Driven: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

By John Beltz Snyder

July 05, 2011

—Ann Arbor, Michigan

At the launch of the new Jetta, we were able to go out and try the gasoline-powered versions. What we found was a car that seemed to fit the bill as far as the marketplace was concerned, but wasn’t quite ready for the enthusiast seal of approval. Still, we managed to have some fun in it, despite some concerns about acceleration.

The 2011 Jetta TDI’s 2.0-liter turbo-diesel engine, though, conjures up only 140 horsepower, but a goodly 236 pound-feet of torque. Equipped, as ours was, with a six-speed manual transmission, it promised a little more fun than the S, SE, and SEL trim levels.

Instantly, we found that the TDI engine required a bit of finesse from the feet to get it off the line smoothly. As one starts to let the clutch out, revs drop heavily, and it needs some tricky right footwork to keep it from stalling. Luckily, it’s simply one of those quirks that one just needs to get used to, and it isn’t a problem after that until you let somebody else get behind the wheel.

Once the muscle memory is dialed in, the diesel Jetta takes off rapidly. It could easily break traction from a stop, but it only does so for a heartbeat before the traction control system takes over and smoothes things out. It accelerates quickly in those low gears, making driving around town a hoot.

Out on the curving back roads, it surpasses “hoot,” and approaches “rootin’ tootin’.” It sweeps through longer curves with gusto, and it transitions very quickly from one direction to the other. When switching from a left-hander to a right-hander, we were shocked at how fast the car shifted its weight once the steering wheel passed the on-center point. It was as though the Jetta were driving along the top of a gentle ridge, and crosses from one side to another of that ridge. The strange part is, the tiller doesn’t really communicate with you, so it’s a visual and seat-of-the-pants sort of surprise when you suddenly switch from driving northeast to northwest. Pretty neat trick, but a little more notice of what’s going on in the form of feedback would be appreciated.

Highway driving is less thrilling, though, due to the lack of horsepower at the high end. 0-60 happens in 8.7 seconds according to Volkswagen, the upper part of that speed taking the longest. When trying to pass at speed, though, the Jetta gave us very little to work with. With our foot on the floor, we watched as the tach needle slowly crept clockwise as we muttered, “Come on, come on.” Looking at the numbers, The 2.5-liter gas engine pushes the Jetta to 60 in 8.2 seconds—a half second faster than the TDI. We picture it this way, were they racing side by side: first, the TDI leaps ahead of the SEL off the line, but the SEL catches up and noses ahead by 60 mph. After that, we imagine it’d be the SEL all the way, with its 170 horsepower being much more effective at those higher speeds.

Then, were it a distance race, we imagine the TDI driver snickering happily as he passes the gas station, with the SEL Jetta stopped for an expensive refuel.

If there’s one thing that really makes the TDI stand out, it’s definitely the fuel economy. It’s rated at 30 miles per gallon in the city, and 42 on the highway. We didn’t have the car long enough to do a proper real-world calculation (we saw mid-30s, typically, for our one-week stint), but if our experience with the 2009 Jetta TDI is any evidence, we imagine there are a lot of people who are enjoying even better fuel mileage. Therein lies the beauty of diesel and direct injection.

VS: Toyota Prius

If you’re cross shopping for high mileage, you’ve come to the right place. The Prius offers 51 miles per gallon in the city and 48 on the highway, for about the same starting price as the Jetta TDI. Don’t expect to have the same sort of fun in the Prius, though; as a driver’s car, the Volkswagen far surpasses the slow, disengaged Toyota.

VS: Mazda6 s Touring Plus

To get into a similarly sized V-6 sedan that is fun to drive, you’ll have to pony up. Mazda’s six-pot 6 starts at $27,080. Also a bit of a bummer is the fact that it can’t be had with a manual transmission, though it does offer a manual shift mode. The 18/27-mpg rating is quite a bit less than the diesel Jetta, but the Mazda6’s 272 horsepower won’t leave you wheezing when you try to pass on the highway. In most other respects, though, you’ll find that the TDI is on par with the Mazda in terms of engaging driving dynamics.

VS: Mid-Sizers In General

We picked the Prius for the frugal comparison, and the Mazda6 for the V-6 option, but the fact of the matter is that the Jetta TDI presents a comparative problem across the board within its competitive set. For the low- to mid-twenties you’ll have to spend for the TDI, you could easily opt for a bigger, V-6-powered sedan, or the standout hybrid in the Prius. Neither is a great direct competitor for the TDI, though, as they either lack the fun of the brawny diesel engine, or the high fuel economy numbers, or the optional manual transmission, or some combination of those factors. See why we like diesels so much?

2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
Engine: Inline-4, 2.0 liters, 16v
Output: 140 hp/236 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 8.7 sec
Weight: 3161 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 30/42 mpg
Price: $22,995
On Sale: Now

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