Lithium) and require significant manufacturing cost and electricity, and generate harmful waste. What happens in 7 years when the Prius and their kind need new batteries (to the tune of $10k ?) Not sure about environmental impact of new diesel, but do you still need to warm the oil (engine block heater) in cold climates?

    Posted by john March 13, 09 10:46 AM
  1. Shaggydog makes two important points. One is that the vast majority of people value dollars/mile much more than dollars/gallon. I wish it were otherwise, but let's be realistic. It's unfortunate that the price difference has risen, since this is exactly the time when people might be swayed to buy one. It also disproportionately penalizes trucking and therefore businesses. My (slightly older) diesel gets more like 43/50, which is probably 40% better than a gas counterpart. I'm doing very well from a dollars/mile perspective, but then again it's not why I drive one. The other point he makes regards pollution. Diesel is certainly worse from a soot (smog) perspecitve. It's now much better with sulfur and nitrous oxides (acid rain), but I think carbon is purely about fuel efficiency. If that's true, then diesel has always been better from a carbon/mile perspective. The thing to remember is that these things can be fixed with technology, which requires the social and political will to fund it. Sometimes you have to support imperfect technologies to encourage the process of perfecting them. Finally, I put 100% biodiesel in my (stock) Jetta eight months per year. It costs the same and runs better.

    Posted by Bob March 13, 09 10:52 AM
  1. The new clean diesels from VW, 2009 on, will not accept biodiesel greater than 5% bio. It will do permanent damage to the emissions equipment. It would be nice to use B100 fuel, but I'm happy in my 2009 JSW to get pretty damn good fuel usage AND to do so with less pollution.

    Posted by Michael March 13, 09 03:20 PM
  1. Michael,

    The only proof I've read is that B100 is bad. I have the link below. There has been no active testing that I've seen from VW or owners of the 2009 TDI for blends between 5 and 100 percent. I'm hoping that VW tests to see if B20 is acceptable. B5 is a joke in my mind, not worth the effort to try and dilute (in case you are filling up with B20 or B50) with petrolium diesel.

    Posted by Path_Tech March 13, 09 05:51 PM
  1. Having had a 2002 Jetta TDI wagon now for 150,000 miles, we are still getting an average of 49 mpg combined mileage. When they went for more horsepower in the 2004 and later models, the mileage dropped. Where we live in the midwest, ULSD is priced the same as gasoline. 2002-2003 used Jetta TDI's command a premium price and anytime one goes on sale, it is sold in a day or two. Having also driven a number of diesel vehicles in Europe with much higher mileage than their American counterparts, this is one more area where our big 3 US automakers pulled the wool over our eyes by whining they could not meet CAFE standards.

    Posted by tom March 15, 09 09:34 AM
  1. I'm not sure where you're basing the notion that diesel prices aren't coming down any time soon. They're already lower than premium grade gasoline here in WV, and according to most economic indicators they will dip even lower than regular unleaded by early summer.

    I love my 2006 Jetta TDI.

    Posted by Kent March 15, 09 05:00 PM
  1. We had a '94 TDI and loved it. We have a 2009 TDI on order. Why?
    The mileage gives the TDI very long legs, the mileage difference is greater in the city than on the hiway, and the reliability over many years and miles is outstanding.

    Posted by Dirck Born March 16, 09 10:19 AM
  1. Six words: Honda Fit. Better mileage. Love it!

    Posted by nancy March 16, 09 01:39 PM
  1. I have a 2000 Jetta TDI, and driving around town I never have gotten less than 45mpg...and long trips on the highway easily exceed 50 mpg. I know to automatically fill up when the trip odometer hits 580...try that with a hybrid...LOL

    Posted by Bob March 16, 09 02:57 PM
  1. If you drive long distances, Flying J fuel stops frequently have better diesel prices than most competitors, simply because they purchase huge quantities of it to fuel all those big rigs that travel across the country. I know diesel for me is about 10 cents a gallon cheaper at my local Flying J, and when you add in the far better mileage (compared to other cars in the same class), it's win-win.

    Posted by James F March 17, 09 04:56 PM
  1. I have owned my 2009 VW Jetta Sportwagon TDI for 3 weeks now. I am loving it. I bought because it is fun to drive, has great performance and looks great inside and out. Oh yah and it get good gas mileage. For me that the cost of mileage is a wash for gas or diesel makes it a non-decision factor. What is is cool though is having a diesel.

    Posted by carlos March 18, 09 10:39 PM
  1. I think that it would be a good idea if the automotive journalist, who know more than the average consumer ,read the owners manual as part of their job. The mileage does not resent every time you shut off the car if you have the setting on the stalk at #2. Set at #1 it resets. Also you can't use bio-diesel fuel if it is over 5% mix. These are great cars. I have 10,000 miles on my 2009 Jetta Sportwagon with no problems. Set the speed control at 62mph on the highway and you will be rewarded with 52mpg. I drive mine like I stole it and have never seen less than 39mpg. Diesel prices are equal to or less than 93 gas prices. Just goes to show you can believe every thing you read in the paper.
    Ed in Connecticut

    Posted by Ed March 26, 09 09:22 PM
  1. Purchased a 09 jetta sportwagen tdi 2 weeks ago.What a blast to drive.Am making excuses to go on errands. Have always driven mercedes diesels but the new ones have urea inj. and if it runs out the car will not start.Also at twice the price as a vw I'll take the vw.So far I have been averaging about 45mpg on the highway and 36 in the city. I love it!!!

    Posted by Jay in Mass. April 4, 09 02:10 PM
  1. I had a 2002 Beetle TDI, and really miss it. For some reason my wife thought it was not big enough for a family.

    Posted by tom May 29, 09 07:52 PM
  1. I have two friends that drive 98 Jetta TDI and '02 TDI at present. They've had no unanticipated repairs. At high mileage,of course, they've needed timing belts,
    new water pump and the expected parts. I bought an '09 TDI in January. It's far more fun than my former BMW 528i, which lasted a solid 9 years and 204Kmi.
    The TDI and the 5 share the same driving feel: Tight, authoritative, stable. However the TDI is half the price of a new 5 and effectively equivalent to a 2000 BMW in interior amenities and comfort. Had zero mid-winter problems with cold starts. As far as the DSG, you need to readjust your instincts and prejudices. The DSG is far faster than most people could shift on a 6-speed stick.

    Posted by Jim June 12, 09 12:53 AM
  1. does anyone living in the upper midwest (MN WI ND SD) know if there is a law requiring block heaters? Just purchased a 2009 VW Jetta TDI.

    Posted by Geoff July 18, 09 11:42 PM
  1. Re #23, there's certainly no block heater law here in MN. I'm testing a TDI tomorrow and likely will buy using the "cash for clunkers" program (that will get me $4,500 off the sale price, plus the tax credit, plus the sales tax deduction...basically $6,200 off the best price I can negotiate). None of the TDIs on the lots here have block heaters. If we buy I will give it one winter to see how it performs; if it's too slow to warm I'll probably install one of these custom coolant heaters: Cheap and simple.

    Posted by Kiwanda July 21, 09 09:46 PM
  1. Bought a new 2009 TDI Sportwagon 3 months ago and am disappointed.
    Driving it yesterday in traffic, heard a thump, thought I was hit from behind.
    That thump was the dsg shifting into nuetral. Couldn't get the car to go, people honking, disengaged the engine, got home plenty mad. 2009 Jetta is being recalled. Defective sensor. Ruined my trip. Had to abort. Wish I had bought GM!

    Posted by carl herman August 26, 09 11:31 PM

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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