Diesel has found new life in North America

December 15, 2008|By MALCOLM GUNN / Wheelbase Communications

The affordable diesel passenger car is back, but in some ways - good ways - you would never know it.

The 2009 Jetta TDI has the low-speed power of diesel, but with nearly the same driving refinement of a gasoline engine. Really, the only way you'll know this is a diesel is by the "TDI" badge.

This new "clean diesel" wears the same logo as the previous version that disappeared last year, but it boasts a host of new features that put it in a very unique position as the only mainstream diesel family car.

Luxury brands Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi are also entering the diesel market with their own low-emission models, but VW offers similar technology at a considerably lower price.


The diesel's appeal is that it operates 20-25 percent more efficiently than its gasoline counterpart. They're found on everything from long-haul big rigs to bulldozers because they crank out gobs of torque, which is the twisting force that turns the wheels.

However, diesel passenger vehicles have not exactly been welcomed with open arms in North America despite being the standard in Europe. The general perception is one of noise, odor and smoke and that was certainly the case until German car companies applied their engineering talents to a new generation of diesels that arrived earlier in the decade. However, even they couldn't meet tough new emissions standards and were withdrawn from the market. The problem wasn't the engine, but the high sulphur content in the diesel fuel that fouled the electronic control sensors, rendering them useless and preventing further development.

When European regulations forced refineries to reduce sulphur content by 97 percent, the diesel outlook brightened. Automakers such as Volkswagen devised systems that removed other pollutants and the "clean diesel" was born. These new powerplants, which now meet the most stringent emission standards on the planet, use turbochargers and high-pressure direct injection for more precise fuel metering, cleaner combustion and less noise. The compression-ignition aspect of diesels, whereby they squeeze the fuel-air mixture to the point where it self-ignites (as opposed to ignition-causing spark plugs in gasoline engines) makes them noisy. However, the multiple injection process combined with plenty of strategically applied sound deadening makes the new TDI one of the quietest diesels on the market.

The TDI produces 140 horsepower from its 2.0-liter powerplant but, more importantly, generates 235 pound-feet of torque at only 1,700 rpm. The power is right there with no waiting for the revs to climb. Acceleration from rest is positively entertaining and would result in wasted wheel spin if it weren't for intervention by the electronic traction system.

The rest of the 2009 Jetta lineup is little changed from last year when it was all new. To these eyes this is one of the classier small cars around. The interior features rich materials and exceptional fit and finish that creates an impression of luxury. Thanks to an eight-way adjustable seat and adjustable steering wheel, drivers of all shapes and sizes can get comfy.

The rear seat is similarly accommodating and the trunk is cavernous for a compact vehicle. If you need more room, the 60/40 split/folding rear seat also has a pass-through for longer items. Higher trim levels come with a multifunction trip computer that informs you of your direction of travel, audio source and current or trip average fuel consumption. It also warns when you exceed a pre-selected speed, something that's all too easy to do in the TDI.

During this test drive, it was a pleasant surprise to attain an average of 50 mpg during a 550-mile mixture of city and rural driving, all without adjusting my driving style which is admittedly not conducive to saving fuel. Fortunately, the TDI makes up for my shortcomings, all the while looking smart without breaking the bank.

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