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The state of California has the toughest vehicle emissions regulations in the world with its LEV II (and the corresponding national Tier 2 Bin 5) standards. Those rules treat all engine types the same regardless of what type of fuel they use. It doesn't matter if the engine runs on gasoline, diesel or cow dung, the rules are the same. Those rules are so tight, that no manufacturer has been able to sell light duty vehicles with diesel engines in California and four other states for the last several years. That's all changing now beginning with last month's retail sales launch of the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI. The Jetta is the first new diesel-powered car to meet the T2B5 rules and it's fitting that VW invited the media out to the birthplace of emissions regulations to drive it. We spent a day driving the Jetta TDI in and around Santa Monica to gauge whether the Jetta has the right balance of Fahrvergnügen and low fuel consumption to make it a viable alternative to cars like the Prius, Civic and Focus. Continue after the jump to find out more.

Those who know me, know that I'm both a car geek and a technology geek. When it comes to all manner of technology or transportation, friends and acquaintances often gravitate toward me for counsel when the time comes to buy. Often the question is what's the best car or computer to buy, and almost invariably my response is my own barrage of questions. You see, I don't believe there is one best car for everyone. It all depends on a combination of needs, desires and resources. Hard as it is for some people to believe, there are a few people for whom a big SUV makes sense. I don't personally know any of those people, but I can definitely imagine who they might be. But we're not here right now to discuss SUVs.

The subject matter today is a more personal and I think sensible kind of transportation. Something in a compact to mid-size car. Not to minimalist, but certainly not a luxury car. This is the kind of car that the average middle class person might use to commute to work, the gym, the grocery store, or out on a date. With gas prices still near their all time highs and credit increasingly tight I've had several people ask me for advice recently on buying a vehicle that won't break the bank either at the showroom or the pump. For nearly a million people in recent years, the answer has turned out to be the Toyota Prius. While friends hear the news that the Prius is the most efficient car available right now, when they come to me, I start with a question. "Do you like to drive?"

"Well do you?" For a great many Americans the answer to that question is a resounding no! There's nothing wrong with that. Most people just want to get in their car and get from one place to another in the shortest possible time with the least amount of stress. They want their drive time to be peaceful and utterly uneventful. For those people there are cars like the Toyota Prius and Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Taurus. Then there are the rest of us. Those who like to get in a car and find a route to their destination that does not minimize the directional changes, or the distance between the origin and terminus. For those of you that are in that group with your humble correspondent, Volkswagen builds the Jetta TDI. The Prius has a great many admirable qualities but "fun to drive" is not among them. For those of you convinced that there is no acceptable alternative to a Prius, you may as well stop reading now, because you just won't care what I think about the Jetta anyway.

Volkswagen's small to mid-size cars have had a reputation for being fun to drive going back to the original Rabbit back in the late 1970s. They've almost always been good handling cars with decent acceleration and reasonably good fuel economy. VW introduced a diesel powered version of the Rabbit in 1976, the first such small car on the U.S. market. The Rabbit grew a trunk in 1979 to become the Jetta and diesel-powered variants have been offered on and off ever since. During the periods when diesel Jettas, Rabbits and Golfs have been available, they have been among the best-selling VWs available. The return of the Jetta TDI has been anticipated by fans of diesels and Volkswagens for well over a year.
The most obvious competitors for the Jetta TDI in terms of size, price and fuel efficiency are the Prius and Civic hybrids. The Jetta lags its Japanese rivals a bit in terms of EPA numbers with the German being rated at 29/40 mpg with the 6-speed DSG transmission and 1 mpg more with a manually-operated clutch. The Prius scores 48/45 with the Civic rating 40/45. When we tested the Civic recently we managed 37 mpg while the Prius got 44 mpg. The new EPA test cycle that was implemented for 2008 is generally believed to underestimate real world mileage by anywhere from 15-20 percent. Following the release of the Jetta's EPA numbers, VW contracted an independent testing company called AMCI to run some real world tests on the Jetta that yielded 38 mpg in the city and 44 on the highway.

Those numbers are closer to the 38-40 or more typically anecdotaly reported by owners of older Jetta diesels. We'll be judging for ourselves when we get to spend an extended period of time with the Jetta. For this preview however, Volkswagen provided a route book in our DSG-equipped Jetta TDI that led us west from Santa Monica through Malibu and into Ventura County along a route that included some cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway and lots of runs up through the twisting canyons that comprise the region.
While Volkswagen has had a somewhat spotty record with the mechanical reliability of some its gas-engined cars over the years, the diesels are generally considered to be almost bulletproof. Similarly the interior build quality and materials of Volkswagens and their more premium siblings from Audi are considered to be among the best in the industry at their respective price points. Even a base Jetta starting at just over $17,000 has a classy look with no unfinished edges and materials that look like they belong in a $30,000 car. The leather-wrapped steering wheel has a pleasantly thick, easy to grip rim perfectly suited to commanding changes in direction. The location of the wheel relative to the driver is also adjustable with respect to angle and reach.

The seats of our test drive example were also wrapped in leatherette (a very convincing synthetic alternative) and had suitably supportive side bolsters that were up to the task of keeping the driver situated in front of the wheel. After three hours in the car, this driver's back side was also well rested. The gauges are clear and easy to read and all TDIs come standard with the trip computer that displays a variety of information in the center of the cluster. As with any proper driver's car, the gauges are also located directly in front of the driver rather than off in the center of the dash.

Visibility is excellent with pillars that aren't as exceptionally thick as they are on so many modern cars. The back seat is also quite roomy for two adults although as with all similarly-sized vehicles a third passenger would need to be on the slim side. The Prius does have a bit more rear leg room, but the Jetta has a particularly commodious and well shaped 16 cu ft trunk. Unlike its chief competitors, the Jetta is also available as a wagon that offers 33 cu ft behind the rear seats and 67 cu ft with the seats down.

On the road, the dual clutch DSG transmission offers completely automatic shifting for those who desire it with the option of manual control without having to operate a clutch. Unlike the other applications of this transmission like the R32, GTI and various Audis, the TDI eschews the steering wheel mounted paddles. So manual shifts require reaching for the lever and tapping forward for an up-shift and back to go down. Either way, shifts are smooth and manual requests are realized quickly. A completely manual three pedal version is also available. Right off the line, the DSG engages the clutch as smoothly as any torque converter automatic and no unruly behavior was apparent.

As with most diesels, drag launches are not the Jetta's forte, but then we don't buy a car with this kind of fuel efficiency to go drag racing, do we? Once underway, the ample 236 lb-ft of torque is easily accessible and provides plenty of grunt for passing or merging onto freeways. When the roads transform from linear to twisty, the Jetta's suspension truly shines. The TDI's 16 inch alloy wheels are wrapped in basic all-season tires, but the suspension makes the most of them. There is mild understeer but an admirable amount of overall grip. The springs and dampers keep the body well under control and rapid transitions from one direction to another never unsettle the Jetta. It just goes where you point it and neither the limited body roll or the direction of the back end of the car ever try to get out of phase with the steering command.

The only slightly note about the handling is the all too common light steering effort just off center. Once you turn in a bit more things tighten up and the Jetta has decent steering feedback. The canyons in the area of Malibu will put any car to the test and Jetta comes away with an excellent grade. VW invited the gathered media to participate in an informal competition to see who could achieve the lowest fuel consumption over the 125 mile route. Since most of the nearly fifty other journalists in attendance were trying to see who could get the best mileage, my driving partner and I decided to see how much driving style affected mileage.
We didn't do any jack rabbit starts or racing for lights, but knowing that VW aims for fun to drive, we decided to see how much driving for fun would cost. As such we made no real attempt during our handling evaluation to maximize fuel efficiency instead focusing on the fun. Nonetheless, even after a couple of stretches totaling about 15 miles of going mostly uphill and squirting from one turn to the next, the mileage according to the trip computer just barely dipped below 27 mpg. By the time we returned to the hotel the overall mileage according to the trip computer was up to over 31 mpg. Upon our return the VW crew refilled all the vehicles and calculated total fuel use. Steve Ewing of Winding Road and I averaged 30.7 mpg. The top driver pair for the day over the same route achieved an astounding 44 mpg!. So far John and Helen Taylor have covered over 5,000 mile of their trek through the lower 48 states and averaged 58.2 mpg in an identical Jetta TDI.

With a starting price tag for the sedan of just $21,990 (minus a $1,300 tax credit) for a well-equipped model and $23,590 for the wagon, this car is a great deal for those who are looking for excellent fuel mileage and a fun to drive car. Even with the current $0.58 / gallon premium for diesel compared to regular gas, you'll still come out well ahead. For those who see the car as nothing more than an appliance but find the Prius unavailable, a Jetta will still serve your needs more than adequately without ever disturbing you. And on the off chance you decide to check out a little Fahrvergnügen, it's right there below your right foot.
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