By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
There is a car — a family-sized sedan (and wagon!) that’s capable of going 600-plus miles on a topped-off tank — more than a Toyota Prius hybrid — and without the complexity (and therefore, additional cost potential) of multiple drivetrains packaged in the same vehicle. It’s also a more enjoyable car to drive — no small thing for most people. And it’s affordable relative to a Prius — only $22,775 to start. That’s about $1,200 less than the base price ($24,000) of Toyota’s big-selling hybrid.
What is this car?
It’s the 2012 VW Jetta TDI.
Of course, there’s a catch. Isn’t there always?
I’ll tell you about that in a minute.
WHAT IT IS
The Jetta TDI is one of a very small handful of diesel-powered passenger cars available in the U.S. And it’s the only one in its class — the bread and butter family-car class — available with a diesel engine.
On the left, there’s the soon-to-be-here 2013 SkyActivD Mazda3 diesel — but it’s a more sport-oriented (and physically smaller) car. On the right… well, there’s nothing, really. You have to move up the price chain to an entry-luxury level ride such as the Audi A3 — which starts at just over $30k.
The Jetta TDI’s most direct challenger as efficient family transpo is probably the Prius hybrid. It’s also family-minded in layout — and touts its high efficiency. But it’s also a very different type of car in several keys respects — functionally and otherwise.
The 2012 TDI Jetta sedan’s base price is $22,775 with the standard-issue six-speed manual transmission. With the optional DSG automated manual, the price is $23,875. A top-of-the-line TDI with the Premium package, the DSG transmission and GPS navigation lists for $26,445.
A Sportwagen version of the TDI-equipped Jetta is also available. It starts at $25,540.
Since the Jetta was all-new last year, the ’12 is mostly a carryover. But there are some new features, including a high-end Fender audio system. My test car had this — and it’s top drawer.
Near hybrid-equivalent fuel efficiency — without the hybrid’s cost, complexity or compromises.
Powerful off-the-line acceleration due to diesel engine’s tremendous torque output.
Probably good for 300k — or more — with decent treatment.
Meets emissions (NOx) standards without needing a urea tank — and monthly (or weekly) urea top-offs.
Just a really nice car, overall.
Sedan — and wagon — bodystyles available.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Diesel fuel’s price per gallon undercuts the efficiency of diesel engine’s operation.
Optional DSG transmission’s not the smoothest thing going.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Jetta TDI’s diesel engine displaces 2.0 liters (same as the Jetta’s standard gas engine) but makes 140 hp (vs. the 2.0 gas engine’s 115 hp) and 236 lbs.-ft of torque at 1,750 RPM (vs. the gas engine’s 125 lb.-ft at 4,000 RPM).
That torque figure is particularly impressive — it’s more than twice the torque output of the gas 2.0 engine and at one-fourth the engine speed. Even the Jetta’s optional 2.5 liter gas engine doesn’t come close to matching the TDI’s low-down brawn. It makes just 177 lbs.-ft of torque — and 177 hp.
Performance — as you might expect given the numbers — is very good. The TDI powered Jetta easily beats the 2.0 gas-engined in the race to 60 MPH: about 8.5-8.6 seconds vs. mid-high nines. It’s a closer race against the Jetta with the step-up 2.5 liter engine, but so close (0-60 in about 8.4 seconds) that it comes down to who’s the better shoe — which driver has the quicker reaction times, which driver shifts better. It’s not a difference that’s noticeable — without a stopwatch.
But neither of the Jetta’s gas engines can hang with the diesel mill when it comes to fuel economy. The base 2.0 engine registers a best-case 24 city, 34 highway with the five-speed manual transmission. The step-up 2.5 liter maxxes out 23 city, 33 highway. These are decent numbers — for gas burners.
But check the TDI’s numbers: 30 city — and 42 highway.
The TDI’s city numbers almost match the gas-burner’s highway numbers. And the TDI’s highway numbers crush the gas-burners’ highway numbers by nearly 10 MPG.
The only thing that does better is a hybrid — like the Toyota Prius, which rates 51 city and 48 highway. But to do a fair cross-shop you have to factor in the Toyota’s $1,200 higher base price, as well as its probably shorter useful service life and (related) higher lifetime service/repair costs.
Diesel engines are built rugged — they have to be rugged, in order to survive the internal stresses of compression ratios that can be twice or three times those a gas engine endures. Diesel fuel also has the advantage of providing a lubrication benefit to internal parts that gasoline doesn’t. The result is that — typically — a diesel engine can go for several hundred thousand miles before major work is necessary. While hybrids like the Prius have proved to be more durable than many critics (me among them) expected, it’s an engineering fact that, over time, battery performance — the ability to accept and hold a charge — inevitably declines. Fifteen or twenty years out, a diesel powered car like the Jetta TDI is a more likely survivor than a hybrid like the Prius. More on this below.
You can pair the Jetta’s TDI engine with either a six-speed manual transmission or — optionally — VW’s Direct Shift (DSG) gearbox, an automated manual designed to match the efficiency of a driver-controlled manual transmission with the ease of use of a conventional automatic. And, it does. The TDI’s mileage ratings are the same with either transmission.
All versions of the 2012 Jetta are FWD.
ON THE ROAD
I loved driving this car for a week — and in particular, loved that I did not have to top off the tank even once during that week. This never happens — not even when I have a hybrid to drive.
The TDI Jetta has a 600-plus mile range on a full tank, which is easily 100 miles more range than the gas-burner Jetta and — here’s the big one — more range than the Prius hybrid. Because the Prius has a smaller (11.8 gallon vs. 14.5 gallon) gas tank. It’ll go about 570 miles — close, but no cigar. And in real-world driving — in particular, real-world highway driving — the diesel Jetta’s MPGs match or even beat what the Prius delivers.
Remember: hybrids are optimized for low-speed, city-type driving — the old stop n’ go and bump n’ grind. In such situations, the hybrid can shut off its gas engine entirely and rely exclusively — or mostly — on the electric side of its powertrain, thereby not burning much, if any gasoline. But to keep up with highway traffic running 75 MPH or faster — as is routine nowadays — the hybrid has to work its gas engine pretty hard. But this is the diesel’s home field advantage. The TDI burbles along at a fast idle — around 2,200 RPM — at 75 MPH. This RPM range coincides with the TDI engine’s torque peak, so the engine doesn’t need to work very hard to maintain fairly high road speeds — the exact opposite of the hybrid. If you do a lot of highway driving, a car like the Jetta TDI will probably suit you more than a hybrid like the Prius.
But, efficiency isn’t everything.
Another area where the Jetta TDI shines is performance. With all that torque available right now — no need to wind the engine up like you would a gas-burner — the car literally lunges forward with minimal pedal pressure. Floor it off the line and the front tires will leave their vulcanized DNA all over the road. The Prius — which needs about 10 seconds to get to 60 — is a dog in comparison.
Part-throttle response is especially satisfying — again, courtesy of all that torque (comparable to the output of large gasoline-powered V-6 or even a small V-8) that’s almost always right there, just waiting to be tasked with the job of passing a slow-moving clover.
And noise? There is no noise. Well, no noticeable diesel noise. In fact, the TDI I just tested was quieter than the gas-engined (and direct injected) BMW I had the week before. The gas direct-injected BMW “dieseled” (tatatatata at idle) more noticeably than the diesel VW!
Absolutely no smoke — or smell — either.
Functionally — and aesthetically — the Jetta’s diesel engine has no downsides.
My only quibble with the Jetta TDI’s drivetrain centers on the optional DSG transmission. It’s not as smooth as a conventional automatic, especially during deceleration. As you come to a stop, there’s often a noticeable engine braking effect as the transmission gears down. It’s much more like a manual transmission (which it is, only the computers work the clutch) than a conventional (fluid-drive) automatic, which typically “coasts” as you decelerate to a stop.
This is subjective, of course.
How the DSG feels to you is what matters. Try both out and see for yourself. Objectively, I’d choose the standard six-speed manual to keep the Jetta’s buy-in price as favorable as possible — and also because the six-speed manual will probably be less likely to hit you with costs down the line. Or to be more precise, its repair/maintenance costs will probably be less than the costs of dealing with a deader DSG — which is an elaborate (and so, expensive) piece of equipment.
There’s also handling/driving feel to consider — relative to something like the Prius. Night and day difference. The Jetta’s sporty — and engaging. The Prius is neither. In the VW, you’ve got European car steering precision, a firm but not harshly set suspension — and the ability to run fast and feel good doing it. The Prius — with its electric toggle shifter and electric power steering — has the feel of a golf cart. A very nice golf cart — but still, a golf cart. It’s a transportation appliance. It gets you from A to B quietly and efficiently.
The Jetta TDI helps you enjoy getting from A to B.
AT THE CURB
The TDI Jetta looks exactly like the standard gas-burner Jetta. Only the “TDI” badge on the trunk lid gives away the difference. Last year’s major redesign bestowed numerous subtle but important changes to the exterior — including redesigned (narrower and flatter) headlights. But overall, the car retains the VW trademark ambiance of higher-end but not flashy that has long been a big part of the brand’s appeal.
Neat little detail touches include the hand slot for the hood release, just above the VW crest in the grille. It lets you find the catch — and open the hood — without having to get on your knees and fumble around looking for it. The interior is direct — and to the point. Obvious everything. No learning curve. There are your gauges; here are your controls. Get in — and go.
The optional GPS system could use a larger screen — that’s the only complaint I have. Well, there is one other thing: I’m not a big fan of the push-button ignition thing. Sure, it’s neat. But the electronic keys cost a fortune — and you will inevitably lose them or break them or they will just wear out. I personally would prefer a simple mechanical key — one I could get replaced for about $5 down at Lowes or Home Depot.
Though not quite technically a mid-sized car, the Jetta is larger than a typical (official) compact-sized car, so it has an occupant friendly interior — the back seats in particular. The VW has two inches more backseat legroom than the also almost-mid-sized Toyota Prius hybrid — 38.1 inches vs. 36 inches. Both cars are roomy. But the VW’s roomier. At least, in the back. In addition to having more physical space, the Jetta makes better use of the available space by giving you very wide-opening doors. At full extension, they are almost at 90 degree angles relative to the car. That makes getting in — and out — easier.
And makes the car just feel bigger than it is.
Up front, it’s closer — but closer to being a draw. The Jetta’s got 41.2 inches of front seat legroom and the Prius has 42.5 inches.
The Prius is the clear winner in two respects: headroom (courtesy of its taller roofline) and overall cargo space — where it crushes the Jetta sedan. You get 1.6 inches more headroom up front in the Toyota (38.6 inches vs. 37 inches for the TDI) and a humungous 39.6 cubic feet of cargo space (second row folded) vs. a 15.5 cubic foot trunk in the VW.
But, the Sportwagen TDI crushes back — with 66.9 cubic feet of cargo capacity.
I haven’t yet gotten my hands on the 2013 Mazda3 Sky-D but physically, in terms of the car itself, the diesel-powered version of the Mazda3 is identical to the gas-burner version, which I have tested. And it’s a ‘smaller on the outside’ car than the Jetta: 177.4 inches long vs. 182.2 for the VW. Not surprisingly, the smaller 3 also has a smaller back seat area (36.2 inches of legroom) and a smaller (11.8 cube) trunk.
If you were to select the hatchback version of the Mazda3, you could buy yourself more cargo capacity (42.8 cubes). But that’s still a lot less space than the Jetta Sportwagen offers.
Still, it’ll be interesting to find out how well the SkyD version of the Mazda3 is as far as fuel economy — and performance.
There’s just one hair in the soup — the price of diesel fuel.
At the time of this review in early July 2012, diesel was selling in my area for about $3.69 per gallon vs. 2.99 for regular unleaded. That (roughly) 70 cents per gallon difference cuts hard into the Jetta’s overall cost-to-drive relative to both gas-burners and hybrids like the Prius.
Filling up the Jetta’s appx. 14 gallon tank with diesel costs (as I write this) about $51. The same fill-up with regular unleaded costs about $41 — so a difference of about $10 per tank at current prices. When you work the numbers, you find out that the diesel still gets you farther for less money — but it’s not a huge advantage.
Meanwhile, the gas-burning Jetta starts at $15,515 — a difference of $7,260 up front.
Now, you could probably work this off in down-the-road fuel savings, especially if gas prices go up again (as they probably will) and if “down the road” means 12-15 years of driving at 12,000 or so miles annually. The TDI is a lot like a hybrid in that you need to drive the thing — often — to make the math really work for you. Diesel drivers are hip to this. They tend to be the kind of people who put 20 years on their cars — or even more — before thinking about changing up. In that case, the TDI will more than pay for itself — probably much more so than a hybrid, too — because at some point you’ll be faced with a dead (or dying) hybrid battery pack and a bill of possibly several thousand bucks to replace it with a fresh one. And if you don’t replace it, your hybrid’s efficiency will plummet. No such worries with a diesel.
One last thing: The TDI Jetta does not have a urea tank that must be topped off periodically in order to keep the car emissions compliant. This is a big advantage — because having to deal with urea (which is a nice way of saying animal pee) is a major turnoff for most people — me included.
There are no additional/unusual hassles — or oddities — to deal with when you buy a TDI. Just hop in — and go.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you’re a long-hauler, this is a car you’ll appreciate. It’s one of the very few new cars that can be considered an investment.
Or at least, not a money pit.