Executive wheels: a luxurious diesel to rival the hybrids

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When I was first married, just over 25 years ago, my then-wife had a fairly new VW Jetta, a nice one, with the upgraded package, gold in color. At the time people of our age were buying BMW 3s, Audis, Saabs, Volvos, and occasionally Japanese models, but the European cars held sway as the cool thing to have. Foolish me, I bought a Renault, believing that it was a better car than the BMW (it wasn’t), and because it was a wagon, what we now call a sport wagon, and I liked the feel and utilitarian use of the vehicle. The Jetta, which had been on the market since 1980, by the mid-1980s was gaining strength alongside of the other Europeans as very nice as, if not quite as expensive, as the others.

We loved that Jetta, except for the fact that 1980’s Jettas, and VWs generally, had quite a reputation for the ease of stealing the nice radios. We lost seven of them over three years, three of those stolen from the trunk after we had installed a slide-in/out model radio that could be stashed in the trunk for safekeeping. Didn’t matter; upon seeing the radio removed, they broke the window, ripped out the back seat and rummaged in the trunk to get it. I remember this happening one particularly bitter cold evening when my wife was pregnant with our first child. We were having dinner out, and came out of the restaurant to find the window smashed, glass all over the place, and the radio gone. It was a very cold ride home.

I bring this all up to point out that now, at over 30 years on the market, the Jetta has earned the reputation as one of the more venerable and desirable vehicles on the planet. When some of my children were younger, we had a 1990 Jetta that rotated throughout some 9 years of high school, and right now my daughter who was inadvertently along for that cold ride so many years ago pre-birth, is the owner of a very nice Jetta sedan. Like mother, like daughter.

What makes a car venerable, what keeps it on the market for 30 years, of course, is innovation, and VW has mastered that in the latest version of the Jetta. What has set the Jetta apart from all of those ‘80’s competitors is that it has remained a very nice, but affordable car. I mean, the BMW 3 series and comparable Audis, which were just a little more than the Jetta 25 years ago, have gone into the stratosphere price-wise, and Saab and Volvo have essentially become a nonentities. Renault left these shores, and good riddance.

The current Jetta is the sixth generation of the model, having debuted in January 2005, and with it they have taken the design up several notches to become a very beautiful car. It is also larger, 101″ in wheelbase, compared to just 94″ in the original and in the mid-high-90s in the succeeding generations. And while there have been Jetta wagons, or “wagen” in VW speak, over the years, the sportwagen in the 5th generation was not available until 2009 (there is actually a 6th generation of the Jetta underway, although not in the US yet, and the 2010 Sportwagen features the 6th generation look on the front).
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I very much like driving the Jetta, although I know from experience that the lower-end trims, with a 170hp, 2.5 liter I5 engine, can be a bit sluggish and they have a nagging lag between putting the pedal to the metal and when the engine actually kicks in. And you can get a Sportwagen for as little as $18,816 base price (rumors are that next year the hp will increase and the price will lower).

However the real innovation is the TDI – the turbo diesel engine with which my test-drive model was equipped. What a great engine. Rated at just 140 hp, in a 2.0-liter I4 package, this powerplant really delivers and feel like twice as powerful as rated. I mean, it’s a wagon, so it’s not for drag racing, but this car will move, trust me. And no, the diesel doesn’t smell, isn’t noisy, and is as smooth an engine as you’ll ever experience.

The reason to get the TDI goes beyond the performance, which is excellent. It’s the gas mileage – 30 mpg city/42 mpg highway – which is better than most hybrids on the market. And it qualifies, through 2010, for up to $650 in federal tax credits for energy efficiency (only on purchased, not leased, Jetta TDIs). That lowers the price up front, and the mileage saves you a ton over time – the gas engine in the Jetta Sportwagen is rated at 22/30 mpg.

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What I really like about the Jetta Sportwagen TDI is the look inside. VW has really upgraded its interiors over the last several years, and put forth a presentation that rivals many of the near-luxury and luxury vehicles on the market. The seats feature what VW calls V-Tex leatherette comfort seats, and they have all the feel of leather and are indeed comfortable – in that European way where they are somewhat stiff that keeps you awake on long drives. My test-drive model didn’t have navigation, although that is available as an option, but it did have Sirius satellite radio with a touch-screen sound system with an in-dash CD changer – all with great sound. The dash is simple and elegant, and the steering wheel in a Jetta just feels comfortable in your hands, and gives great feel for driving.

This model had the optional 6-speed triptonic automatic transmission ($1,100), which was quite smooth, but because it is a turbo there is that nagging lag between ordering up power and it delivering. This model also had the optional 17″ wheels ($450), which is worth it for the extra stability and traction in this FWD car. Mine also featured, for an additional $1,300, a great panoramic sunroof that lets in a ton of light and air. Wonderful.

The 2010 Jetta Sportwagen TDI, as I have described, comes with a base price of $24,310, and with the options mentioned the bottom line is $27,910. You can get one, with the gas engine, for some $6,000 less, but I believe this TDI, with the clean diesel, is among the leading vehicles on the market for “green” technology, and is therefore worth the price (In November 2008 the VW Jetta TDI won the 2009 Green Car of the Year awarded by Green Car Journal). Like all the Europeans, not to mention all cars on the market, I believe the price stated is subject to negotiation – so look for a deal.

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