Review: 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Highline



By Kevin Harrison

There are a lot of things about North Americans that I really don’t get. For instance why do we like Walmart enough that it has to be open 24 hours? Have you ever bolted up at 4 am wanting to buy a new set of silverware?

Likewise, why are we so opposed to diesels? For some reason we’ve asphyxiated them with a bad reputation, and as a result, North Americans have not responded well to them.

This attitude is in complete contrast to Europe where selling a car without a diesel option is like ordering a hamburger at a Chinese restaurant – it just doesn’t make sense.

VW has been trying for decades to make diesels more mainstream in our market but they hit a bit of a snag in 2007 when stricter emission standards forced them to axe their diesel and revamp it. During that period TDI’s were missing in action in our market.

But they’re back for 2009, and VW promises them to be even more powerful yet more efficient than before.

DSC03257The 2.0 litre TDI now produces 140 horsepower and 235 pound foot torque (compared to the old unit’s 100 hp and 177 lb. torque). The torque is generously available at low revs, which makes the Jetta TDI pretty fun to drive, but BMW’s offering is still the most fun I’ve ever had in a diesel. Still, the TDI can definitely hold its own. My only gripe is quite a bit of lag when you first take off, and you really don’t notice the torque until the automatic switches to second gear. My car was equipped with a six-speed automatic DSG. It’s easily one of the smoothest automatics around and shifts in manual mode are quite precise. It is, however, a bit inconsistent. There were a couple of days where it just didn’t seem to shift as quickly as before, but then on the last day I had the car, it went back to those crisp shifts again. I’m not sure what may have caused this.

Handling is as good as expected. There is little body roll and the Jetta feels very stable in corners. VW’s electric stability control system really just lets you have fun, and only interferes if you start driving like a huge jack-ass. Feedback from the steering is decent and the suspension has just the right amount of stiffness for fun driving every once and a while. But be prepared to watch fuel economy numbers drop if you do this. The Energuide’s rating for the Jetta TDI is 6.8 City and 4.9 highway. I was able to average 5.8 combined driving with frugal driving techniques and a not-so-stellar 8.2 L/100 kms when I was driving it like I stole it. It’s just really hard to not take advantage of this torquey engine, especially on on-ramps. Once it’s on the highway, it struggles a bit to pass slower vehicles, but it’s quite comfortable otherwise.

The brakes however, feel like you’re pushing your foot into a bowl of marshmallows. They just aren’t good, but to be fair, you could attribute this to all the other auto journos driving it hard. The Jetta’s computer warned me that it needed to be serviced. A brake pad replacement was definitely in order.

The engine is fairly tame in terms of sound, for a diesel. When you first start it up, you do notice the famous diesel clatter, as well as when you go up inclines at lower speeds (my driveway for instance), but other than that, it’s very easy to forget you’re driving a diesel. On top of that, VW claims their new diesel emits fewer nitrogen oxide as well as less particulate matter compared to the previous model. It really is a clean diesel, as they say.

DSC03259Outside, the Jetta could use a bit of work. My tester was the top of the line Highline model, but other than rather boring looking alloys, you can’t really tell it apart from other Jettas. And someone needs to tell VW (and pretty much every domestic manufacturer) that chrome is about as cool as fanny packs. The huge chrome bar underneath the grille is super distracting from the otherwise attractive design. It’s like a huge mole on someone’s face; you can’t not look at it. It’s also blinding when the sun hits it. All that said, it’s not an offensive design, and I was a big fan when this generation Jetta came out, but it definitely needs a refresh.

Inside fit and finish is best in class. Materials are rich-feeling and everything is nicely laid out. The seats are comfortable, there’s adequate room in the back and the seats easily fold flat. The Jetta in general costs more than a Corolla or Civic, but you are getting what you pay for for the interior. The famous VW flip key is a neat idea, but if you’ve got borderline ADD like I do, then you won’t be able to stop playing with it. I unintentionally was able to irritate the dickens out of at least four people by the constant clicking sound. It’s not a good socializing tool.

I’ve driven lots of fuel efficient cars before, but the Jetta is quite high up there on the ever-hard-to-achieve “performance yet efficiency” list. In terms of diesels, it’s only outdone by BMW, but at least VW offers a manual gearbox with theirs, something BMW doesn’t. VW also offers the TDI in their very attractive Sportwagen, as well as the Touareg..

If fuel efficiency is your main concern, a Prius would likely be the better option. However if you want great German engineering with great performance and the added benefit of fuel efficiency, then the Jetta TDI is the cheapest option available in our market and definitely worth a look.

Summary: The second best diesel around, for the best price around.

Base Price: $24,275

As tested Price: $32,985

Exterior Design: 6.5/10 Starting to get old, chrome needs to go

Interior Design: 9/10 The competition just can’t compete

Engine: 8/10 Watch the lag, otherwise enjoy the torquiness in all its glory

Transmission: 7.5/10 Buttery smooth shifts, but a bit inconsistent

Audio/Visual: 5/10 Nothing special

Value: 7/10 The base Trendline model offers the best value, higher trim levels pack on the dollars

Overall: 7.5/10

Special thanks to Mike Velemirovich of Hillcrest Volkswagen