2 German turbo diesels — the flashy BMW 328d and the sturdy VW Jetta TDI — offer competing insights into fuel efficiency and fun
CASEY WILLIAMS | Auto Reviewer
In the early 1980s, after their Pontiac Phoenix disintegrated, my parents bought an Oldsmobile Cutlass diesel wagon — woodgrain, burnt orange paint and all. It rattled like a Peterbilt, stunk like a truckstop and was anything but sexy, but it sparked my affection for both wagons and diesels. I’m weird.
Race ahead 30 years, through a few trips to the gym, and you get something like the BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon.
It wears the same handsome face as other 3-Series models with the traditional twin-kidney grille and quad headlamps. It’s only when you move around to the side that you realize the roof goes on like
Shaq on his back. Riding 18-in. alloys, the car has a wide stance. Taut lines look athletic and sophisticated. Walk around the back, press a button and power up the hatch to toss in a bicycle, stroller or yourself and your partner.
Lift the hood to peer over the 2.0-liter turbo-diesel engine that delivers 180 horsepower, 280 lb.-ft. of torque and near-hybrid fuel economy ratings of 31/43-MPG city/hwy. Typical of diesels, tepid horsepower is accompanied by ground-stomping torque and smooth turbos. An 8-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters, all-wheel-drive and auto start/stop enhances fuel economy and all-weather performance.
Interior design is a balance of serious driving environment and upscale luxury. I love our test car’s heated red leather seats, red-stitched leather-wrapped steering wheel and alloy dash trim. Big analog gauges, rain-sensing wipers, and automatic climate control make the car easy to drive. (I could do without the optional red trim on the dash, which makes it look like a $16,000 compact over-reaching — not exactly the right image.)
BMW’s Driving Dynamics Control with Eco, Comfort, Sport and Sport+ modes modulate the throttle, steering, and suspension for vastly different personalities. Eco mode makes the throttle less sensitive to conserve fuel. Comfort balances handling with on-road relaxation. Sport mode tightens everything — the best choice for tearing up backroads.
In all weather, the xDrive AWD system never puts a wheel wrong. Wafting along at 80 mph was as easy as sneezing with that thundering torque under-butt. BMW could work a bit on the diesel rattle, but on the highway, the car was smooth and quiet. I could settle in with all of my newborn daughter’s gear, or a week’s worth of camping gear, for a drive to the moon.
BMW’s 3-Series has been the benchmark sport sedan for decades, an absolute delight to drive. Those wanting something sexier went for the coupe or convertible. But, I think the Sports Wagon is the sexiest 3-Series of all. It looks suave with its 18-in. alloys and Sport Line package, but is also insanely practical. Press a button, flip up the hatch, and toss in all your stuff. Tap into all-wheel-drive and an efficient diesel for a car that loves to roam during all seasons.
A base price of $42,950, and $51,525 as tested, puts it against the Cadillac CTS, Audi Allroad and Volvo V60 wagons.
Volkswagen first introduced a diesel engine to the U.S. with the 1977 Rabbit. Since then, more than a million diesel-powered VWs have been sold here. Slap the wheel of a 2014 Jetta TDI and you’ll understand why.
Diesels were once rattling slug bombs that delivered outstanding fuel economy despite their misery. That’s a long-ago memory now, replaced with deep torque and athletic highway cruising. Jetta TDI shares its 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine — which delivers 140 horsepower and a ground-tapping 236 lb.-ft. of torque — with the Passat, Beetle, Golf and Tiguan. With the six-speed manual transmission, fuel economy is rated 30/42-MPG, which in my experience is completely understating reality. I’ve seen over 45-MPG on longer trips, clicking along at 80mph in the fast lane (perfect for hot-hoofing across wide expanses of Texas asphalt).
You’d be hard-pressed to tell that from looking at the Jetta’s conservative suit. The sedan’s taut lines are handsome, accentuated with VW’s trademark grille, sculpted hood, chiseled sides, and 16-in. alloy wheels. A high trunk and lower front splitter look good and enhance aerodynamics. Like the larger Passat, the Jetta is not anything exciting from the outside, but it appears substantial and upscale.
Hopefully the next generation will be more flamboyant.
It’s mostly Nerdville inside as well. I’m not sure why diesel-powered German sedans always come with unadorned interiors, but I’m guessing it’s to make sure they last as long as the engine. Our test car came with black leatherette seats, but at least they were heated, thickly bolstered and with lower lumbar adjustment. A leather-wrapped steering wheel, iPod audio input, satellite radio and auto up/down windows add panache, as do cruise control, trip computer and silver metallic trim on the dash and doors.
What makes VWs special is their buttoned-down seriousness. The interior is basic, but comfortable and supportive on long drives. A wide dead pedal, roomy back seat, precise adjustment of climate controls and rear armrest that clicks into place instead of flopping down like a wet sardine tell you a horde of engineers were involved in making the Jetta something more than just another compact sedan.
If your friends make fun of you for buying a “boring” Jetta TDI, it’s probably because they aren’t driving one themselves. The combination of low-down torque, turbo at speed and the control of a six-speed manual create a fun drive. It is no BMW sport sedan, but the car feels precise, goes where you steer it and floats over rough pavement without shaking a creak. A very long drive would be both cheap and enjoyable.
If you like this TDI, wait until later this year when Volkswagen introduces a new diesel engine for the 2015 Golf, Beetle, Beetle Convertible, Passat and Jetta. Employing advanced technology, the engines will be cleaner, more fuel efficient and 10 horsepower more powerful. Sounds good to me.
Volkswagen has owned the affordable diesel market for a couple of decades, but diesel versions of the Chevy Cruze and Mazda3 will give it a challenge. Challenge, maybe, but they’ll have to work hard to build a car as well-engineered, efficient and fun-to-drive as the Jetta TDI.
Stickers at $16,895, but our test car came to $24,015.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 25, 2014.
CASEY WILLIAMS | Auto Reviewer