Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review: 2011 VW Jetta TDI

The new VW Jetta sports a classic look overlaid with gentle curves.

It has been two years eight months and almost 63,000 km since my wife and I last went car shopping. I had a short list of cars I liked and my wife had a short list of cars she didn't. Although the VW Jetta TDI didn't appear on either list, in the end that was the car that caught our eye. (Link to U.S.A. VW Jetta site.)

The TDI in the name signifies the car is powered by Volkswagen's Turbo Direct Injection diesel engine, an engine that has been given some serious updating with the arrival of the 2015 model. Having now driven thousands of kilometres in a TDI, I am prepared to answer a number of the most common questions concerning diesel car ownership.

First, how much more expensive is it to buy diesel fuel rather than gasoline? Many car reviewers argue that the savings gained by driving a fuel thrifty diesel is consumed by the extra cost of the diesel fuel in comparison to regular grade gasoline. Is this true? Not in my experience. I drive in London, Ontario, in Canada.

When last I checked, if I had burned gasoline rather than diesel I would have saved all of $32.20 burning gas. That's pennies. But, take the high mileage of the diesel into account and the diesel becomes the star of the fuel cost story.

At one point, my TDI was returning 40.2 mpg (Imp.) or 33.5 mpg (U.S.). That's far better than a comparable gasoline powered car. For instance, a 2011 Toyota Corolla with a 2.4 L, 4 cylinder and a five speed automatic may deliver 25 mpg (U.S.) in mixed city/country driving.

Taking both cost of diesel and fuel consumption into account, I calculate I have saved something in the neighbourhood of $2000 in fuel costs so far. Very nice. Does that cover the extra cost of the diesel over the gasoline engined Jetta? No it doesn't but it is closing the gap. I can see the break even point on the horizon.

Remember, these figures are mine. Your numbers may differ. If you drive a lot of highway miles, the difference may well be in your favour. For the longest time I was making a monthly trip to Burlington and my mileage was noticeably better. Now that I am driving almost exclusively in the city, my TDI fuel economy has suffered.

One last word on fuel economy: I'm often asked, what is the best fuel economy achieved by my diesel thus far? The answer is a little better than 60 mpg (Imp.). To achieve this, I stayed off the freeway on a drive to the Kitchener/Waterloo area. By taking older, slower highways I kept my cruising speed between 80 and 90 km/h. An ideal speed for the achieving the lowest possible fuel consumption figures.

VW Clean Diesel Distance Calculator
What is the farthest I've driven between fill-ups? That one is easy. Twice I have driven from London, Ontario, all the way to Montreal, Quebec, without needing to stop for fuel. You gotta love it.

VW Canada has posted a Clean Diesel Distance Calculator. Type in your postal code or address and discover how far from home you can travel on one tank of fuel. VW figures I could drive all the way Mont Ste. Anne's for a skiing holiday in Quebec without making a fuel stop. I believe them

The base VW Jetta TDI has a stick shift but my wife and I opted for the DSG (dual-shift gearbox) automatic transmission. This added $1400 (Cdn.) to the price of our car but we are glad we did it. You see, the manual shifter has collected some complaints. Reportedly, the 2011 Jetta TDI has a relatively stiff clutch pedal. Some drivers encounter stalling problems when pulling away from a stop. Others have complained their cars stall when shifted too early into second gear. Holding the car in first gear longer, some say, eliminates these stalls.

The stalling complaints are not new. According to Consumer Reports (CR) in an August 2010 article:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an investigation into stalling problems with 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI diesel cars. . . . CR went on to report their manual transmission-equipped 2010 Jetta and Golf TDI were both overly easy to stall in some low-speed situations, such as second-gear stop-and-go traffic. That said, Consumer Reports did not experience stalling as described in the NHTSA report.

My second car is a Morgan I bought new in 1968.
I have drove a stick shift for 45 years, a Morgan Plus 4 with no syncro in first. I think I understand the present VW problem. I found my Morgan ornery at first. And when others, not familiar with the little roadster, tried to drive her, she balked. Some cars insist on being understood.

After 43 years shifting an old moss box, I opted for the DSG tranny. This sophisticated double-clutch transmission can be thought of as two transmissions in one, each fitted with its own clutch. This is how Autos.ca. describes the set-up:

"One clutch manages the odd gears (1,3,5), the other clutch manages the even gears (2,4,6). When you’re in an “odd” gear, the transmission pre-selects or pre-engages the upcoming 'even' gear, so that changes are almost instant" — some claim the DSG system can shift in as little as 8 milliseconds.

Both my wife and I have found our DSG tranny well matched to our TDI's torque-rich power curve. The turbo diesel pumps out 236 ft-lbs of torque at 1,750 rpm. (The new engine in the 2015 delivers very similar numbers.) This big hit of torque in the low end of the power band gives the  illusion of the car being incredibly powerful for a four — it is — but if you think it is far faster than other cars in its class, well, it isn't.

It must be noted that some owners have complained that their DSG transmission shifts harshly. It can be tricky programming a computer controlled transmission to please everyone. When I wrote this, Volkswagen was still trying. A few months after buying our Jetta, the dealer upgraded the firmware in our DSG transmission to fix a problem we didn't know we had.

The transmission firmware, found in the Electronic Control Unit or ECU, uses "fuzzy logic" to quickly adapt the shift response to the driving style of the driver. The DSG tranny, controlled by the onboard computer, doesn't exactly learn as some claim but it does custom tailor its shift points during use. The December software upgrade apparently modified the "fuzzy logic" algorithm used by our ECU.

The Jetta TDI transmission can be operated as either a six speed automatic, this save fuel, or as a sporty five speed. In the D or six speed position both my wife and I have believed the engine felt like it was lugging a little at low rpm's — especially in the city.

It is not actually lugging I've been assured. Diesels don't lug like gasoline powered cars. Yet, some folk find this annoying and their complaints forced VW to modify the computer code to rectify a non-problem.

A quicker cure for the lugging problem is simply using the sport setting. This allows the revs to climb higher before the shift. In the city, I like the extra bounce this puts in the Jetta's step. But, as much as I like the sport setting, I keep returning to D. It keeps my fuel bills low. One month I didn't spend $40 on fuel. You've gotta love it.

Lastly, the driver can shift the DSG transmission manually by sliding the shifter all the way to the right. In Tiptronic mode, push the gear shift forward to up shift and pull the lever back to down shift. In this mode, the DSG transmission is operated primarily by the driver, but there are some built-in overrides to protect the transmission from driver error. Of course, there is no clutch pedal.

As you have probably already gathered, the VW diesel is not a thumping, clunking iron beast pumping out sound, fury and blue smoke. They don't call it a clean diesel for nothing. A modern direct injection diesel engine burning today's Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) fuel cuts exhaust emissions and eliminates diesel odors at the tail pipe.
Is it hard to find ULSD fuel? No. All diesel fuel sold at stations across Canada and the United States is now ULSD fuel. It's the law. The only problem I have run into is pulling up to a pump only to discover that the nozzle is too big a diametre for our car. Apparently, large diesel trucks are filled with fuel using an oversized nozzle to save precious time by pumping more fuel quickly. Recently, on a trip to Montreal, we encountered this problem.

All that said, I must admit that there have been times when our Jetta didn't hide its diesel heritage. For instance, on cold winter mornings, before the engine has warmed, the engine can be louder than usual. But, these times have been only momentary distractions. Generally our TDI has been very well mannered, keeping its unique diesel voice politely muffled.

One nice feature of our Jetta are the heated front seats. Both the seats and the seat backs quickly get warm and toasty. With three levels of heat intensity, you can wean yourself off the luxury of the smile-inducing heat in stages. No need to suffer heated-seat-withdrawal.

Diesels, by the way, take a little longer than a gas engine on fiercely cold winter mornings to pump out cabin-warming air. On those mornings, all too common this winter, the heated seats are a godsend.

During the cold months, I fill the tank more frequently with the goal of minimizes the chance of  water condensation contaminating my fuel. I understand this can occur in an almost empty fuel tank. And, speaking of contamination, I always try to say I am fueling the car and not gassing it up.

I do this to remind myself I am driving a diesel. I understand keeping gas out of the tank has been a problem for some diesel drivers. The nozzle on a diesel pump is usually a larger diameter than the one on an unleaded gas pump. This difference makes it difficult to put diesel in a gasoline powered vehicle but it does not protect the diesel driver from gasoline contamination.

I know one Jetta TDI owner who pumped gas instead of diesel. That resulted in a big, unexpected bill. Then he lent his car to a friend who topped it up with gas before returning it. Another big bill. Then he had an attendant at a full service station, or should I say fool service, pump the wrong fuel. Aauuggh, again! Another tow to the VW dealer and another big bill.

Many diesel pumps and/or nozzles are colour coded. But the colour coding is not consistent. In and around London, Ontario, bright yellow indicates diesel. In the States pump nozzles may have a green, black or even red plastic cover, depending on the station and the location.

Look for the word diesel; Keep the brain in gear; Keep gasoline out of the tank.

I also stay away from biodiesel. Another driver I know had serious problems after the biodiesel congealed in the cold Canadian winter. The result was a costly repair consuming a lot of the accumulated fuel consumption savings.

My "no biodiesel rule" is stricter than the recommendation from Volkswagen. The German car maker allows a 5 percent blend of biodiesel. I might play with biodiesel in the middle of the hot Canadian summer but otherwise I say no thanks. For more about the Jetta TDI and its green creds, follow this link to a Hybrid Cars article.

I guess I can't put off addressing the styling of the new Jetta. Obviously, I like the look but lots of early reviewers didn't. On its release, the automotive press recoiled at its conservative styling and at the choice of cabin interior materials. "Too much hard plastic," the critics said. Some went so far as to call the look "cheap."

Note the wicker seats in the Renault 4CV Ghia Jolly from '62.
My response? I say, "They don't know cheap." I'm old. I'm in my 60s. I can recall when cars really had cheap interiors. I believe it was a Renault 4 my friend Kathy drove in the '60s that had front seats made of canvas suspended from steel-tube frames. Now, that was cheap! (But that car was also cool, as was Kathy.)

That said, the Jetta interior is on the simple side and to me that's good. The Honda Civic was on my list of potential cars, as was the Ford Fiesta and Ford Focus.

Ford Fiesta interior
All got bounced for a number of reasons. One reason common to all was the look of the interiors and the complex stack of controls rising from the centre console. Lots of buttons and often lots of faux matte aluminum-looking surfaces. And lots of confusion for an old geezer.

One note: My nephew, an architect, bought a Fiesta. He loves it. He finds it a wonderful subcompact hitting well above its weight class. Clearly, one man's confusion is another's delight. Don't write off any car because of a reviewer's opinion. Go to the dealership and take a look for yourself. Go for a test drive.

VW dash layout is simple and executed in hard, black plastic.
We also considered the Prius and the Lexus hybrid. I liked the look of the Prius but my wife didn't. The Lexus hybrid was out too, out of stock, with no new cars expected for 60 to 90 days. All the problems in Japan at the time slowed deliveries of the fuel sipping luxury car.

Plus, both my wife and I were leery of the batteries in those hybrid cars. I have had bad luck with rechargeable batteries in cameras, computer notebooks and toys. Rechargeable batteries are not a selling point with me. Time may prove me wrong. We'll see.

The Jetta TDI Comfortline instrumentation could have been more complete. I miss a temperature gauge and an oil pressure gauge, for instance. It would be nice to have the cruise control placed in a handy spot on the top of the wheel spokes instead of being found on a control stalk which is somewhat hidden.

On the other hand, when driving in the States I can program the digital dash display to show my speed in mph: Handy. Also, there is an outside temperature display that flashes and beeps a warning if the temperature falls close to freezing. Disc brakes on all four wheels are another bragging point but personally I have never been disappointed by cars with drum brakes on the rear, and I think they are cheaper to buy and to maintain.

I have tested my Jetta's accident avoidance abilities; It passed. A fellow pulled out from a driveway into my lane. I made a quick dodge around the careless dude. The Jetta handled beautifully. My wife tells me that she too has had to take quick, evasive action. She found the car responsive while in-control. She gave our Jetta two thumbs up and she's a tough critic.

Our car has lots of pluses but so do many of its competitors in the compact car market. I'm thinking of the stuff that came standard on my Jetta Comfortline: traction control, stability control, ABS brakes, air conditioning, cruise control, adjustable steering wheel, heated seats, anti-theft system, alloy wheels . . . . Lot's of cars can match that list feature for feature.

When it comes to features, there is one car that easily beats my 2011 Jetta — and that's a new Jetta. Stuff that was optional is now standard and some of mechanical components have been upgraded. A new Jetta may look the same as mine but in reality it is a better car.

One last confession: I can't really afford my Jetta. I'm retired and money is tight. When I was working, I drove the least expensive cars I could find. When I left the newspaper, I was driving a Saturn Ion. I hang my head in shame. My Morgan never had to share garage space with the Ion.

So, how did I afford a car that's worth almost twice that of my old Saturn? I didn't pay for it, at least not all of it. Volkswagen has a program where you pay back only a portion of the cost of your new car. There will be a balance owing at the end of the payback period. After 60 months, I will be stuck with a balloon payment for just under $8000.

When the five year loan is repaid, I must make the balloon payment. I will probably get a 30 month bank loan. If the car is worth more as a trade than the balance owing, I may just trade-in my Jetta and buy a new one.

Kelley Blue Book in the U.S. figures 48-cents/mi over 6 yrs.
My hope is my Jetta will be a fine car to own, with reasonable maintenance costs. It's already saving me cash on fuel, lots of cash. (I'm spending about 9 cents a km on fuel. This climbed from about 7.7 cents as fuel prices rose over the past few months.)

VW recommends an oil change every 15,000 km or 9300 miles. That's good; A TDI oil change is more money than I'm used to paying — the cost at the dealership is just less than $100. That's not surprising as the VW branded oil is more than $10 a litre. Still, all costs considered, this is fractionally less for oil than I had been paying. Another small savings.

At 60,000 km I am required to have the oil and filter changed in my DSG transmission. The dealer charges $425 for this service. I have heard some whining over this maintenance cost but if you look at the big picture, this oil/filter change does not amount to even a penny per kilometre. This is not a "break the bank" cost.

I can see a brake job in my future. Brakes wear, that's life. I can live with this. It's my engine and my tranny I'm praying will only require normal servicing. To me, both seem like sophisticated pieces of machinery and sophisticated can translate into expensive when repairs are needed.

Let's admit it. Some things can be compared easily and some things can't. If you want to compare gas mileage of various cars, I advise using the EPA site out of the States. The EPA numbers are far more accurate than the numbers released by the Canadians.

Important stuff, like the DSG transmission and the turbo charged diesel, are far harder to evaluate for others, especially when the competition in the car market is so fierce. This is why it is so important that you take a VW Jetta TDI for a long demo drive. Talk to the dealer and do more than circle the block. Get a feel for the car, and let the car get a feel for you.

I did and the car sold itself.

Photo: PR Volkwagen

Two sour notes: With less than 65,000 kms on the car, the front coil spring on the passenger side exploded. My wife and I were at a service centre on 401 when the spring, part of the front suspension, broke with a loud bang. Luckily, the car was not moving at the time. Witnesses said they saw a burst of dust coming from the front of the car and then the front passenger side corner fell an inch.

We had the car towed to the nearest VW dealer where is remained for five days. We were forced to rent a replacement automobile in order to complete our trip. VW is picking up the cost of the tow and the repairs as the car is still under warranty but it appears they may only reimburse us for $300 of our out-of-pocket expenses related to the incident: hotel room, unanticipated restaurant meals and rental car. We spent more than $400 and are annoyed that a major component failed while under warranty and yet we are out money.

But that is not the end of this story. When I brought my Jetta in for its 105,000 km oil change and inspection, it was discovered that the front coil spring on the driver's side was broken. My believes she heard it 'explode' one night while parked in our garage at home. She thought the loud bang might have been a very large bird flying into our garage door. She was puzzled when she found nothing in the morning.

Now, both front coils have had to be replaced. This simply shouldn't be. My bill for what should have been a simple oil change and inspection came to just more than $800. Wow!

Did VW get install a batch of defective coil springs? Something is certainly amiss. I am beginning to believe that having these coils fail is not a rare occurrence. One theory holds that automobile manufacturers, like VW, in striving to cut the weight of their vehicles have cut too much. They have trimmed so much from the front suspension coils that these important items are now prone to failure from metal fatigue caused by thousands of miles of constant flexing.


  1. I could not refrain from commenting. Exceptionally well written!

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  2. Great Review, Yes if someone looking for a vehicle, the 2 2011 VW Jetta TDI is an excellent choice. It features a comfortable interior that’s chock full of technology designed to make driving experience more convenient and enjoyable.

    Jetta interior