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Driving the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

A test drive of the new 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI. Not your grandfather's diesel.


If you think diesels are slow, noisy, and smelly, or that they're only for trucks, trains, and ships, think again. Or better yet, wake up and join the 21st century.

Volkswagen's 2009 Jetta TDI, available now, is the first clean-diesel vehicle to be offered in all 50 states. To underscore that, VW introduced it to the automotive press in Santa Monica, Calif., with a drive route that included the Pacific Coast Highway, some of SoCal's finest canyon roads, and even a little freeway driving.

As Norbert Krause, director of VW's Environmental Engineering Office, put it so aptly in his part of the morning presentation, "this is not your grandfather's diesel." I got into one of the few stick shift examples in the morning, and twisted the key. No clatter, no smoke, very little noise. A little diesel sound from outside, but luxury car quiet from inside the cabin. An auspicious beginning.

Light clutch, good shift linkage, slip it in gear, and get on the road. Doesn't sound like a diesel. And acceleration is just fine, thank you, with strong torque from about 1,800rpm. Playing a bit with different gears, the engine's sweet spot seems to be around 3,000rpm, and it pulls, strongly, to about 4,500rpm, at which point power drops enough to discourage acquaintance with the rev limiter. According to the specifications, the car has 140 horsepower at 4,000rpm, with 236 foot-pounds of torque from 1,750rpm through 2,500rpm.

A turn up Topanga Canyon and for whatever reason, no traffic in front of me. Life is good. Push a little bit--still mostly legal and far from the limits of physics but enough to see what the car could do. Lovely suspension calibration, supple, and comfortable but with minimal body roll and decent adhesion. More performance-oriented tires would be the first improvement, but it's pretty good right out of the box and as much fun to drive as anything VW has. Good brakes, too, discs all around with standard 3-channel antilock, electronic brake pressure distribution, and electronic-stability control.

Did I mention that the engine likes to rev? Not grandpa's diesel at all, the engine doesn't sound like a diesel at all. It does sound, and work, like a fine sports power plant, and encourages revving to the power peak in every gear. This is a diesel that likes to play.

All too soon, road construction and traffic put a stop to the fun, but there are more opportunities later. And despite a complete and willful lack of trying for fuel economy, I still manage more than 32 mpg during my stint. Not bad, considering that getting over 20 mpg in a similar gasoline-powered car in the same circumstances would be impressive.

Later in the day, I drove the automatic version. In a more upscale trim level, it highlighted the Jetta's luxury side more, but since the "automatic" is the dual-clutch automanual DSG it still had plenty of performance character. Its response has been changed a bit to deal with the TDI engine's needs, so shifting is a bit slower and smoother than in, say, an R32 or GTI. And while there is Tiptronic manual-shift mode, it's done with the shift lever, not steering wheel paddles. As with other DSG applications, it works as well as any torque converter automatic in D.

There was an informal mileage contest, and the winners got over 40 mpg on a drive route that was mostly LA canyon roads, with a bit of the Pacific Coast Highway and freeway. As with any other vehicle, mileage depends on driving style. Unlike any current hybrid, though, the Jetta TDI is capable not only of high mileage but of actual driving pleasure as well.