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Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup

Tim Odell September 28, 2010 Reviews, Road Test Reviews, Volkswagen Reviews 40 Comments

Jetta TDI Cup Front (3)

Despite having reviewed a few vanilla crossovers and V6 wannabe muscle cars, I suspect this may be our most contentious review subject to date.

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.

Jetta TDI Cup Seats (1)Jetta TDI Cup Dashboard (3)Jetta TDI Cup Seats (3)

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.

Jetta TDI Cup Front (2)Jetta TDI Cup Rear (3)Jetta TDI Cup Side

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?

Jetta TDI Cup Logos (2)Jetta TDI Cup Logos (1)

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.

  • Wow. An honest car review that doesn't recommend the vehicle in question, but doesn't flame it either. On the Internet, no less. And this isn't the first time. What in the world is going on at this "Hooniverse," as you call it?

    • Han_Solex

      +1. It's our new schtick. Except you can't tell it's the new schtick when we actually like the car (think Tesla).

    • I think the earth's magnetic core just collapsed.

  • Excellent review! I've been curious about the TDI Cup. A diesel sports (or even sporty) car is an intriguing proposition to me. Fun, yet different. I was hoping VW or Audi would be able to produce something along the lines of my dream considering Audi's success in Le Mans prototypes with the R10 TDI, R15 TDI and the R15+. It seems I may have to keep dreaming.

    • Deartháir

      Smyth Performance, my friend.

  • In 20 years some irreverent car-blog (or whatever they become) will do a piece on an "insane" vintage TDI-cup build, and reference this review in their article.

    At which point I will probably no longer recognize my wife, but I'll certainly still remember this post, mostly for the photos of the seat fabric…

    • That is some fantastic seat fabric. More cars need some plaid, striped, paisley, polka-dotted seat fabric. It'll help liven up the joint.

      • Maymar

        If I ever find myself owning a neo-Challenger, that sucker's getting Mod Topped before it finds my driveway.

    • I'm afraid this review will be dismissed as "unbelievers who didn't get it" by anyone devoted enough to restore one.
      Unless irony and masochism are still in style.

      • I dare say Irony and masochism will be driving factors to said restoration…

  • joshuman

    In 2001 I wanted a new Golf. I wanted the TDI but, after driving it, I was relatively unimpressed. I could have accepted its relative lack of pace because I know those kind people at http://www.tdiclub.com can work magic if I toss enough money at it. However, the more I thought about the extra cost of the fuel and the premium for the engine (over the similarly appointed Golf), the better the GTI looked. Sure, I could save a little money with the TDI but it was almost insignificant over the four-year ownership period. I got the GTI instead.
    I see a similar "that's good, that's bad" thought process working here with the Jetta TDI Cup.

    • AlbinoDigits

      How did the GTI work out for you? The same thoughts have gone through my head, and I would probably get the GTI over the Golf TDI. I like the Suzuki Kizashi quite a bit too. It just needs a turbocharger.

      • joshuman

        It worked well. I only had issue with the ignition coils and the lack of four doors. It was enjoyable to drive and got decent mileage. I declined the option to buy it when the lease was up because it was a real pain to put the infant seat in the back.

  • Baron Von Danger

    Very fair review and the same way I felt about the TDI Cup. Since we only drive the car a coupe times a week, the gas cost savings was not worth the premium cost. That and the added 30hp that the 2.5L gives you really helps push you through the corners better. I like that dash design, definitely would swap out my faux metal for those black bits, but I don't know about the seat pattern. I will have to admit that I would take the Golf 4-door TDI over this though.

    Nice work Tim

  • SSurfer321

    Fantastic write up! On honest review of a quirky diesel "sports" car.

    It's too bad that thing has a face only a mother could love, but I would be willing to pillage those plaid seats to stuff them into every vehicle I own.

  • I guess I should point out what AB's got running today: http://www.autoblog.com/2010/09/28/2011-honda-cr-

  • Gearhead

    That can't be a real TDI Cup car… not nearly enough body damage.

  • Nice write up. I don't quite understand the idea of having sporty versions of slow cars. Then again my SVT Focus only gets about 21 MPG, and I'd give up some sportiness on my normal commute for better mileage.

    On an unrelated note, I drove a new Camaro for the first time last weekend, and you're not kidding about the steering wheel. It just didn't feel right at all. Normally I'm not one to pay attention to finicky details like that on a relatively short test drive, but I noticed it right off the bat.

    • Re: Mileage…it's a weird thing. My WRX gets about 23 on my commute, burning premium. Not hard to beat that in terms of fuel cost, but when you factor in buying something new or whatever, the fuel is a small part of the equation.

      My $5000 Falcon gets about 20mpg on regular, making it roughly equivalent in fuel cost, but much less for everything else (smog, reg, insurance, purchase, depreciation, etc).

      The Camaro blew my mind with how many things about it were in that "really?!, you really though this was ok?" category: wheel, gauges and visibility chief amongst them.

    • facelvega

      Willing to give up a little sportiness for better fuel economy in an SVT focus? Easy: get the 2003-4 PZEV version with the Mazda 2.3. It was just a notch behind the SVT in tests at the time, which is why the sedan version of it was renamed the Focus ST when it replaced the SVT in the 2005 refresh. For my money, I'd stick with the earlier PZEVs: no recognition means no price premium and less likely they were beaten by previous owners, you could get them in hatch and wagon versions (though good luck finding a manual wagon), and I prefer the pre-refresh look.

      • I know, in retrospect I definitely should have gone with the PZEV. Hell, you can buy the SVT suspension package for like $300 and get most of the handling of an SVT.

        FWIW, my neighbor has a PZEV wagon with a stick.

        But alas, it's too late and I plan to keep my car until it dies.

        • facelvega

          Wow, I didn't realize those suspension kits were so cheap. I'll definitely pass this on to my friend with a PZEV ZX3, who was originally going to cave in to his lefty wife and buy a civic hybrid until I talked them out of it by showing that the PZEV actually produced far lower emissions than the civic. Thanks for the tip!

    • Maymar

      As a commuter (about 24,000 miles per year), I hate spending money on gas, but I love pushing the car when I'm not caught in traffic or have the cruise set on an arrow-straight road – this is just about (theoretically) perfect for me.

  • TK

    I did drive the automatic transmission version and liked it quite a bit. Of course, comparing this to what I currently drive, a paid-off 2004 Neon SXT, it is definitely a step up. The most telling to me, though, was your comment, “…ultimately under-performing and overpriced car.”

    Then there was the list of top 10 cars to avoid, and one of VW’s models was in it plus a few comments from other VW model owners that pretty much confirmed they don’t last long enough. Sadly, time to look elsewhere.

    • In my opinion, VW has pulled a GM.

      Which is to say that they earned a reputation for terrible reliability over the last 2 decades, one which turned customers into former customers. The tricky part is, if they all of a sudden fixed all of their problems, we won't really hear about it until 5 years after the fact.

      I'm of the opinion that (when they actually try) GM makes great cars now…but my claims fall on prejudiced ears. Such may be the case with VW.

      • Very true. The same goes for Ford. With the exception of Chrysler, the US auto companies are building some great, reliable cars. Toyota's quality has slipped (even neglecting the much-ballyhood recalls of this past year), and so has Honda's. However, public perception is much harder to change than quality.

        • I think the last 2-3 years have brought even the most casual auto observer around to how well Ford's doing, leaving only the diehard anti-domestic folks grasping at straws to criticize them. Now, if we could only get their media people to appreciate west coast car blogs…

          • Euro Ford are in something of a dilemma. The product is, with a few exceptions, pretty much world class. In terms of build, drive and ability they're seriously close to the German zeitgeist. Problem is, they're still Ford, and have to be sold for Ford prices. It wouldn't matter if they were to leapfrog the competition and become the best brand in the world, they'll still be Ford, and for the daft folk of planet Europe, that ain't enough to abandon the established luxo brands for.

            Do you "go premium" and alienate your heartland customers, or do you do as they have been doing, treat your old regulars to a massively improved product and sell it at less of a profit? I genuinely believe Euro Ford could make their product at least 10% worse and still sell just as many units.

            I feel for them, and to a slightly lesser extent, Opel, who have really upped their game recently.

            On the Jetta, a very fair review. I wonder what effect £1.20 a litre UK fuel costs would have on the verdict?

    • Sure, it's a step up. But at THIRTY GRAND, that last step is a doozy.

  • Good review. I do enjoy the plaid, but for 30k+, I would rather have whale penis. What? 30 grand is a lot of monies!

  • Charles_Barrett

    Umm… She's the CPA in the household… Wouldn't she notice the direction of cash flow towards the garage? 😉

  • @Everyone regarding pricing:
    From what I can tell, you can get the same mechanical bits of the TDI Cup Street minus the body kit starting at $24990. The body kit is $2,350, sunroof is $1000 and spoiler is $500.

    The point being, you can actually get this car for more like $25k than $30k, provided dealers are actually stocking them.

  • K5ING

    Every time I read articles about the VW TDI, they say it's slow. I have to wonder if the testers know about a diesel's power/torque curve and how it differs from a gas engine. Sometimes I see reports on how it has "no power even though I was redlining it". No, no, no! On my 2001 Golf TDI, the peak torque is at 1900 rpm. Anything you feel as quickness is going to happen from there to around 2500 rpm, 3000 tops. That's where you'll feel your power, not at 4000 rpm. You can't drive it like a gasser. Trust me.

    As for the reliability, mine has over 400,000 miles on it and it's still my primary car. Engine, clutch, turbo, wheel bearings, alternator, and just about everything else still untouched from original. It's been plenty reliable, but you have to treat it like a diesel.

    • Compared to your typical $20-30k sedan, this car is just fine. Compared to anything that's supposed to be fast, it's slow.

      The thing is that most people drive around at 1000-3500 rpm, with an actual gas engine output of, let's say 75hp and 100lb-ft of torque. Drive around in that same range in a diesel, and you'll be working with 200lb-ft of torque, which will feel (and be) pretty quick.

      But, when it's time to really get moving, you can wind out a gas motor to a peak HP of more like 170-200 (2.5 and 2.0T, respectively) at or near redline. Combined with gearing, this means more torque at the wheels and more acceleration. When you try to do that with (most) diesels, you get…nothing.

      …which is why you hear what you do in reviews. For 90% of people, 90% of the time, typical diesel torque curves are great. But when you actually get a gas motor out to its peak output (which most people rarely do), there's a stark contrast.

      • I once got a FedEx truck (Freightliner) to do a wicked burnout. Wasn't moving very fast, but… Well ok, I have no point. I really just wanted to brag.

      • FuzzyPlushroom

        My Volvo 240 (B230F with the hateful stock M cam) feels the same way – once it's kicked down out of overdrive, it doesn't matter how much gas you give it, it'll rev a bit higher and do a lot of nothing. I don't actually know what RPM range that is, because there's a clock where a tach's meant to go.

  • tonyola

    While the TDI is not without appeal (I'd pass on the ripoff Cup package, though), I think I'd rather save a few thousand and get a Civic Si sedan. The quality and reliability are without question, the Honda stickshift is terrific, and I'd happily trade some mileage for fun. Besides, I hate plaid seats.

  • cap'n fast

    taking note of the manual transaxle/clutch issue, I went with DSG. marvelous! good bottom end torque and no slime torque converter. much better than rowing along and it shifts much better than I can.
    a well thought out package for 2011 and beyond. and now a hybrid that scoots at 160mph?