Move Over, Hybrids. Das Clean Diesel Has Arrived…

2009, Volkswagen, Jetta TDI Diesel

Volkswagen's dream is that soon the Holy Grail of Fuel Economy the hybrid, will have to share its King-of-the-Environmental-Hill position with the just released 2009 VW Jetta Diesel TDI. While hybrid owners have been busy patting each other and themselves on the back, VW beat out the other clean diesel releases and is the first to offer a 50-state compliant clean diesel vehicle for sale that is sure to give hybrids a run for their gallon.

So how does the new Diesel darling of the road measure up?

When I bought a car last year I looked at hybrids, and decided to purchase a prudently priced little pod of a non-hybrid car that has achieved 33 to 38 mpg. I sacrificed space for mileage with my pod, and I constantly suppress any lead foot urges for the same reason. Imagine my chagrin when I test drove the reasonably priced 2009 VW Jetta Diesel Sedan (practically twice the size of my pod), zipping through the twisting mountain roads in Malibu and along the Pacific Coast Highway and found I averaged 40.1 mpg! Despite the adjustment by the EPA in 2006 to narrow the gap between their higher fuel economy estimate numbers and lower real world experience, the numbers were in fact low for the Jetta. VW felt compelled to perform independent testing to give consumers a better idea of the actual mileage. "Real world driving" of the sedan placed the mileage at 38/44 despite the EPA rating of 29/40. My experience in the hills of Malibu would back those numbers up. If you drive more highway than city a diesel could easily get you equal or better mileage than a hybrid, which shines more in pure city driving.

VW worked hard to meet the country's most stringent air quality emission standards that are enforced in California, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont and New York. So the 50-state compliant achievement is noteworthy. ULSD (ultralow sulfur diesel) fuel effectively eliminated the signature diesel smell and contributed greatly towards the low emissions goal. Then VW engineers designed the exhaust system of the VW Jetta to trap the particulate matter and soot and actually burn it...eliminate it. Plus, they accomplished this feat without using urea, as with other clean diesel cars. Clean diesel actually has a minimum 10% lower CO2 emissions compared to gas. So yes, all you environmental hybrid worshipers, it's clean!

Thankfully, No.

I was waiting for the typical noisy diesel sound and feel; gone. Listening as one of the sedans accelerated away, I could barely detect the characteristic diesel rattle. This smooth sounding and smooth riding car bears little resemblance to the diesel vehicles of yore.

The acceleration of the Jetta sedan amazed me. The 2.0 liter engine twists out appreciably more torque than a gasoline engine; 235 lb-ft. At first I thought the car had a sticky accelerator, because a normal depression of the pedal produced a surge of power. Soon it became apparent that the increased torque simply required a lighter touch. Performance has always been at odds with mileage, but this car gave me more pep than I was ready for and still cranked out better mileage than almost every car on the road with me.

Steering was a bit heavy and the brakes had to work to keep up with the car the automatic, at least. Would love to have driven the manual transmission, but the ratio of available cars heavily favored the automatics. The Jetta TDI Clean Diesel Sportwagen was unavailable to test, but will soon join the sedan on showroom floors.

The 6-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), also known as the double-clutch gearbox, is an automatic transmission developed by Audi and Volkswagen. What makes it unique is that it can change gears faster than any other geared transmission. It delivers more power and better control than a traditional automatic transmission and faster performance than a manual transmission. In Normal mode, the DSG shifts to the higher gears early in order to minimize engine noise and maximize fuel economy. In Sport mode the transmission holds the lower gears longer in order to keep the engine in its powerband. Sport mode also provides more aggressive downshifts with slight accelerator pedal pressure. Those Malibu canyons definitely showed off the improved performance in Sport Mode; the difference was remarkable...and exciting.

VW includes Electronic Stability Program (ESP) as standard equipment on not only the Jetta but their entire 2009 product line, putting them way ahead of the 2012 requirement by NHTSA. Other standard equipment highlights include six airbags, telescoping and tilt steering wheel, Sirius satellite radio/6 CD/mp3/Aux-in, 8 way adjustable driver seat, heated front seats and washer nozzles, and 16 inch alloy wheels. Another nice bonus, also standard, is VW's "carefree maintenance program" which provides 36,000 miles or 3 years (whichever comes first) of regular scheduled maintenance at no charge.

Find the price of a hybrid a tad painful? You will get a lot of bang for your buck as the owner of this competitively priced diesel vehicle. Let me count the ways. The VW Jetta TDI sedan manual transmission starts at $21,990 and the DSG transmission sedan at $23,090. Factor in the IRS approved $1,300 tax credit and the Jetta begins to look even better (especially when the Prius tax credit in no longer available). Add to that the historic high resale value of diesel cars and now we're getting somewhere. No expensive battery to replace, either. In fact about the time you would be replacing your hybrid battery to the tune of anywhere from $1900 to $4500, a diesel engine is just hitting its stride. You will get approximately triple the engine life of a gas engine. Put all these advantages together and they pile up as high as those hybrids sitting lazily on top of the hill.

One potential flaw in the plan is that diesel is more expensive than gas right now. At the writing of this review in Ventura County, California, diesel ranged from $3.99 to $4.29 while gas was $3.59 to $3.99. Since diesel requires less refining than gasoline, the price is more a result of increased global demand and a weakened US dollar. VW assured us, however, that no fewer than 7 companies have announced plans to expand production or build new refineries for ULSD (hoping to cash in on the higher returns and increased demand that already exist). Let us hope the refineries will keep up with the demand for clean diesel, and VW will keep up with the demand for the Jetta TDI so the sticker price is not inflated, as happened with hybrids.

Volkswagen is a member of the Diesel Technology Forum, whose website can tell you everything you want to know about clean diesel fuel. They have a diesel savings calculator that's fun to play with. I plugged in the numbers and compared my econo-pod with the Jetta. I'd save about two hundred dollars a year in fuel costs with the Jetta even at current prices. In the bargain I'd be driving a much bigger car with shamelessly better performance, too.

Clean diesel fuel is certainly not the ultimate answer as it still leaves us dependent upon oil. Yet with enough penetration into the market, it would considerably reduce our oil consumption. The US Dept of Energy determined that with an optimistically projected 30% share of all vehicles in 2020, clean diesels could save 350,000 barrels of oil each day. That's something to write home about. When you write that letter home, be sure to tell them we can all finally have our cake and eat it, too; exceptional fuel economy in a high performance car.

By Wendy Stroud

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Images of the 2009, Volkswagen Jetta TDI Diesel

2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Diesel front view
2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Diesel front view
2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Diesel interior
2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Diesel interior
2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Diesel center console
2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Diesel center console
2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Diesel rear shot
2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Diesel rear shot