Jetta diesel has come a long way
No longer loud or smoky, hatchback is powerful, affordable.

With the end of $30 a barrel oil comes renewed interest in fuel economy.

Along with a growing number of gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles, diesel engine automobiles are seen as another solution, one that smacks of a '70s era revival in the United States.

While diesel engines have long been used in trucks and buses in the United States and abroad, diesel engine cars never lost popularity in Europe, where gasoline has always been expensive. So, it's no surprise that German automakers are pushing the diesel as one solution to the high price of fuel in the United States.

Diesel cars offer significantly better mileage than their gasoline counterparts. Although diesel fuel isn't available at every station, the diesel engine fuel economy rivals that of a hybrid gas-electric, enough to entice many buyers.

This week, I'll review the Volkswagen Jetta, an affordable diesel car. Next week, we'll look at the new diesel car from Mercedes-Benz, the E320 CDI.

The Jetta GLS TDI is pretty much your standard-issue German-engineered car, albeit one powered by a 1.9-liter 4-cylinder turbo-charged diesel engine. Rated at 100 horsepower, the diesel mill will move the Jetta as capably as any 100-horsepower motor, which is to say sufficiently fast.

Its speed is about the same as most 4-cylinder economy cars. Initial throttle response is anemic until the turbo kicks in, then the car has the power to navigate modern highways without the tortoise-like response once associated with diesels.

While acceleration has been improved, so has the diesel engine's characteristics. It's smoother and quieter than diesel vehicles of 30 years ago, with little of the noisy clatter and just a trace of smoke.

The turbo diesel is available in GL and upscale GLS trim. The test vehicle was the GLS.

Supportive black velour seats and high-quality black plastic trim gave the dark blue test car a gloomy appearance.

Overall fit and finish seem very upscale.

The front seat leg room is generous, while the rear seat leg room seems cramped.

Controls are simple and easy to use. The switchgear has a feel that seems to justify its higher price.

Handling is as surprising as the fuel economy. The ride is firm and well-controlled over rutted roads and pothole-filled streets. Ride motion is well-controlled, but there is a surprising amount of body lean, and it comes on very quickly.

Best of all is the mileage, coming in at a wallet-friendly 41.7 mpg. With diesel fuel prices running at or below the price of petrol, that would seem to make it well worth it.

Still, the Jetta's pricetag of more than $23,000 as tested makes the car significantly more expensive to purchase than your run-of-the-mill small car. This is true of Volkswagens in general, as their prices tend to be higher than comparably-sized cars. So the difference in mileage will hardly make up the difference between the price of a Jetta TDI and its competition.

Say your typical small car will get 32 mpg, versus the 42 mpg that the Jetta will return. Over 100,000 miles, the Jetta will consume 2,381 gallons of diesel versus the small car's 3,125 gallons of gasoline. That's a difference of 744 gallons of gasoline. Sounds like a lot right?

But assuming that gasoline is priced a quarter per gallon higher than diesel, that's a difference of $2,083. But the initial purchase price of the Jetta test vehicle is significantly higher than similarly sized vehicles, between $4,000 and $8,000. So you won't make up for the higher cost through greater fuel efficiency.

However, you will save money when comparing the Jetta TDI to its gas-powered sibling, with a price that starts almost $400 more than a deisel Jetta.

Of course, with a deisel engin your overall range is a lot farther. So if you regularly drive long distances, there are fewer stops to make. If time is money in your world, this means savings beyond mere fuel economy.

So depending on your economic perspective, this car may or may not make sense. Still, the car itself is pure Jetta.

Couple that with good fuel economy and you get an affordable German-powered diesel that's unique in its market segment. For some drivers, that's ideal.

For other buyers, more luxury and performance is a must. For that customer, Mercedes-Benz makes the E320 CDI. We'll look at that car next week.

Jetta GLS TDI Wagon
Engine: 1.9-liter Turbo Direct Injection four-cylinder
Transmission: 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic
Tires: P195/65R15
Wheelbase: 99 inches
Length: 173.6 inches
Width: 68.3 inches
Weight: 3,212 pounds
Cargo volume: 34 cubic ft. (seats up), 51.9 cubic ft. (seats folded)
Base price: $21,480
As tested: $23,280
EPA rating: 32 city, 43 highway
Test mileage: 41.7 mpg
Fuel type: Diesel
Built in: Wolfsburg, Germany