By Allen Penticoff
In my last column (“Mr. Green Car: Shifting automatically,” March 21-27 issue) I reported on the driving experience in a rented Volkswagen Jetta as it concerned the manual use of the automatic transmission. This week, I’ll look a bit more at the car itself. In particular, I’ll explore some of the powertrain options and what efficiency they provide or don’t provide.
I found the new Jetta to be a pleasant car to drive. It fit me well, and after a time, I adapted to its very sensitive/quick steering. The cruise control operation was a bit different from most, but I soon found it was quite logical and easy to use. A neat feature I discovered one rainy day was that the windshield wipers will automatically go into intermittent mode from continuous mode when you are stopped. Again, that computer knows what you’re up to.
The Jetta’s ride was nice, and it seemed to be a very roomy car — literally within the definition of your “average” sedan these days. There were times when I could push it in corners hard and found the handling is what you’d expect from a sedan with a sporty image. The engine had good response, and acceleration was excellent — although, as reported previously, in traffic in “Drive,” normal acceleration could be sluggish because the transmission quickly reaches sixth gear at low speed. But, if you put your foot down, it would respond quickly and go. I found manually shifting the automatic to have many benefits.
So, like nearly all new cars, it handles nice and all. Where the Jetta may stand out from the pack is the variety of engines and transmissions offered. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website, FuelEconomy.gov, there are no less than eight combinations for a 2012 Jetta. There are two basic engines — a 2.0-liter four-cylinder and a 2.5-liter five-cylinder. The 2.0-liter engine can be had as a diesel as well as gas.
Both engines are available with a five-speed manual, six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Either engine with the automatic or five-speed manual uses regular unleaded gasoline, while those opting for the sporty versions will need to buy premium gas, as these will have turbocharged 2.0-liter engines for more power. Essentially, there are four engine variations in the line-up.
As far as fuel economy is concerned, the diesel with the manual transmission is the winner. VW calls their TDI diesels “clean diesel” — well, as clean as an ordinary diesel can be anyway. Their common rail fuel injectors and carbon traps do reduce pollution and provide reasonable economy, but it is not a technological breakthrough by any means. The diesel/manual attains 30 mpg city and 42 highway. Real-world users report highway mileage averages of 44.3 mpg. The EPA estimates the average annual fuel cost would be $1,850*.
By comparison, the 2.0-liter with five-speed manual is the best gas sipper, with 24 city and 34 highway mpg for an annual fuel cost of $2,100 burning regular gas. The 2.0-liter with an automatic is the least efficient of the lot with 23 city/29 hwy mpg for an annual fuel cost of $2,350. However, the 2.0-liter six-speed manual has the highest annual fuel cost of $2,400 because it uses premium fuel (22 city/33 hwy mpg). All the gas versions will attain highway mileage figures in the 30-34 mpg range.
Clearly, the diesel versions will save money despite the often high price of diesel fuel. Diesels also have a much longer range on a tank of fuel and are champs for saving long-distance commuters money. Driving a diesel is little different from driving a gas-fueled car; however, because of the fuel efficiency and technology, the VW Jetta diesel yields 299 grams of greenhouse gases per mile versus 317-355 grams per mile for the various gasoline fueled engine/drivetrain options. So, indeed their diesel is “cleaner.”
I’ve seen several times comments by auto magazine writers that if we switched over to driving with diesel, our oil resources would be conserved and dependence on foreign oil curtailed — and now we can see it has environmental benefits as well. Not included in the above is VW is coming out with a hybrid version of the Jetta for 2013 — I’ll look at that separately in the future. But for now, if you are in the market for an “average” sedan or wagon — a Jetta diesel may be a great car to move you about.
* EPA annual cost estimates are for comparison purposes. The website allows you to enter current local fuel prices and your annual mileage for a more accurate cost analysis.
From the April 4-10, 2012, issue