Driven: 2010 VW Jetta TDI Cup Edition

Race on Sunday, sell on Monday. It’s an old strategy in the car business, but one that seems to work. The one-model Jetta TDI Cup race series, designed to promote young, up-and-coming drivers in identically prepared race cars, has been Volkswagen’s entrée into the world of trackside marketing since the 2008 racing season. The unexpected twist for most spectators — the series piggybacks on the ALMS schedule — is that the race cars are lightly modified Jetta TDIs that are run on B5 biodiesel fuel. The racing is exciting and, importantly to VW’s marketing efforts, it makes the case that diesel-powered cars can be exciting as well as economical.

In order to capitalize on the buzz generated by the racing series, VW has released a limited “Jetta TDI Cup Edition” for 2010, and it represents VW’s first ever performance-oriented diesel for the US marketplace. To make sure everyone knows this isn’t your pappy’s old-timey oil-burner, it carries over many features directly from its gas-powered (and temporarily departed) sibling, the Jetta GLI. It wears eighteen-inch bi-color “Charleston” alloy wheels as standard, under which red calipers clamp down on 312mm front and 286mm rear rotors. It has the GLI’s well-sorted sport tuned suspension as well as the signature plaid cloth interior with deeply bolstered sport seats. The aero body kit from the TDI Cup racers is available as an option, with its deeper rear valence and side skirts, and the front bumper with massive intakes that was first revealed on the Thunderbunny project car at SEMA in 2006. It even gets some enhancements from its sixth-generation Golf cousins — an eye pleasing white-backlit gauge package with an upgraded center display, a new three-spoke sport steering wheel with built in controls for the car’s electronics, and the new lineup of stereos with touch-screen, optional navigation, and bluetooth integration for mobile devices.

What it does not have is the 170-hp, 258-lb-ft engine found in the TDI Cup racers. The streetgoing Cup Edition makes due with the 140-hp, 236-lb-ft version that’s also found in the standard-issue Jetta TDI. This begs the question — in a world where VW’s own GTI makes 200 hp, and some competitors make even more, can the TDI Cup Edition stand up as a true enthusiast’s car with “only” 140 horses?

The answer to that question lies in one’s perception of what “fun to drive” means, and how wiling the driver is to change technique to mesh with a car’s talents. The most notable thing about the power delivery of the engine is that all 236 lb-ft of torque are available as early as 1800 rpm. This provides a rather hefty initial shove off of the line, but due to the comparatively smaller horsepower numbers, acceleration falls off somewhat more quickly than might be expected as the tachometer needle climbs into the upper range. When shifted at the proper point to keep the engine within that fat torque band, driving the TDI Cup Edition can be quite entertaining. The generous amount of torque that makes it quick off of the line also provides ample highway passing power. You just have to remember not to wind the engine out; keeping it in the meat of that low-to-mid-range torque is the name of the game here.

Interestingly, in cars paired with VW’s excellent dual clutch DSG gearbox, full-throttle upshifts seem to happen a bit too high in the rev band, leading to an odd feeling of acceleration dropping off quickly after the initial torque explosion. If the automated shift points were moved a bit lower in the rev band, most especially in the transmission’s Sport mode, the pairing would be a bit better suited to aggressive driving. This lack of upper rev-band power is part and parcel of driving a diesel, but it does highlight that there is perhaps a missed opportunity here to have had a car with horsepower ratings a little closer to the rest of the rest of the sporty car market. Had Volkswagen made this car available with the 170-hp, 258 lb-ft version of the engine from the race cars (which is sold in other markets in its passenger cars) it would have really hit the sweet spot performance-wise. As it is, the TDI Cup Edition is capable of 0-60 mph in just over eight seconds; that’s not an overly impressive number itself, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, either. With the upgraded GLI suspension, it is the kind of car that’s nimble and rewarding to throw through the curves on your favorite winding back road.

The other side of the coin here, and part of the message that VW is sending with the TDI Cup series, is that it’s possible to have fun while still being economical. And the TDI Cup Edition manages the economy bit quite well. The EPA rates it at 30 mpg in the city and 41 mpg on the highway, but TDI owners often report significantly higher mileage in real world use than the rating might suggest with this same engine. Indeed, on one 90-mile highway drive, the TDI Cup Edition turned in just over 46 mpg, and in stop-and-go traffic, including beltway crawling and some rather spirited runs in the company of other test cars, it rarely returned anything less than 35 mpg.

So has VW done it? Has the company provided the US consumer with the “enthusiast’s diesel,” a car that’s fun to drive and economical all in one package? The economy half of the equation is certainly there. There are few other cars on the road capable of over 45 mpg on the highway, and none of those maintain the TDI Cup Edition’s excellent ride and handling characteristics. It is unfortunate that this Cup Edition doesn’t have the cup motor, but for the driver who is looking for a car that provides economy and can also be thrown at his or her favorite roads with vigor, the TDI Cup Edition is an attractive choice.

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