My Jetta TDI, an Owner's Point of View
An Unofficial Supplement to Keith Buglewicz's "The Hassle-Free Diesel"
by Stealth TDI

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Note: This article is intended to provide amplifying information to those that have already read European Car (EC) Magazine's "The Hassle-Free Diesel." Therefore, remarks regarding the technical characteristics of the Jetta TDI have been omitted from this article, with the exception of when the information provided by EC is either incorrect or arguable. Read "The Hassle-Free Diesel" by EC's Keith Buglewicz for technical information about the Jetta TDI.

My 1998 Jetta TDI at White Sands National Monument.       The Volkswagen Jetta TDI is the first diesel, as well as the first new VW, I've ever owned.  My impression of VW diesels was very much like the diesel Rabbit owned by Keith Buglewicz: "Not only was it small, it made peculiar noises and smelled awful.  The whole car shook with each beat of the motor.  There was a thick cloud of black smoke following the little Rabbit wherever it went.  Worst of all, it was cold-maple-syrup slow."  Then there were other factors that seemed to outweigh good gas mileage, as mentioned in "The Hassle-Free Diesel," such as the smell, the noise, and waiting for the glow plugs to warm up.

      I've been pleasantly surprised by the Jetta TDI.  It's a great car, but I tend to feel that the article printed in European Car (EC) may have been awkwardly slanted.  Keith Buglewicz writes great articles, but EC and other magazines make their money from sponsors, such as Volkswagen, as well as advertisers.  It's in their better interest to make their sponsor's products look good and sugarcoat their shortcomings.  Usually, I see a few inflated statements about how great a car is.  Then they tack a few negative comments toward the end so the car isn't too perfect.  This works just the opposite for non-sponsor cars: a really undesirable car with a few nice things said at the end.  In the case of "The Hassle-Free Diesel," EC praised the TDI for things that are not strong points, and negated some areas in which the TDI transcends its competition.  I'm left wondering whether the writer really drove the TDI for more than a day.  Sometimes the information provided is just wrong.  A case in point, the original published article featured a cutaway photo of the Passat turbocharged 1.8-liter engine, not the TDI!  Also, the TDI's turbo provides 12 pounds of boost (15-psi peak), not five.  Talk about misrepresenting a car!  Most other discrepancies are not so blatant.

      For example, the TDI's turbo charger does spin up pretty fast.  However, there definitely is turbo lag.  I'm not a trained driver and I've never even owned a turbo-equipped car.  Still, I was able to tell the difference between the time I stomped on the accelerator and the time the car jumped into action.  The turbo is quiet, but the term "no noise" does not apply.  A very distinct whine is audible while the car is under load.  I do feel smooth, steady power; however, don't expect seat of the pants driving below 1500-rpm.  The car pulls steadily from about 1500-rpm to about 4200-rpm.  Shifting any later than 4000-rpm is fruitless since there's much more torque to be had by upshifting and getting the rpm closer to 2000.

TDI badge on the grill.       The torque delivered from this tiny diesel is surprising.  Even my die hard V8 friends are surprised at the TDI's abilities.  Of course, none of them said they would switch to the TDI for drag racing.  Nevertheless, they couldn't deny the fact that the little TDI engine has just as much punch as other cars in the 2-liter class.

      The TDI has been called "the diesel that doesn't know it's a diesel."  It's peppy, yet frugal.  If there are any unpleasant smells coming from the car (even at startup), they definitely cannot be detected from within the car.  Besides, no car's exhaust smells like roses; and I've driven behind plenty of smelly gasoline cars, too.  The clatter from under the hood is quite noticeable while at idle, or while driving around slowly in a quiet neighborhood.  At highway speeds the sound is only Dash display.  Notice the glow plug indicator?  It goes out so fast that it took me a few tries to get the photo with it on.different, but not louder.  As far as the glow plugs are concerned, you DO have to wait for them to warm up.  However, the glow plug indicator is normally out within a second or two.  Only on the coldest days will you have to wait longer.  I once waited twelve terrible seconds in 15-degree (F) weather.  Compared to the time it takes a larger diesel to warm up, that's nothing.  Finding a diesel-selling gas station in your area certainly is not a hard part about owning a TDI.  Once you start buying diesel fuel, it will seem like it's everywhere.  Volkswagen's handy guide is good if you're in a jam, but keep in mind that it doesn't list the location of "just about every diesel outlet in the country."  If it did, diesel owners across the nation would be in big trouble.  I'm sure the guide doesn't cover even half of the stations that carry diesel.  What the book does do, however, is provide you with a place to start looking if you have no idea where you are and how far you have left to travel on your current tank of fuel.  Think of your fueling habits this way: Most cars are capable of driving only 400 miles per tank.  If you make it a habit to refuel every 400 miles, then you'll always have a 200+ mile reserve.  I would feel pretty safe on just about any road with that kind of cruising range.  By the way, the furthest I've ever driven on one tank is 909 miles.  I still had almost a gallon left, averaging 62.4 miles per gallon (US).

Jetta TDI engine bay.      With the exception of the engine and the fact that cruise control is standard, the Jetta TDI is equipped identically to the Jetta GL.  Fully loaded, it's nearly the same as a Jetta GLS.  I agree that the tires are too skinny for aggressive drivers.  As stated by Keith Buglewicz, "they loose grip well before the chassis is through with them."  That's not to say the Jetta TDI does not handle well.  I took one of my V8 mongers for a test ride.  He was fairly impressed by the acceleration, "…for a diesel," he said.  However, when I cut the steering wheel at 20 mph and stomped on the pedal, the wheels just barely chirped.  He was firmly planted against the door and I was feeling a little lightheaded as I straightened the wheel.  The car didn't understeer at all.  It probably would understeer in some higher-speed stuff, but I think it would take some foolish driving habits to break the Jetta loose from the pavement.  If wider tires will improve the Jetta's handling, then the Jetta should be quite lively after an upgrade.  The Jetta drives great on the road.  My route to and from work has dips on the highway. Even at 70 mph, the car only rebounds once or twice.  This may or may not be excessive. That depends on whether you want the car to drive like a rock on rough roads.  To say the car "[bounces] for several beats after passing over [a dip]" seems to be an overstatement... perhaps not at 85mph, but definitely at legal speeds.

My Jetta TDI interior.       The interior is nice.  There's plenty of legroom.  I'm 6'1" and I cannot completely depress the clutch if I put the seat all the way back. The driver's seat height is adjustable, too.  I usually sit one or two notches from the bottom, even though I could sit higher and still have plenty of headroom.  For shorter drivers, the seat will adjust to such a height that even someone under five feet can feel comfortable.  Beware of the sunroof option.  Since it's motorized and designed to come down into the car and slide into the headliner, about 1-1/2 inches of headroom is sacrificed to make everything work.  I opted to forego that option.  The rear seat is a little cramped for adults.  But what compact car's rear seat isn't cramped?  The benefit?  The trunk is a cavern!  The Jetta has one of the largest trunks in its class.  It makes the car perfect for couples that like to pack the trunk and go on a trip.  The interior can be left wide open for kids (cats, in our case) or things that need to be readily accessible.

      Other drawbacks are few: The shifter took a little getting used to.  It took about a week for me to instinctively get the shifter into 5th gear (instead of 3rd) on the first try.  To me, "notchy" better describes the shifting than "floppy."  Any notchiness is unnoticeable now that I'm used to the shifter's movement.  My dash didn't develop any rattles; however, my left rear door did develop the "occasional body squeak."  The dealer fixed it immediately by lubing the hinges and strut mounts.

      Although my article has exposed some shortcomings of the Jetta TDI, I believe most of my efforts were to discredit EC's misplaced criticism.  I wanted to insure that every detail is available to the potential buyer from someone that actually OWNS a Jetta TDI.  I am very pleased with the TDI.  The car really portrays the diesel immaculately and is has given me no reason to be displeased.  Every car has its pros and cons.  As far the TDI not being "quite the ultimate enthusiast's Volkswagen," remember that most aftermarket items available for the Jetta GL, GT, GLS, and GLX will also fit the TDI.  There's little reason why the TDI can't have the same performance potential as the 2-liter equipped Jettas.  In fact, given the low speed acceleration of the TDI, a well-equipped TDI may just give a GLX owner something to sweat about at an autocross event.


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