SANTA MONICA, California - Long before most other auto companies even considered diesel engines for their U.S.-market passenger cars, Volkswagen tucked such a powerplant into its subcompact Rabbit. That was way back in the late 1970s, as memories of the VW Beetle were fading in favor of a far different breed of automobile.
Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Volkswagen was among the handful of manufacturers to offer diesel-powered cars in the U.S. market. Mercedes-Benz also remained strong in diesel. But most other automakers either ignored that end of the market, or abandoned it after the General Motors fiasco of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In an attempt to grab a foothold of what might have been a new and potentially profitable niche for American buyers, GM transformed its conventional gasoline V-8 engine into one that runs on diesel power. Frightful durability problems soon ensued, and those diesel V-8s faded away - leaving behind a distaste for diesel in the public mind, which continued for years afterward.
Diesel engines of the past have been considered dirty, smelly, and noisy, emitting nasty black smoke as they clattered along. In Europe, diesel has long been a popular choice, largely because of its better fuel consumption. High fuel prices in Europe have kept diesel high on the desirability list, and many if not most passenger vehicles are offered with a diesel option.
Except for ardent diesel advocates, who adopted them early on, fewer and fewer Americans have been tempted by diesel power. All the more in recent years, when diesel fuel has cost as much as - or lately, more than - gasoline.
Most of the perceived problems with diesel engines were related to the high-sulfur fuel that went into them. Recent introduction of "clean" diesel, with a low sulfur content, has made today's diesel engines far more satisfying, virtually eliminating the previously familiar noise, smoke, and smell.
"The time for clean diesel is now," said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the non-profit Diesel Technology Forum. Diesel "technology has come of age," and there's a suitable "mindset right now in the population." Half of surveyed Americans "think diesel has gotten better," Schaeffer added.
After a brief step back from diesel for its passenger cars, during the changeover to "clean" fuel, Volkswagen has returned for 2009 with a modern diesel edition of its Jetta sedan and wagon.
The new TDI (turbodiesel) 2.0-liter engine with common rail injection delivers "clean, effortless performance," said Norbert Krause, director of Volkswagen's environmental engineering office. Rated at 140 horsepower, the TDI engine produces 236 pound-feet of torque. Either a six-speed manual transmission or Volkswagen's six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox, which shifts automatically, mahy be installed.
With manual shift, the Jetta TDI gets a fuel-economy estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of 30 mpg in city driving and 41 mpg on the highway. "We believe the Jetta TDI will overdeliver on these estimates," Krause stated.
To help demonstrate that improvement, Volkswagen launched a Diesel Inspiration Tour. John and Helen Taylor, an Australian couple who have achieved nearly 40 fuel-economy records, partnered with Volkswagen and Shell to try and set a Guinness record for fuel economy on an 8000-mile trek through the U.S. When the Taylors arrived in Santa Monica, to participate in the media launch of the new Jetta TDI, they were about halfway through the tour and had averaged a startling 58.24 mpg. Through the southwestern desert, they'd managed to eke out 66.5 mpg.
Taylor explained that they drove in a normal manner, not trying to avoid rush-hour traffic or other fuel-usage pitfalls that ordinary drivers might face. When they drove through Manhattan, for example, it was the height of rush hour. They rolled through Boston during the morning rush.
On the road, one of the first things noticed about the Jetta TDI is that it's not noisy. Still, it's not quite quiet, either. Little is heard at idle, but light clatter is evident at times when accelerating. One difference from the past: the sound is not annoying at all, though it does serve as a gentle reminder of what you're driving. Uphill, there's more exhaust sound than expected; but it's a pleasant tone.
Acceleration with the DSG transmission is not quite exuberant, but not far from it - well past expectations for a 140-horsepower engine. DSG shifts are curt and positive, and the DSG unit is confident and effective. Ride quality is generally smooth, but slightly wavy pavement does produce some jumpy reactions at times. Like other Jettas, the TDI excels in steering feel, roadholding, and overall road behavior.
Achieving high fuel economy is easier with the manual gearbox, which shifts easily and is accompanied by satisfying clutch action. Making use of a few simple frugal-driving "tricks," such as getting into higher gears as quickly as possible, yielded fuel economy that approached 40 mpg during a drive through the Mulholland Drive area near Santa Monica.
Placed on sale in late summer, the Jetta TDI starts at a moderate $21,990 with the manual transmission.
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