BY ALAN VONDERHAAR
The Cincinnati Enquirer
One of the first things most folks look at when they're checking out a new car is the window sticker. And the eye just naturally gravitates toward the bottom line in most cases, although on a car like today's subject, two others tend to jump out, and not just because they're in much larger type than the prices.
Those are the Environmental Protection Agency's estimates of city and highway fuel economy, a somewhat-useful byproduct of the agency's emissions certification procedures. They've refined the process to the point where the numbers give at least a fairly accurate indication of how well vehicles in a class will perform relative to one another.
In the case of this week's guest, the diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta GLS TDI, the EPA figures are best in the compact class - 42 mpg city, 49 highway with the five-speed manual transmission.
In practical terms, this means the average (15,000 miles a year) driver could save several hundred dollars a year on fuel costs, vis-à-vis the standard four-cylinder gasoline engine with which the Jetta is shipped (EPA: 24/31). The diesel option, however, commands about a $1,000 premium up front. (I logged 43.6, with quite a bit of expeditious freeway driving.)
For those who are into marathon drives, the 14.5-gallon tank could carry them more than 600 miles in the TDI before the search for a fuel stop became urgent.
The diesel's parsimonious nature, somewhat less attractive now than in the Old Days, when the spread between the cost of diesel fuel and regular gasoline was greater, is offset to some extent by its uncouth demeanor.
Diesel exhaust stinks, as anyone who's ever followed a bus or truck can attest, the engines are smoky and noisy and vibrate a lot, are sometimes hard to start and they lag far behind their spark-ignition brethren in specific horsepower, i.e., output per unit of displacement.
It's amazing how well Volkswagen, with the not inconsiderable help of a turbocharger, has overcome these traditional objections.
It wasn't Herrera cologne, but the smell the Jetta created in my garage when idling wasn't as nasty as that which some gas-fired cars have made.
Smoke was almost indiscernible in the hot-weather conditions that prevailed during the test and ignition was nearly instantaneous.
Diesels are warm-blooded creatures which depend on the heat caused by compressing the fuel-air mix in the cylinder about twice as much as gasoline engines do to make it explode, without a spark plug.
Instead, diesels have glow plugs, little heaters inside the cylinders which facilitate the burning of the fuel. In colder weather, one must wait a few seconds for them to do their number before starting.
At idle, the TDI's engine has that typical marbles-in-a-can diesel rattle, rather like a gas engine whose bearings are near the end of their life span. Vibration isolation, however, is excellent, and with the windows rolled up, few would know the powerplant was unconventional. Once under way, the turbo mutes the exhaust pulses so that all that remains is a little roar under heavy load, no worse than you get from many a four-cylinder gas engine.
Here's how the base engine and the diesel stack up in numerical terms.
The 2-liter gas engine makes 115 hp (@5,200 rpm) and 122 foot-pounds of torque (at a commendably low 2,600 rpm). The turbodiesel cranks out 90 horses @3,750 rpm) (no land speed records here, despite the speedometer's 140-mph optimism), and 155 foot-pounds of torque at a tractor-like 1,900 rpm - that's a 27 percent jump from the base engine, and low enough to be extremely useful, eminently suited to being coupled to an automatic transmission.
It took me a while to realize that the optimal shift point (from a performance standpoint) for the TDI lay around 3,000 rpm. The engine felt as if it were eager to run out to 7,000, but a rev limiter kept reminding me that the cutoff was at 4,750. Fortunately the intervention is very gentle (gradual fuel starvation), so it was possible to ignore the tach during drag-style activities.
Flogged hard, the TDI still couldn't get from 0-60 in less than 10 seconds, but the subjective feel was still more peppy than slug. One would do well to enter traffic streams with discretion. Once up to freeway speeds, the car felt quite comfortable cruising or passing, and was agreeably quiet to boot.
I had earlier driven the new-for-'99 Jetta with the gas engine, and find little to choose between the two on driver-satisfaction grounds, if you can stomach the diesel hassles, one of which is fuel availability. The enthusiastic driver will overlook both four-cylinder engines in favor of VW's splendid little V-6, which makes 174 horses and 181 foot-pounds this year.
(As I had speculated early on, the diesel would be the engine of choice for nostalgia-afflicted buyers of the New Beetle. Its low-revving nature and funky sound are reminiscent of the old air-cooled thrasher.)
The new Jetta platform is highly refined - a bit too much for my taste. It seems to have lost its old crisp "edge" in favor of making life easier for drivers whose sensibilities have been dulled by the sophistication of Japanese machinery. But from point of view of the factory - already enjoying a strong resurgence in sales - mass market isn't a bad place to be.
Ride quality at speeds high and low is remarkably good for a compact - in the middle ranges, however, there's a bit of harshness when traversing minor disturbances like expansion joints.
The seats are grippy and supportive in the German style, at first feeling a bit hard but then becoming just right as the miles pile up. Both legroom and headroom were sufficient for bigger than normal occupants, abetted in the driver's case by a steering wheel that tilts and telescopes to a degree. Two brave people of above-average height pronounced the rear accommodations livable, if snug.
The five-speed shifter seemed neither exceptional nor deficient, and got lots of exercise as I tried to keep the engine in its sweet spot over undulant Indiana terrain.
Handling is good, although there's a bit more understeer (a tendency to run wide in turns) than I'd like. The TDI gets the same 195/65 H-rated tires on 15-inch rims as the V-6 series. They're adequate, but would be the first thing I'd look at in trying to improve handling feel.
The brakes are discs front and rear, with antilock standard. Pedal feel was a little vague, but stopping distances were comfortable and the antilock was efficient without being overly fussy. Dual front air bags are a last resort, along with seat-mounted side bags for driver and co-pilot.
Among the included goodies are air conditioning, which stood up to 95-degree temperatures, remote keyless entry, the normal range of power assists, remote releases for trunk and fuel filler door, cruise control, antitheft alarm and a surprisingly fine AM-FM-cassette stereo. This latter, though somewhat deficient in overall tonality, was exceptional in clarity and tuner sensitivity. The radio, like the odometers, would be easier to deal with if its readouts were light-emitting diodes instead of the sun-shy liquid crystal style.
Base price on the GLS TDI, the spiffier of two series, is $18,700. With freight and luxury package ($1,000 for power sunroof and alloy wheels), the tester came to $20,225 - quite a value.
ASK AL: Is Jeep quality up to snuff?
Alan Vonderhaar welcomes email at firstname.lastname@example.org and snail mail c/o The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati OH 45202. Because of the volume of mail received, personal replies are not always possible, although your chances are better with e-mail.