To some, Volkswagen is synonymous with high quality, affordable driver’s cars that punch above their weight. To others, the brand means overpriced German Corollas that aren’t really fast, and fall apart after 50,000 miles. Similarly, the idea of a diesel performance car is baffling to some, but pure Goldilocks to others.
After a week with the Jetta TDI Cup, we’re still trying to figure it out.
Our Press Car Red tester started at $24,990, then found itself optioned up to $30,013, including $750 destination. That included the $2350 TDI Cup package, along with a $1000 sunroof, $500 spoiler, $225 mat kit and $200 .mp3/iPod hookup. In addition to the bigger front air dam (that scrapes on everything) and silly rocker stickers, the TDI Cup gets you uprated suspension bits and 18″ 40-series tires. The turbocharged 2.0L diesel motor makes 140hp and 236lbs-ft of torque, claiming 30 mpg city and 41 highway.
Like our Tiguan, this Jetta sported VW’s touch screen infotainment, minus nav. It’s obvious VW determined it’d be cheaper to give everyone a touch screen than design a dash that also accommodates a “standard” stereo unit. This is a fine choice, as the touch screen interface is easy to use and nice to look at, while providing a little more information than just a two-line LCD would. The rest of the interior has a high-end feel to it, but relies heavily on black plastic. Some contrasting panels or finishes would help un-dour the place.
In any car with sporting pretensions, the driver interface is critical. The seats, wheel, pedals and shifter can make fast cars feel slow and slow cars feel, well, more fun to drive. The TDI’s hit-and-miss here. The plaid seats are top-notch cloth units that cradle even my scrawny frame. The wheel and shifter are leather-wrapped and great to hold on to (are you listening, Camaro?). Unfortunately, the standard Volkswagen floppy shifter and no-force clutch pedal detract massively from the driving experience. They feel like toys designed for children with some kind of wasting disease. After a week in the Jetta, the amount of force to operate my WRX made it feel like driving a classic TransAm racecar.
Enough bitching, more driving. What’s it feel like to throw 140hp oily horses through six gears? I’ll tell you, but first I have to stall the car twice. Despite having decent mid-range torque, the TDI’s embarrassingly easy to stall off the line. Part of the blame lies with my learning curve, part with the numb clutch pedal, but the point is this is no Cummins. (Finally) getting moving, the power is…adequate, but nothing more. Despite the hearty rumble (clatter?) coming through the firewall, forward progress is never fast enough to put a smile on your face. By no stretch of the imagination is this a fast car.
More accurately, by no stretch of the imagination is this a fast car in a straight line. Hitting the canyons allows the uprated rolling stock and suspension bits to shine. Under the definition of “momentum car” should be a picture of the TDI Cup. Even with the ability to row your own, there’s never much power on tap on corner exits, so the most successful m.o. for negotiating the canyons is to overcook every corner and hang on for dear life. The other trick is to go downhill, which the second half of my favorite road is. With a little help from gravity, the brakes finally get some use. And by “some” I mean enough to get them fading, stinking and smoking much quicker than one would hope. To their credit, once cooled back down, they exhibited no warping or judder of any kind.
Were we to end it there, the we’d be forced to label the Jetta TDI Cup as a competent, but ultimately under-performing and overpriced car. It’s those three letters in the middle that leave the door open for discussion. Specifically, the 38mpg combined mileage they resulted in. Aside from canyon diversions, the Jetta spent most of its time running my 40 miles each way, 80mph commute. The higher speeds and my “progress oriented” driving style typically result in mileage that’s a good 20% off from EPA numbers, so an actual 38 versus the 41 on the sticker is truly impressive. That translates into an equally impressive over-400 mile range. Road trips are likely to be bladder-busting affairs.
Getting 38mpg in a generously sized and appointed compact with a well sorted chassis is ostensibly a great thing. Unfortunately, it’s really only great for the math-impaired. Since the TDI Cup replaces the 2.0T powered Jetta GLI in the VW lineup, let’s compare to the 5-door GTI, which burns premium to the tune of 31mpg highway (which we’ll adjust down to a still-generous 30mpg). Assuming $3.10 for premium and $3.20 for diesel, that gives 10.3¢ and 8.4¢ per mile for the GTI and TDI, respectively. At 20k miles per year, that’s $478 in fuel savings, roughly $40 per month. Is the difference between slow and fast worth $40/month to you?
Assuming some combination of higher mileage, cheaper diesel and subjective factors makes the value proposition work for you, we’re talking about a great little car. The biggest drawbacks (the shifter, clutch and brakes) could be addressed with relatively cheap aftermarket parts, and Banks already makes an exhaust upgrade that’ll get you a notch more power. For the same or less money, you can get a four seater that’s faster or more efficient, but the closest combination of both is probably the Mini Cooper Clubman S, rated at 36/27, 30 combined. And it’s not even a real sedan (though, that may be a plus for some of us).
In this gig, it’s easy to evaluate a car looking at the hardware alone. Were that the case, we could’ve ended two paragraphs ago on a relatively high note. Unfortunately for the genuinely likable Jetta TDI Cup, when we look up from the spec sheet and the driving impressions to think about an actual purchase, it becomes a hard car to recommend. Just because we can’t doesn’t mean we don’t want to.