Short Take: 2006 Jetta TDI

Diesel enthusiasts in this country are a hardy bunch. Thanks in no part to the dubious efforts thrown forth by Detroit in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, they’ve endured years of ridicule and misunderstanding for their choice of transportation. Never mind that the Europeans have developed the diesel engine to a high art; here in America, the home of cheap gas and big cars, diesels are typically relegated to truck duty.

Thing were looking up with the announcement that ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel would finally become available here starting in late 2006. But before we could all abandon our gas-guzzlers and jump on the Euro bandwagon, the EPA decided that diesel-equipped passenger vehicles would be required to meet a strict new set of emissions standards starting with the 2007 model year. Despite advanced engine technology and cleaner fuel, today’s diesels still produce too much particulate matter (soot) and too high a level of NOx (oxides of nitrogen) to meet the new standards. 2006 therefore effectively marks the end of the road for the current generation of diesel cars in this market.

Volkswagen is one of the few carmakers to consistently offer a diesel option here- in fact every generation of the Jetta has been available with a diesel option. For 2006, Volkswagen’s bread-and-butter sedan once again houses the company’s legendary 1.9-liter TDI engine.

The 1.9 TDI has been kicking around these parts since the late ‘90s. Originally endowed with 90 horsepower and 155 lb-ft of torque, the current version of this 8-valve lump makes 100 horses and another 22 lb-ft thanks to Pumpe-Düse, or unit injector, technology. Although a 134-horsepower 2.0-liter, TDI is available in the outgoing Passat wagon, the hundred-horse unit is still ample for the new, bigger Jetta. That 177 lb-ft of torque, which seems to always be available, makes the Jetta seem faster than it actually is though. From a dead stop the Jetta TDI will take somewhere north of ten seconds to hit 60, but drag racing is not its forte.

Our test car was equipped with the standard 5-speed manual transmission, just as most long-time VW owners would probably select it. Those buyers will probably also be accustomed to balky shifting action of the manual tranny, and probably won’t be too put off by the incessant throbbing of the clutch pedal under foot. The experience is not much different than it was in my 2000 Golf TDI- but that was a full six years ago. In fact, the diesel clatter at idle seemed worse than I remembered it in my Golf, though once under way it was hard to discern it from a gas engine.

The new Jetta feels so refined in so many other ways that the combination of the 1.9-liter diesel and manual trans actually has a cheapening effect. I suspect the DSG transmission is a more suitable companion to the diesel engine in the fifth-generation Jetta. If nothing else, the DSG lacks a clutch pedal, through which so much of the engine’s coarseness is transmitted.

The optional transmission also contains six forward gears, all the better to take advantage of the TDI’s limited powerband. Fuel economy, one of the primary advantages of owning a diesel, will hardly be affected by the choice of transmission though- the manual is rated at 36/41 mpg, while the DSG returns figures of 35/42.

Aside from the $1000-optional diesel engine, the 2006 Jetta TDI is equipped just like all other ’06 Jettas, aside from the Value Edition and the GLI. That means a lot of standard features (power windows, locks and mirrors, cruise control, AM/FM/CD stereo, air conditioning) with plenty of option packages to make it your own.

There probably won’t be enough 2006 Jetta TDIs to go around, which may not be a bad thing. As good as the car is, the 1.9 TDI probably lacks the ability to convert the average Jetta shopper to the diesel club. All grown up or not, most Jetta buyers will immediately recognize the 2.0T or even the 2.5 5-cylinder as the “safe” choice of motivation.

Simply put, whether or not you’re impressed with the newest version of the diesel Jetta will most likely come down to whether or not you’ve a owned a diesel ‘dub before.

Sidebar- Perhaps the only other carmaker as committed as VW to offering diesels in America is Mercedes-Benz. Last month at the 2006 Detroit Auto Show, M-B confirmed that it will offer its next-generation diesel technology, known as BlueTech, here starting this fall in 2007 models. The 3.2-liter V6 will be an option on the E-Class sedan and wagon as well as the all-new GL-Class full-size SUV. It was suggested that Bluetec could eventually find its way into the entire Mercedes lineup, as well as other Daimler-Chrysler products.

Bluetec employs two new technologies that allow this diesel engine family to meet the new EPA requirements for NOx and particulate matter emmissions. NOx reduction is accomplished by way of either water or urea injection (depending on the appilcation) into the combustion chamber. The additional storage tank required by this system will be filled my M-B technicians during routine maintenance every 10,000 miles. Particulate matter (soot) will be removed from the exhaust stream by an in-line particluate trap, which according to M-B, is maintenance-free.

Mercedes’ strategy is significant in that it will initially offer this expensive new technology in models with sufficient profit margins to offset the costs- its cash-cow E-Class and large luxury SUV GL-Class. If demand for the new technology is strong, prices could eventually be offset by volume.

What does that mean for the future of diesel VWs here? While VW insists it will remain committed to offering a diesel option here, the cost of compliance may ultimately determine its fate. The TDI is already a $1000 premium option over the standard 2.5-liter gas engine. Will buyers pay an even higher premium for an ultra-clean VW diesel? If not, is VW willing to subsidize the cost of this technology as a matter of principle? Ultimately, a change in tax-credit policy for ultra-clean diesels will probably be the deciding factor.

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