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DAN NEIL RUMBLE SEAT

No fun, no lust -- perfect for this era

September 26, 2008|DAN NEIL
(Volkswagen )

I find the 2009 VW Jetta TDI's lack of exceptionalism exceptional. This car is ordinary, routine, a mean of averages, a flat line on life's electroencephalogram. It is non-provocative right down to its brake shoes. Find the most common of gardens, and the Jetta is that garden's variety.

And that's amazing.

This unassuming car returns better than 40 miles per gallon on the highway. It requires no special care or handling to achieve this efficiency. You don't have to top off some reservoir with strange blue fluid, monitor your electron-flow rate as you do in a Toyota Prius or Honda Civic hybrid (not that that is a big burden), or conjure the pagan gods of natural gas, or plug in. You turn the key and go.

The Jetta TDI was the first European-made diesel car certified in all 50 states, passing even California's super-strict emissions standards. It went on sale in August. Powered by a hyper-clean 2.0-liter direct-injection turbo-diesel, the Jetta doesn't require exotic post-combustion exhaust treatments as do vehicles with larger engines (such as Mercedes-Benzes, Audis and BMWs). The offending NOx molecules in the Jetta's exhaust are trapped in a special catalyst and burned as engine conditions allow. There is a very slight diesel clatter from the engine bay, but no smoke or smell. In almost every respect, the diesel system is transparent to the driver.

The benefit of the oil-burning power plant lies in its 30% to 40% greater fuel efficiency than a gasoline engine. Also, diesel engines splurge on torque. The TDI churns out 236 pound-feet at a low 1,750 rpm.

You would think that all that torque, combined with VW's super-smart DSG gearbox, would make for some lively performance in such a small car. It might, but the engine and transmission programming has been calibrated for maximum economy. Most of the time the Jetta TDI feels not lazy, exactly, but sleepy.

The gearbox short-shifts well below the 4,500 rpm redline and jumps into overdrive at every opportunity. You have to use the manual shift mode and De Sade-like cruelty to get the car to go hard. And frankly, it's not much fun to whip the hide off a small diesel. So I just kept it in Auto mode and chuffed about town. This car is a manifesto of moderation.

In some ways, I see this as the perfect ride for an era when all the fun and lust have been sucked out of car ownership. In increasing numbers, my e-mail is filled with notes from people searching for a serviceable, modest, logic-based transportation system with no discernible sex appeal or bid to pretension.

The Jetta TDI is comfortable, and it has adequate creature comforts, including a respectable stereo, optional moon roof and leather upholstery. But it's virtually anti-prestige. Yes, it's very green, but insofar as it is an alternative to the Prius, it has no political baggage. It's, um, presentable, but has the erotic appeal of a chilly bedpan.

Its incandescent qualities are cheapness and thrift. The TDI sedan starts at $21,990, while the Sportwagon model begins at $23,590. Both models are eligible for the federal government's $1,300 tax credit for clean diesels (finally, the feds do something right). As for fuel economy, the Jetta TDI with the manual transmission gets 29 mpg city, 41 mpg highway; the automatic-manual gearbox (DSG) gets 29/40 mpg.

That's according to the Environmental Protection Agency. VW thought the government's mileage-test methodology low-balled the Jetta TDI's fuel economy, so VW hired AMCI, an independent lab, to test the car. The results were 38/44 mpg, city/highway. At the car's media event in Santa Monica last week, VW presented cross-country hyper-milers John and Helen Taylor, who said they are averaging 58.2 mpg in their Jetta TDI.

This resorting to independent testing, and the parsimonious example of the Taylors, raises an interesting point about diesel enthusiasts: They are number-crunching penny-pinchers.

Dieselers are always trying to cipher the true cost-per-mile arithmetic versus other cars, particularly the Toyota Prius (which gets 48/45 mpg). Their case has been complicated by the rising cost of diesel, now about 20 to 40 cents pricier per gallon than regular gasoline nationally.

I'll give it a go: Assume an average fuel economy of 35 mpg for the Jetta TDI and 45 mpg for the Prius. Assume 15,000 miles of driving per year. That's 428.5 gallons per year for the VW and 333.3 gallons for the Prius. At California prices as of this week, that pencils out to $1,675.43 for the VW and $1,255.41 for the Prius, a difference of more than $420. Advantage Toyota.

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