Thirty years ago, if you asked someone if they wanted to spend a week driving a diesel-powered car, the reaction might have been something along the lines of, “Uh, yeah, I suppose…” After all, diesels were not the most exciting cars on the road, even though they were being touted for their superior fuel economy in the wake of the 1970s oil crisis.
Today, I jump at the chance to sample a new diesel car. Why? Because they are some of the most fun-to-drive cars on the road, in addition to the fact that they get really good mileage. Oh, and that they’re now environmentally friendly is sort of icing on the cake.
Volkswagen has been on a roll with diesel cars lately. The Jetta TDI (the designation of VW’s diesel powertrain, for turbo direct injection) was crowned Green Car of the Year at the 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show and has been taking the car world by storm ever since.
Once word got out that the diesel Jetta was a winner, people flocked to showrooms to get them. At one point last year, there were so many buyers on waiting lists for new Jetta TDIs that many were told they’d have to wait for 2010 models, as the 2009 run was already spoken for.
For the new model year, Volkswagen has broadened the TDI range to include the Golf hatchback. (Yes, the car was called the Rabbit in its previous guise, but VW has now decided to go back to the Golf moniker, which is the worldwide name of the car.) For those of us who love hatchbacks, this is a great combination of car and engine.
While the Golf TDI I tested was a 3-door, it provided me with a look at how wonderful the latest Golf is, especially just a couple of months after sampling the GTI performance model. Unless you need the extra flash of the sportier car, the Golf is a much more sensible choice, especially as a diesel.
So what’s the big deal of a diesel, you may ask. Well, simply put, a diesel engine provides great torque for acceleration, which is handy for the way most of us drive. Sure, horsepower and quarter mile acceleration times are impressive on a spec sheet, but in day-to-day getting around, a diesel engine like VW’s TDI is much more user-friendly. Unlike diesels of the past, modern diesel engines are able to propel a car without all the smoke and noise many people may associate with them. What comes out of the tailpipe is remarkably clean; cleaner in many ways than some gasoline engines.
Technology has really helped diesels. Turbocharging adds tons of power and torque down low in the rpm range, and direct injection means that combustion is very efficient and well-timed. The numbers speak for themselves: the Golf TDI (with manual transmission) is rated by the EPA at 30 miles per gallon city and 41 highway. That’s way better than a comparable gasoline engine, and nipping at the figures for a gas-electric hybrid of the same size.
Keep in mind that these numbers are for a car that’s actually rather substantial, not some shrunken-down toy. The Golf is a compact in official government classification, but it hardly ever feels like one. There is ample room inside, even if you’re on the tall or large side. For probably 75% of the driving public, this is all the car they’d really need.
To be honest, the diesel isn’t quite as silent as a modern gasoline engine, but it’s close. At start-up, there’s a definite pulsing noise coming from under the hood. But once underway, you’d probably never know you were in a diesel. The only telltale signs are a low scale on the tachometer (diesels make great power between about 1500-3000 rpm so there’s not much reason to rev them higher), and of course a much higher reading than you might expect on the fuel gauge after driving quite a few miles.
My Volkswagen Golf TDI test car started with a sticker price of $21,990 (adding two extra doors to make it a 5-door is about another $500), and it was by no means stripped down. Things like 17” aluminum wheels and other “premium” items are included. There were some options on it, like a $1750 navigation system and a $1000 moon roof, but I think a frugal customer could do without those.
The bottom line is that if someone offers you a chance to drive a modern diesel car like the VW Golf TDI, say “yes.” Or better yet, say “yes PLEASE!” Put those thoughts of old-fashioned diesel cars out of your mind, and put your right foot down for some driving fun.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net.