Did you know that the next generation of diesel-powered cars and SUVs is 98 percent cleaner than diesels sold just two years ago? Did you know these new clean diesels offer 23 to 43 percent better fuel economy than the same vehicle with a gasoline engine? And finally, did you know this new generation of clean diesel-powered vehicles offers efficiency matching that of gas-electric hybrids? Unfortunately for Volkswagen, you probably answered no to each of these questions. But the German automaker is hoping to increase clean-diesel awareness, and it’s starting with the 2009 Jetta TDI. It’s legal in all 50 states, gets more than 40 mpg and starts at less than $22,000.
Like gasoline-powered Jettas, the TDI can be had in either 4-door guise or as a 5-door wagon (Jetta TDI Clean Diesel SportWagen). Picking the SportWagen adds $1,600 worth of utility behind the rear seats. As Jettas go, either TDI you choose will come well-equipped, the only real options being a power glass sunroof, touch-screen navigation and 17-inch wheels with 225/45R17 tires.
Aside from those options, the only choice you’ll make is between the standard 6-speed manual transmission or an optional dual-clutch setup, which adds a reasonable $1,100.
If optioning your Jetta to the max isn’t in the budget, don’t fear — the TDI comes with standard equipment that is at best optional on its gasoline-powered siblings. Nice features such as a 10-speaker stereo and a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel help to spruce up the cockpit, while 16-inch alloy wheels (205/55R16 tires) and body-colored front and rear valances lend an upscale look to the exterior. It’s also worth noting that all 2009 Volkswagens will come standard with three years of free maintenance.
Under the Hood
If it weren’t for the TDI logo stamped into the plastic engine cover, you might think you were looking at Volkswagen’s gasoline-powered 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder, found in the Wolfsburg Edition Jetta. But the similarities end there — a great deal of technology went into making the Jetta’s 2.0-liter turbocharged diesel engine compliant in the U.S.
Though 30-horsepower weaker (at 140 hp at 4000 rpm) than its European cousin, this new TDI is a lot cleaner. Thanks to an advanced exhaust system and onboard computer that constantly monitors pollutants, the U.S.-spec TDI does without the use of urea or other liquid catalysts to attain 50-state legality. As it sits, the Jetta TDI Clean Diesel is certified to run on B5 biodiesel, which is 5 percent biofuel and 95 percent petroleum-based diesel.
Despite the choked exhaust system, the engine still manages to belt out 236 lb-ft of torque, using common rail direct injection. That torque is sent to the front wheels by way of a standard 6-speed manual or an optional 6-speed dual-clutch transmission. All Jetta TDIs come standard with stability control.
The TDI feels distinctly German inside. Controls are organized in a simple, intuitive fashion and there are few frills. There is the sense of being surrounded by plastics, and we could do without the standard vinyl seating, but then again it’s a $22,000 car; expectations for an opulent interior were low.
Despite the vinyl surfaces, it’s easy to find a comfortable seating position with the 8-way manually adjustable front seats, and the back seats offer a 60/40 split to increase trunk space. The Jetta TDI Clean Diesel comes standard with six airbags, and should you have children in the back seats, you can add rear side airbags for $350.
Every Jetta TDI Clean Diesel comes with a top of the (Jetta) line 10-speaker stereo, which features an in-dash 6-disc changer with MP3 compatibility. If you’re so inclined, you can add navigation to the equation for $1,990, which also provides a USB input for your MP3 player, and a slot for smart cards. (iPod compatibility adds $199 without navigation.)
On the Road
Volkswagen is marketing hard to dispel the American perception of diesels as loud, stinky and slow. But all you have to do is drive the 2009 Jetta TDI Clean Diesel to know that these characteristics are a thing of the past.
Only when idling at a stoplight does the occasional diesel tune ratatata-rattle from under the hood, and you have to really concentrate to hear it. When the light changes, you don’t exactly take off like a rocket, but the swell of diesel torque is fun to experience.
The Jetta TDI Clean Diesel comes standard with a smooth-shifting 6-speed manual transmission, but if you have the cash, the optional dual-clutch transmission is the ticket. Despite the lack of paddle shifters, its lightning-quick shifts work wonders to all but eliminate perceptible turbo lag. The transmission does have a sport mode, which works well to keep revs up when driving quickly.
That said, it’s clear the TDI was designed to perform at the pump, not on twisting back roads, as evidenced by the immediate desire of the stock 205/55R16 rubber to relinquish its feeble grip on the asphalt. The brakes make a similar statement when jammed on before a tight corner ("Please stop driving like this"). Despite this, the Jetta TDI is quite fun to drive aggressively, thanks to a well-tuned suspension and good steering.
On the highway, slide the Jetta TDI into sixth gear, and bask in the glory of 41 mpg (30 city) according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Our driving experience suggests this number is overly conservative. Volkswagen states that independent certifier AMCI was able to pull off 38/44 mpg (city/hwy). If you want our guess, it’s somewhere in between. Of note: The dual clutch transmission gets 1 mpg less in both cases, according to the EPA.
Right for You?
If you were considering spending $17,340 on the Jetta 2.5, you’d be remiss not to consider the TDI for an additional $4,650. Plus, you’ll get a $1,300 tax credit, and Volkswagen says the diesel engines will last three times as long. They’re on sale now and definitely worth a look.
James Tate cut his teeth in the business as a race team crew member before moving to the editorial side as Senior Editor of Sport Compact Car, and his work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Automobile, Motor Trendand European Car. When not writing, Tate is usually fantasizing about a vintage Porsche 911.