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If I'm honest, I was prepared to be bored with the 2014 Jetta TDI that arrived in the Car Tech garage this week. I was unimpressed with the Jetta SE 1.8T when I tested it last year and I was wondering if I should even bother reviewing this base 2014 model, with the 2015 Jetta just around the corner. But then the Jetta TDI did something that I didn't really expect; it made me smile.
Without any infotainment tech more complex than an iPod dock and with its base model amenities, this Jetta won me over thanks to its torquey turbo diesel engine.
An exceptional engine
Lift the hood and you'll find that this Jetta is powered by a 2.0-liter turbo diesel engine -- an absolute gem of a power-plant that is torquey, flexible, and pretty thrifty.
It's just a bit loud at idle, but makes up for the racket by outputting 140 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. It's that second number that you'll want to pay particular attention to. In this example, that engine is mated with a six-speed DSG dual-clutch automated transmission in a front-wheel drive configuration.
Drop it into Drive and roll onto the accelerator and you may notice that off-the-line acceleration can feel a bit hesitant. You may also notice that, when in their normal Drive mode, the engine and transmission have a tendency to depend heavily on the torquey diesel's ability to tool around while spinning below 2,000 revolutions per minute. This gives the power-train a laid back feel and helps economy, but also makes makes it feel a bit lazy and less responsive than I know it's capable of. In this mode, the TDI never really feels like it's working hard, but for daily commuting that's not a bad thing at all.
The DSG features a Sport program that is accessible by pulling the shift lever past the stop for Drive. In this mode, responsiveness is sharpened up by allowing the engine to play around in slightly higher rpm reaches and adjusting the transmission's programmed shift points. However, even this mode feels just a bit lazy for truly sporty driving.
But then I popped the dual-clutch gearbox into its manual shifting mode and it finally made me grin. I may have actually laughed aloud at how the engine seemed to come alive in this mode. Run up the rpms between 3,000 revs and the engine's relatively short 5,000 and the TDI shines delivering strong, linear acceleration. Even when stretching its legs, the TDI never really feels taxed and there's an effortlessness to its acceleration. Paddle shifters would make this a much more fun drive, but nudging the shift lever around wasn't so bad.
All the while, the TDI is delivering pretty good fuel economy. fuel economy. The EPA estimates that the 2014 Jetta TDI with the DSG will do 30 mpg in the city, 42 mpg on the highway, and average out to about 34 mpg combined. I managed to finish my week at 38 mpg, which is very impressive considering that I regularly finish below the EPAs because our testing process involves spending time in traffic jams and spirited driving through curvy, hilly terrain.
I can understand that the TDI's engine isn't a performance engine and that this isn't a performance car, but I loved the flexibility of this engine. It's able to deliver grin-inducing acceleration if I asked it to, but is just as happy to cruise endlessly at low-rpm, freeway speeds. Heck, I'd be impressed with this power train if it were underneath a cardboard box.
The cardboard box
For as much as I love the TDI and DSG combo, I'm not really a fan of the car that surrounds it. There's nothing particularly offensive about it, but there also isn't much in the "pros" column either. The Jetta is frumpy looking on one hand, but on the other hand there's a charm to its functional, simple design. Our example arrived in "Candy White", but "Rental Car White" would probably be a more accurate descriptor.
The chassis beneath the sheet metal is just as competently bland. Handling is uninspired and the slowish steering takes a lot of turns to go from lock to lock. The result is that driving with zest requires large dramatic steering inputs which can make the car feel somewhat imprecise. The Jetta TDI's handling is, simply put, good enough.
The ride is pretty smooth, soaking up bumps and road imperfections for a comfortable seat of the pants feel over cracked and potholed pavement. However, the cabin isn't very insulated, which means that you'll get a good deal of road and wind noise and diesel rumble as you roll along.
Creature comforts are limited, but that's to be expected from this entry-point, base TDI model. There's no smart key entry or push button start, but you do get a switchblade style key and remote door unlock. The dashboard is simplistic and constructed largely of flat grey plastic with a few hints of faux metal. The leatherette front bucket seats are heated, which is a nice touch, but I think I'd have preferred nice cloth seats to go with the VW's spartan interior.
These aren't so much complaints as they are observations. I'm really harping on VW's econobox feel, because I know that there are trim levels above this base model that offer nicer interior materials, better creature comforts, and better tech. You get what you pay for and you don't get much at the base model's relatively low cost.