After winning the 2008 Green Car of the Year award, the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI has become the poster child for Volkswagen's green efforts and one of the most difficult vehicles to keep on the showroom floor. But while most look at the TDI's fuel economy and see an eco-variant of the gasoline-powered Jetta, we chose to look at the torque numbers and see a performance variant. Don't believe us? Go ahead and Google "Jetta TDI Cup."
It's quite possible that the Jetta TDI is the way for drivers to have their cake and eat it, by combining performance and eco-consciousness.
Unfortunately, the Jetta TDI's jewel of a powerplant is encased in a shell of pure "meh." From the uninspiring exterior styling to the downright boring interior and low-level cabin tech, we can't help but wish for a bit more excitement from the total package.
On the road
To discern where the Jetta TDI ranks on the performance/economy scale, we plotted a course up California's Pacific Coastal Highway (PCH) from CNET's San Francisco office to Fort Bragg. The Jetta TDI's gratuitous low-end torque seemed well suited for the PCH's low-speed switchbacks and dramatic elevation changes. To make things interesting, we aimed for an average fuel economy of 40 mpg for the 175-mile journey.
After an uneventful journey through the streets of San Francisco, we found ourselves crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. We'd timed our journey to miss the lunch and rush-hour crowds, but with the Jetta's multifunctional display showing a meager 14.8 mpg, we knew that, even with clear highways, our work was cut out for us.
Guiding the Jetta TDI up the PCH, we were pleased to see the average mpg steadily climbing. The TDI's 236 pound-feet of torque was making short work of elevation changes; its smooth swell of power pulled us through the snaking turns with surprising confidence. By looking ahead and focusing on maintaining momentum instead of gaining speed, we watched the mpg meter climb to 20 then 30 mpg.
The Jetta TDI's steering and handling wasn't as sublime as that of, for example, the Honda Civic Si, but kept the vehicle planted and predictable through the hairpins and decreasing radius turns.
Eventually, our fuel economy began to plateau at around 35 mpg. Each subsequent mile per gallon was a hard-fought battle, but we were still seeing meager gains.
We finally reached our destination under the cover of darkness. The limited visibility greatly hampered our ability to smoothly maintain momentum. The fatigue of hours of concentrated driving and the appearance of wildlife at the road's side forced us to shift our focus to driving cautiously, rather than efficiently for the last leg of the trip.
As we crossed the city limit into Fort Bragg, some 5 hours after the start of our journey, the Volkswagen's trip computer read 38.7 mpg averaged for the trip, short of our goal of 40 mpg, but still impressive considering the highly technical nature of our chosen route.
It bears mentioning that by the time we parked the car for the night, the average mpg for the day had risen to 40.2, thanks to a return journey over more conventional freeways.
In the cabin
The Volkswagen Jetta's cabin emphasizes substance over style, which is actually a nice way of saying "devoid of character."
The Jetta's upright dashboard is an expanse of flat, black plastic. The seats are flat and unsupportive and wrapped in a black fabric Volkswagen calls V-Tex. The carpet is also black. The instrument cluster features black gauges on a black backdrop with plain white lettering. You see where we're going with this.
The Jetta's interior looks like it was designed by someone who would never have to look at it, perhaps a robot, an algorithm, or a blind man. While everything functions as one would expect it, the Jetta's cabin just isn't a pleasant place to be. We'd like to see Volkswagen add some texture or--gasp--color to the gulag that is the Jetta's interior.
In the center of the instrument cluster is the Multi-Function Indicator (MFI), a monochromatic, red backlit display displaying fuel economy, miles to empty, average speed, and audio playback information. Here users can also adjust a cadre of options for the various convenience features, such as the autolocking doors or daytime running lamps.