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Mikey likes it!

For those alternative-fuel-conscious, carbon-conscientious driving enthusiasts among us, the big news from Volkswagen is electric, mainly because it has introduced a car that isn't.

The 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Clean Diesel (yep, that's its official name) is the first diesel-powered new car to be certified for sale across the entire U.S. — including California and the four states that piggyback their emissions regulations on the Golden State since they all turned up their tailpipe-sniffing noses at everyone else in 2006.

So it was probably no mere coincidence that Volkswagen chose Santa Monica, California, as the site for the introduction of the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI. And as we later tested the Jetta TDI near our Santa Monica office by driving the Pacific Coast Highway and the canyon roads of Malibu, we were happy to flaunt this turbodiesel's new clean-and-green status in the backyard of so many Prius-driving members of the celebrity set.

Green Think
By being green, VW stands to make some green. Over the last 32 years, Volkswagen has sold more than 850,000 diesels in the U.S., building a devoted customer base. The Jetta is VW's volume sales leader in the U.S., consistently averaging annual sales of 100,000. In 2006, the last time a Jetta TDI model was sold in the U.S., the diesel accounted for 20 percent of the compact sedan's sales. VW even says a used '06 Jetta TDI now sells for more than its original sticker, and we've also noticed a change in the value of our own long-term 2005 VW Jetta GLS TDI.

The front-wheel-drive 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI comes in both sedan ($21,990) and SportWagen ($23,590) versions with a standard six-speed manual transmission or an optional ($1,100) six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with Sport mode.

VW considers the TDI to be a unique Jetta trim level and includes amenities such as a 10-speaker audio system with an in-dash six-CD changer and an MP3-readable auxiliary jack, Sirius Satellite Radio and things like a leather-wrapped steering wheel, brake handle and shift knob, not to mention standard stability control and three years free routine maintenance. In short, the Jetta TDI Clean Diesel is no bare-bones, high-mpg econobox aimed at those of the hypermiler persuasion.

In addition to the dual-clutch automatic transmission, our Jetta TDI also featured a power sunroof ($1,000) and rear side airbags ($350).

Not for Overtly Pious Greenies
Unlike other green machines, the Jetta TDI's nicely appointed interior trappings offer no clues about its green status, and only a discreet chrome TDI badge on the rear of the trunk lid lets you know that there's something other than a gasoline engine under the hood.

And that something is a turbocharged, 16-valve DOHC 2.0-liter inline-4 with a common-rail direct fuel injection for diesel fuel. It puts out 140 horsepower when twisted to 4,000 rpm, but you're probably more excited about the 263 pound-feet of torque it makes available from 1,750-2,500 rpm, enough to deliver a surge of acceleration that you wouldn't ordinarily associate with a diesel.

The engine's effortless yet clean performance is the result of the common-rail direct injection delivering a supply of ultralow-sulfur diesel fuel into the combustion chambers through high-pressure Piezo injectors. The current blend of diesel has 97 percent less sulfur than other forms of diesel, which accounts for the reduction in both emissions you can smell and those that only the EPA's sniffers can detect.

Farther downstream in this diesel setup, the exhaust system collects and filters particulates, oxidizes hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide and water, and then stores NOx gases (which it later regenerates as nitrogen and water) before releasing the exhaust into the atmosphere. One big plus is that this VW system does not require the addition of urea or any other additive to scrub the exhaust clean.

By the way, before you start schmoozing up the fry cook at your local KFC, you should know that the only certified alternative for fueling this alternate-fuel vehicle is B5 biodiesel, which is a mix of 5 percent biodiesel and 95 percent petroleum-derived diesel.

There's Clean and There's Clean and Green
"Good Clean Diesel Fun" is VW's marketing tagline for the Jetta TDI, with "clean" being a relative term as the emissions, exhaust residue and noise levels are now merely comparable to a gasoline engine.

As for fun, VW claims 20 percent more torque and between 20 and 40 percent more mpg than a comparable gasoline engine. Increased durability with up to three times greater engine life is another advantage cited by VW, a byproduct of the expensive heavy-duty construction required by this diesel to withstand the vibration of its 16.5:1 compression ratio.

We can vouch for the added torque. Just pulling into traffic for the first time, we were taken aback, literally and figuratively, as the Jetta TDI leapt forward, the dual-clutch automatic quickly shifting into 2nd to take full advantage of the power band. Maybe the matchup between the diesel and this transmission isn't as refined as it might be.

At the test rack, we recorded acceleration to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds (8.6 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip), and the car made its pass through the quarter-mile in 16.6 seconds at 82.5 mph.

At the moment, Volkswagen tells us that the EPA estimates that the Jetta TDI will achieve 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. During our test cycle, mileage varied between 26.0 mpg and 40.1 mpg.

Sometimes MPH Counts, not MPG
We can happily live with such great mileage, although it's important to realize that diesel is more expensive than premium gasoline. When the road got twisty, however, the good, clean fun didn't stop, but it did slow down a bit.

Most of the blame can be placed on the combination of the Jetta's compliant, long-travel suspension and the quiet, soft-riding 205/55R16 Bridgestone Turanza EL400 tires. Through the slalom, the TDI achieves 64.2 mph, and the springy, long-travel suspension makes things a little too exciting in response to sudden inputs. Around the skid pad, the Jetta reaches 0.79g, and grinding understeer is the only thing you can feel.

Under braking, the Jetta takes 130 feet to stop from 60 mph, and the long-travel suspension produces a lot of dive at the front. Moreover, the long-travel action of the brake pedal (preferred by the Germans for front-wheel-drive cars like this to prevent out-of-control brake lockups on the autobahn by untrained drivers during panic stops) makes it difficult for us to get consistent results.

Final FYI on TDI
We're finally getting used to the Corolla-style cues of the new-generation Jetta and we'd even venture to say that the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Clean Diesel is smart-looking. Compared to most of what you see marketed as green vehicles, the Jetta is even handsome.

The Jetta TDI makes sense as a high-mileage vehicle that also offers the sportiness and interior comfort that you'd like in a real car. After briefly driving a manual-transmission version, we think that VW has done us a favor by adapting the dual-clutch transmission to this car because it delivers both seamless flexibility and good throttle response. Our only complaint is a barely detectable vibration at around 40 mph sometimes, when the computer is contemplating whether conditions warrant an upshift.

Yes, it's possible to detect that there's a diesel under the hood, but only at town speeds when you can feel an almost imperceptible vibration and then at the fuel pump, when you find yourself paying an extra 58 cents per gallon.

But otherwise, the Jetta TDI is good, clean fun as promised.
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