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STILL STOKED ON DIESEL

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Sun, May 10, 2009

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

STILL STOKED ON DIESEL Words and pictures by Doug Stokes

This is a sort of a "second time around" review of this particular car, but one that was very much looked forward to by yours truly. In fact, when our esteemed (sometimes he's just steamed) maximum leader The Publisher asked it I'd like to do a full week in the left seat of this new era Volksie, I nearly jumped through the telephone to take him up on the deal! We had earlier driven the Jetta in a day-long, demo-drive put on by our friends at Volkswagen USA. It was an idyllic day in the Santa Monica Mountains, and along Coast Highway. Right out of the TV commercials, about 80 miles of great views and good food (not to mention the good company). A week in a car is a whole different thing, and that's why most of the reviews you see on this site are written after at least that long in a machine (just like this one).

The thing is (and this 'graph doubles as disclosure as well as story-justifying) I "daylight" as a mild-mannered PR flack ("Corporate Publicist") for a great metropolitan automotive aftermarket manufacturer named Gale Banks Engineering. The dieselheads among us will now have the picture, and for the rest of us, Banks is the pre-eminent innovator, designer, and manufacturer of all things that make modern diesel engines run better, stronger, faster, and cleaner (i.e., more efficiently). In North America that means that virtually all of the extensive inventory of Banks bits and kits are for use on light trucks, SUVs, and motorhomes, but this little super sedan and a couple of others have got the company's attention. Not being all that much of a truck guy, the opportunity to be nicely seated behind a modern compression-ignition engine in a mid-compact sedan for a week, combined with my professional interest in all things clean diesel, was sweet. Here, then, is how it went, in my own words: Wait just a minute here, what's this? A six-speed manual? Hey, I'm not Alan McNish! Of course the fun of out-pulling many startled drivers of far higher (supposed) zoot machines in the 40-70 mph range turns out to be well worth getting my left leg called back into duty by a clutch pedal.

Gale Banks has actually copywrited the phrase "guilt-free performance" to explain how much fun one can have with a diesel engine that sips fuel and stomps hills flat. Volkswagen calls it "good clean diesel fun." Both statements speak volumes about the experience. The onus of that disheveled, pipe-smoking, elbow-patched, horn-rimmed, leftwing-but-lighthearted, extra-cool-in-a-square-way, college professor driving his smoking (that SOB just smoldered like a pile of leaves on a back street in Philly) diesel is no more boys and girls. School is out on smoke, soot, smells, gnarly little lead shot-in-a-tin-can sounds, and all the other tell-tale marks of the "D" ... pry the TDI logo off the trunk lid of this one and no one would ever know! In fact, as I filled the car up before returning it, a young fellow and his small son walked by this Laser Blue Metallic machine, the dad looked at me with just a hint of incredulity and said: "Diesel?" "Yup" was eloquent answer ... "Whoa, cool!" was the response. Our younger selves seem quite ready to accept the premise that diesel does not mean "dirty". Before returning the machine, I refueled it to check my mileage and purposely shook a drop or two of fuel onto my fingers ... oilier than gasoline, but almost no smell (don't mention "flavor" here Stokes, they won't understand). I rubbed my fingers together and the stuff was gone. No smell, nothing. "Clean Fuel?" Now I had myself saying "whoa"! I always tell myself not to get anthropomorphic at times like this, but this car was already a friend by the first turn out of the parking lot. There was something about this machine that simply felt right, right out of the box and it got better from there. This is a totally competent interior, good seats (the supportive German kind that feel 'too hard' for about a minute and a half and have worked so good at the first rest - room - stop four and half hours up the interstate), easy-to-comprehend instruments, and intuitive controls. On most review drives I try NOT to consult the owner's manual first, preferring to check out how understandable a car's operating system is by touch and feel. This one is sophisticated simplicity. There have been other times when I've been almost driven to distraction ... A Saab many years ago with the strange floor-mounted ignition switch and a serious need to lock the car up and bolt for a restroom, comes painfully to mind.

But you're not here for war stories. Let's talk a bit about what makes this one different. You know, the "D" in "TDI", Diesel*. Diesel, once a bad word, under the care and feeding of the Volkswagen people has become a torquey magic carpet ride that puts fun back under your foot with and range in your repertoire. On the looks side, the old "as does" adage applies full time here. This is a subdued but sporty look that belies the strongly sporty character of this one's handling (high marks) and mid-range grunt (nothing short of life-changing). And lane-changing as well. Push that right pedal (do not call it the gas pedal please) and feel the wonderful surge of big time TURBO DIESEL torque. Here's where 140 horsepower are substantially upstaged by 230 pounds-feet of lovely, inexorable TORQUE. At any speed, in any gear (we had 6 of them in this machine) a smartly-applied throttle pedal at an RPM over 1,800 and this Volkswagen attempts to vanish into the distance. Even with putting on constant such "vanishing acts" for a wide variety of other car owners, we still saw over 30 MPG on our week with almost no long drives. Fuel was $2.19 per gallon in Bellflower. Also known as "ultra low sulfur-clean diesel, the Diesel 2 is widely available in the LA Car heartland and (as mentioned earlier) far less smelly than gasoline. The Jetta we drove had everything (including satellite radio). The only option (a $1000 one) that this car had was a power sunroof that worked scrumptiously and was well worth the whatever (30 cents a day?) that it adds to the price tally. Which, by the way, was $24,169.00 at your door. Because this car is so clean (emissions, not styling), and because your Uncle Sugar really likes it that way, he's going to give you a nice $1,300.00 tax credit which turns out to be about a year's worth of fuel for the average sojourner aboard one of these machines. There's some pretty sophisticated tech behind this clean diesel, and some pretty attractive reasons out in front.

So what's not to like? Well, I think that I'd seriously consider giving up a few inches of the Jetta's Carlsbad Caverns-size trunk for a bit more entry knee room driver's side up front. I'm none to supple (Yeah, I hear everyone changing that to: "subtle") and, in contrast to how easy everything was to put hand (and foot) to AFTER slipping into the pilot's seat, it took me a bit of knee-banging to do it. Maybe I'm not ergonomic, but I'm at least 1/3 German, 5' 10", 200 pounds and should fit better on first climbing in. However, once underway my, comfort level gauge went to excellent and stayed there for (you'll pardon the term) the duration. One more point, we talked horsepower without talking the ability to control all that latent speed but, fear not, because this machine has a set of very substantial four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes which snub off speed as if the road was suddenly a 60 percent grade. Three years, 36,000 miles is the warranty, and there's a 24-hour roadside assistance package that that's included in the 24 one sixty-nine above. For those that are thinking about wrecking, all the Fed's crash ratings are 4 stars or above (but keep out of the weeds anyway please, we need ever reader we can get). Our fun-with-clothes-on meter was pretty much pegged with this guy. Mostly for the fact that it is the most UN-diesel diesel you'll drive lately and the most sportiest (I know, I know) of sports sedans when gently urged. Don't think diesel when you buy it and only fill up every other week (or so) and you'll have the new attitude on the breed. CLEAN FUN ON THE RUN! *Editor's note: Nevermind that TDI actually stands for Turbocharged Direct Injection. VW calls its diesels "TDIs", and disregard the fact that VW's GTI is powered by a non-diesel, turbocharged, direct injection engine. Remember, this is the company that calls its crossover SUV the "Tiguan" (a cross between a tiger and an iguana, of course), and its minivan a "Routan", an amalgamation of route and...nevermind. For Doug's first take on the new Jetta TDI (and the vehicle specs), click here.

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