Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2015 Volkswagen Jetta Highline TDI

In my opinion, there are two reasons to buy a diesel powered vehicle: one is the power -- you typically get great power from standstill and when passing, along with super smooth highway cruising – and the other is that you save at the pump.

That latter reason is huge because it will cost you more to buy a diesel-powered vehicle in the first place. So to justify the purchase many consumers will factor that into the cost over the period of ownership. Historically, diesel owners have ended up ahead, but a big factor is the price of gasoline, because that's what we're comparing it to, right?

So it is that a base 2015 Volkswagen Jetta TDI at $23,890 (with manual transmission) costs $3,200 more than the base car with the new, powerful and very efficient 1.8L TSI gasoline engine (you can save even more by opting for the old 2.0L, 115 hp engine, but I wouldn't recommend it).

But it’s cold, our vehicle’s loaded with passengers and their gear, and we’re headed through some mountainous terrain, so you never know.

But look what's happened. Diesel fuel in my town was selling for $1.15 a litre when I took delivery of a Jetta TDI test car, while gasoline is down to about $0.80 a litre. Oops. If you're weighing the pros and cons of diesel, what now?

Well, if it stays this way people are going to buy fewer diesels, I reckon, and fewer hybrids for sure. But that said, we still did our planned long-distance drive to New York City in a 2015 Volkswagen Jetta TDI, a loaded Highline version with twin-clutch automatic transmission that stickers at $32,185 plus $1,495 freight/pdi.  A 1,500 km round trip, we expected to do it on less than two tanks (there's a 55L tank in the Jetta). We're thinking 80L; less than $100 return in our currently anemic Canadian dollars. That's tough to beat, whatever you're driving.

But it's cold, our vehicle's loaded with passengers and their gear, and we're headed through some mountainous terrain, so you never know.

Diesel fuel was down to $1.09 for the initial fill-up in Ottawa, so that's encouraging (have you downloaded the GasBuddy app? Very useful!). We were three adults with luggage for several days (we would return with more...). The route is a favourite of mine, a leisurely drive through the Adirondack Mountains via secondary highways that deposit you onto the I-87 at Albany (the capital of New York). From there it's all fast Interstate, terminating with the charming (if any multi-lane highway can be described as charming...) Palisades Interstate Parkway. This is a 67-km tree-lined stretch of four-lane road built in 1958, of a type known as a “Scenic Byway.” One of its old-timey service stations is located in the wide centre boulevard so you access it from the left lane. It even has an old-timey speed limit of 80 km/h.

By the time we approached NYC, the Jetta TDI's trip odometer was reading just over 700 kilometres, with a projected range of another 400 km. We had consumed 5.4L of fuel per 100 km, which is awesome fuel consumption for an almost fully laden car in the middle of winter. Hard to get used to this; my much loved (but now sold) Honda Element typically got about 400 km on a full tank!

Part of the reason for this incredible fuel economy is that this model year the Jetta TDI got a new engine that now makes 150 hp (as opposed to 140 hp) and 236 lb-ft torque, and it gets improved fuel economy compared with last year's TDI. It's those characteristics -- the power combined with the superb fuel economy -- that distinguish a diesel-powered vehicle from a hybrid, for instance, which may have great fuel consumption but typically offers lacklustre acceleration (until you get to the premium models, that is). They also distinguish it from a gasoline powered vehicle that may have the same horsepower, won't match the torque and won't, in real world driving, match the frugal fuel consumption.

Also new in the Jetta this year (this is not an all-new version; it's what the industry calls a mid-cycle refresh) are a revised and more aerodynamic front grille and fascia, the obligatory LED headlight accents and an interior that includes a new instrument panel and vent bezels, along with ambient lighting, and chrome and piano black accents.. Inside, it's classier looking than the 2014 model; outside, a mini Passat, I guess.

The 2015 Jetta TDI Highline gets an array of driver assists, too, including rear cross-traffic alert, park distance and blind spot warning, active headlights and frontal collision alert. Right now, these features are only available on the Highline; Volkwagen's considering adding them to “lower” line versions as well. Ours also featured a nice Fender-branded audio system and a navigation system with weather reports, traffic information and comprehensive information on each restaurant or other place of interest that you may encounter. Still no automatic headlights, though.

The controls are conventional in the Jetta, basically buttons that you push, knobs you turn and options selected via the touch-screen display. The latter, however, can be fussy and distracting to use. In my opinion, you need big icons and a bigger display if you're going to use touch-screen inputs as the actual interface. This one's small, its surface soft and it can take several tries to get a reaction. Voice activation is available, but I must confess that while normally affable on a long trip, I haven't become used to talking to my car (other than swearing at it on occasion when it responds with dumb questions). I wonder how many people regularly use voice activation in their vehicles...

After uneventfully crossing the George Washington Bridge and making our way across the top of Manhattan Island, we headed along Harlem River Drive all the way from 174th Street, which turns into FDR Drive as you proceed south. The stop-and-go traffic didn't phase our fuel consumption which now showed an astonishing 5.2 L/100km.

Upon exiting the FDR Parkway we made our way over and down to Lexington and 26th, site of the brand new “Lex” hotel situated across the road from the formidable 69th regiment armoury which definitely needs a good clean. The Lex has no parking and no valet service, so I headed around the corner to a local underground parking lot where the Jetta would reside for the next three days.

“Holy crap...” said an amused parking lot attendant (not referring to the over-rated cereal behind which our Canadian “Dragons” have thrown their weight), “...That's the dirtiest car I've ever seen!”

It was true. The Jetta was really filthy. That's the thing about New York City in the winter... while it's often windy, the temperature rarely dips below zero for any length of time and they don't usually see much snow. A salt-encrusted car, therefore, is an object of fascination and/or derision, so seeing an opportunity, an offer was made by the attendant to wash, shampoo and vacuum the Jetta for $25.00. I accepted, left the car and, as it turned out, my camera sitting on the seat. Do'h...

What can one say about New York City?  It's a microcosm – literally, a “small world.” Everything is there. We go for the music, the architecture, the food, the galleries and museums, the historic sites, the energy. Cultural tourists, as they say in the trade.

We arrived at Happy Hour on Tuesday (a nice touch!) only to learn that they only offer Happy Hour on Tuesdays…

But we don't drive. Once the car is parked, we walk, we use the subway, we take a cab. This time it was  to the Henri Matisse “Cutouts” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (where Volkswagen is a major sponsor, I later learned), Modernism and a special Cezanne exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art followed, then the recently re-opened Cooper Hewitt Design Museum (now featuring 3D Printing and somewhat sinister drones the size of insects...). Jazz at the Lincoln Centre (Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola featuring Sammy Miller's Congregation) and pianist Fred Hersch at the Village Vanguard filled the evenings. No flies on us!

But in Manhattan, we've yet to find a hotel we've retuned to. The Lex, while promising (near Gramercy Park, a great area) was too expensive for what it delivered. We arrived at Happy Hour on Tuesday (a nice touch!) only to learn that they only offer Happy Hour on Tuesdays... The included breakfast (coffee and a muffin) is actually distributed on a counter in the front lobby, there was no radio in the room, a brick wall was the view, and dim, grey decor made the whole place seem underlit. The employees were helpful and pleasant, though.

We struck out with the food, too. Our Italian restaurant's promising menu and wine list was literally foreign to the servers, all of whom were very polite and happy to talk, however.

“Guess where I'm from,” said our server.

“Umm. Italy?”

“Everybody says that,” he beamed. “No! Kosovo!”

Get away! Well, who'd have thought? So... what do you think of this red?” I asked pointing to a Sicilian wine on the list.

“I don't drink wine, but it's good. Everything here is good! We're all from Kosovo, you know,” continued our server, waving at a friend working behind the bar from whom he received a thumbs-up.

We waved, too.

He was a nice guy. Loved to talk. I thought he was actually going to sit down and join us at one point! He couldn't guess where we were from, though, even when we said it was in North America but was not the US or Mexico. Unfortunately the wine was lifeless and I can't remember what I ate.

Back at the parking lot the next day, the Jetta sparkled. They'd done the carpets, the Toffee Brown Metallic paint was as good as any brown can possibly be, and my camera was carefully placed in the map pocket. Reassuring.

To get out of the city we headed west to the Henry Hudson Parkway and then north back the the George Washington Bridge. You pay $13.00 to get onto the island but no charge to get off. Traffic was brutal, but amusingly we got behind a cab with a “Drivers Wanted” message on the trunk. It's wasn't a V-Dub, though; it was an old Crown Vic'.

Exiting the bridge we stuck to the Interstates all the way, and after 250 km with the trip computer calculating another 150 km worth of diesel in the tank, I blinked and headed for a service station.

We still showed fuel consumption at a rate of 5.2 L/100km and would until arriving in Ottawa. Final calculation was 78L of fuel for a 1,500 km journey. I don't think there's a hybrid that I've driven that can equal, let alone beat those numbers. Plus this vehicle seems oblivious to high speeds; the fuel consumption seems to actually go down.

Furthermore, the Jetta TDI is a very agreeable car to drive. Dead quiet on the highway; responsive, comfortable, and Jettas still have their signature huge trunk (440L). Criticisms are that the warning lights in the mirrors for Blind Spot Monitoring system could be brighter, the touchscreen display was sluggish and undersized (even though apparently ours is a slightly bigger screen than they get in the US), the location for the push-button start (by your right knee) is unusual and kind of inconvenient, and the deep-set instruments are occasionally not illuminated as a sensor unsuccessfully attempts to adjust for ambient light (tunnels, shadows, other low light conditions, dusk). Rather than sensors and audible alarms, just fit automatic headlights please, and leave the dash lights alone.

Finally, I'd recommend the automatic transmission with the TDI. It's anecdotal, I know, but every TDI manual transmission owner I've met (including myself, for a year or so) complains that they stall the car. I think I know why (not enough throttle when starting), but the auto 'box is a better match, in my opinion.

4 years/80,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/80,000 km 24-hour roadside assistance

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Model Tested 2015 Volkswagen Jetta Highline TDI
Base Price $28,290
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,395
Price as Tested $32,280
Optional Equipment
Technology Package: $2,495