2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI review:

Turbo diesel Jetta is an OK car with a fantastic engine

Starting at $31,895

Roadshow Editors' Rating

6.2 Overall
  • Performance 8
  • Features 5
  • Design 6
  • Media & Connectivity 5

The Good The 2014 VW Jetta TDI's 2.0-liter turbo diesel is a fantastic engine with great torque and reliable efficiency. The DSG transmission features sport and manual modes that can be exploited for thrills. Car-Net telematics adds GPS tracking, roadside assistance, and emergency response services via the vehicle, an app, or the Web. Ride quality is controlled and comfortable.

The Bad Road, wind, and engine noise are fairly pronounced. Almost no safety/driver aid tech is available for this generation. Standard MDI 30-pin iPod cable means that you may have to buy a USB dongle separately.

The Bottom Line The 2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI offers basic transportation at a bargain and an excellent engine, but techies will want to hold off for the improved 2015 model.

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.

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It doesn't look like much underneath the dull plastic cover, but the 2.0L TDI engine is fantastic. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

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.

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Depending on your perspective, the Jetta's styling is either boring and dull or simple and clean. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

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.

As basic as tech comes

Being a base model TDI, our Jetta was also light on dashboard tech. The RCD 310 stereo features AM/FM tuning, SiriusXM satellite radio, CD playback, and standard Bluetooth for hands-free calling and audio streaming. It's about as barebones as car stereos come these days while still remaining acceptable, which may appeal to drivers who aren't hung up on bells and whistles.

The monochrome display doesn't show much information and hides a lot of features under its bank of soft keys and nested in its menu, but is clear and easy to read at a glance. Longer song and station titles will sometimes overrun, but big, high contrast letters are definitely a good thing for a stereo so simple. By not actually doing much, the RCD 310 manages to not be much of a distraction when, for example, choosing playlists on a paired iPod Nano.

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The base model's RCD 310 stereo keeps it simple by not actually doing much. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The Bluetooth audio streaming actually worked this time around, but I was annoyed to find that I couldn't skip tracks on my paired Android phone when streaming Bluetooth audio. I could see track and artist data on the RCD 310's display (which seems to indicate that BT AVRCP was working), but transport controls didn't work with either the steering wheel or the on-dash controls. So I had to touch my phone to change songs -- not the end of the world, I know, but it bears mentioning.

A continuing annoyance for me is VW's MDI connection, which uses swappable dongles for Apple's 30-pin and universal USB connection of media devices. (Presumably, there's also a new Apple Lightning adapter in the works.) The rest of the industry uses a simple USB port that works with the cables that you already own. As a non-Apple user, it's always frustrating when VW vehicles arrive without a USB port for my portable drive full of MP3 test tracks. My colleagues who use Apple Lightning devices express similar annoyance at having to use a 30-pin to Lightning adapter.

Audio quality from the standard stereo system was better than I remembered it being when I tested the 2014 Jetta SE last year. This example stereo played loud and clear. Bass response probably best described as tight with strong output for a kick drum-type sounds, but without very good volume for the extreme low end of the spectrum. It's a thumper, not a boomer that sounds great with, for example, A Tribe Called Quest's boom-bap sound. However, a step up to the optional Fender audio system would probably offer a more flexible listening experience for those looking for fuller sound.

Car-Net connected

The last Jetta rolled its telematics tech into a Connectivity Package, but this 2014 TDI bundles the VW Car-Net connectivity into the list of standard features.

Functioning like a sort of OnStar for Volkswagens, Car-Net brings a number of connected features including automatic crash response, roadside assistance (provided by VW partner Allstate), and stolen-vehicle location. Family features include notifications (via email or SMS) for exceeding preset speeds or entering or exiting preset, geofenced zones. Remote services include remote vehicle locking, horn honk, destination download, and a concierge service that lets the driver speak to an operator to search for a destination and have the location downloaded to the navigation system, if equipped. (Ours wasn't.) Finally, Diagnostics tools allow the driver to schedule visits for service and receive vehicle health reports.

Drivers can either interact with the Car-Net features by pressing one of the three buttons located on the ceiling console in the vehicle -- information, roadside assistance, or SOS -- to speak to a call center operator, use an iPhone application (an Android version is coming "soon" according to a VW representative), or access the service through a browser on a Web-connected personal computer.

I was able to try out the VW Car-Net app previously on the 2014 Volkswagen Passat SEL and was also given demonstrations of the roadside assistance and vehicle-tracking features and found them to also be easy and accessible. I'm sure that it would function similarly on this VW, with the caveat that a lack of navigation will disable features like address download. Without a navigation system in place, Car-Net's day-to-day usefulness is severely limited, but having the emergency and roadside services watching your back may add to your peace of mind.

2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI tech specs

Model 2014 Volkswagen Jetta
Trim TDI with DSG
Powertrain 2.0-liter turbo diesel four-cylinder, six-speed DSG automatic transmission, FWD
EPA fuel economy 30 mpg city, 42 mpg highway, 34 mpg combo
Observed fuel economy 38 mpg
Navigation Optional, not equipped
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources MDI digital interface, Bluetooth, CD, satellite radio
Audio system Standard, non-branded
Driver aids N/A
Base price $24,725
Price as tested $25,545

A six-month free trial of the Car-Net service is included in the MSRP, after which it'll cost $200 per year to retain access. Going month-to-month will be more expensive, and committing to multiple years yields discounts. VW states that the system brings its vehicles into parity with telematics systems offered by GM, Hyundai, and Toyota at a competitive price.

Get ready for 2015

Should you buy the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI? For your $25,545 (as tested), you'll get a vanilla car that's powered by an exceptional engine and transmission combination. It's clear after spending a significant amount of time that the bulk of the MSRP is invested under the hood. And that's OK. The Jetta TDI does a good job of delivering basic transportation with pretty good value. For those after wheels with minimal fuss or tech distraction, the 2014 Jetta TDI is worth a look.

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The 2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI is good, basic transportation, but the upcoming 2015 model should be improved across the board. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

However, you may want to wait for the 2015 VW Jetta to arrive for two reasons.

The new model will share its modular underpinnings and its new 2.0-liter TDI engine with the 2015 VW Golf TDI, which we've already previewed and found to be an awesome little hatchback. The 2015 Jetta TDI will also share Volkswagen's next-generation of cabin, safety, and driver aid tech, which is worth waiting for if you're here for Car Tech.

On the other hand, when the 2015 model arrives, it may be easier to find a deal on a new 2014 Jetta TDI, making this already good value an even better one.

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