In some new cars, you can't learn enough over the course of a first drive. There's not enough time to experience every handling nuance, or every electronic helper, in a hundred miles or less.
With the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI, you'll find the opposite. Spending more than 2000 miles behind the wheel doesn't tell you anything more than you'd find in the first dozen miles--that the TDI is probably the best Jetta you can buy, and a great counterpoint to the argument that hybrids are the only green cars Americans really want.
The proof accumulates with lots of highway miles. Our red turbodiesel Jetta arrived with a full tank of fuel, and in 2011 miles we only filled its 14.5-gallon fuel tank three times, leaving plenty for the next tester. Over almost the entire length of I-65 and big stretches of I-75, we measured a nice, round 39 mpg as indicated on its fuel-economy display--about as good as we've done in our second-generation Toyota Prius and in most Honda Insights we've driven. The EPA rates this Jetta at 30/42 mpg, and by most accounts of our editors and TDI enthusiasts across the Web, it's far easier to come close to its peak ratings than in something like a Prius.
The Jetta TDI's also preserved much of what made the sedan so popular during VW's hot run in the 1990s. There's more of the diesel grunting than we've heard in pricier oil-burners, and in the sum, the TDI sounds quite a bit like the flat, uninspiring five-cylinder in the base car. The torque--that's a whole other matter. It's not much faster in a 60-mph dash but the TDI puts its force where it counts, down low, giving it the cut-and-thrust feel of a fencer while the five-cylinder plods from checkpoint to checkpoint with as much enthusiasm as you'd have for a second Tax Day.
Aside from its zestier take and its dual-clutch transmission--which doesn't come with paddles, sigh--and slightly different tire and suspension tweaks, the TDI's pretty much the Jetta that gasoholics get. As we told you in our review of the latest Jetta over at TheCarConnection, the newfound size gives it a new place in the world, with interior space almost as big as that in a Ford Fusion. The back seat's simply huge for the class. The steering still registers a notch or two savvier than any other compact, though the Ford Focus is gaining ground with its electric steering (the Jetta's reverted to hydraulic steering as a cost-cutting measure, but VW gives good electric steering, anyway).
In the takeaway column, there's the missing richness of past Jetta cabins, which the TDI and the base five-cylinder Jetta give up for a more competitive price tag. The hard plastic is discouraging in a way the torsion-beam rear axle isn't: the suspension mostly holds up its end of the bargain, while every time a finger hits the hard dash cap, it's a reminder of what's been sacrificed to get at least one Jetta model under the $16,000 price point. The trunk-mounted rear seatback releases feel like the price they're built to, though they make perfect sense.
With only a navigation system on its options list, the Jetta TDI bases at $24,095 before destination. It's about what you'd pay for a mid-line Prius II or III, or a very well-equipped Insight. And it could very well deliver the kind of long-term durability those cars seem to enjoy.
If you're stuck on independent suspensions and high-quality cabins and can give up a little back seat room, turn your sights to the Jetta TDI SportWagen. It's still largely the same car it was back in 2009, before the Jetta sedan went down its current road.
If you're simply looking for a big helping of fuel economy that still prizes driving feel, the four-door TDI's a great green buy--even with a few price pressures made plainly clear.