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2010 Volkswagen Golf TDI

Debunking the Diesel Stereotype

      Diesels have intrigued me from the time I was old enough to make basic automotive observations. Much to my delight, on family road trips my parent’s diesel 1978 Olds Custom Cruiser would fill up alongside the big-rig trucks. This fascination was bolstered by an uncle who owned a yellow diesel Rabbit in the ’80s followed by a diesel Ford Tempo, complete with the secondary battery mounted in the trunk. When it came time to find a light duty long distance tow vehicle I purchased a ’92 Chevrolet C2500 Silverado with a 6.5L turbo diesel. For all of their actual and perceived faults, each of these vehicles were compelling in some significant way. And yet diesels remain merely a niche in America’s automotive market. What is the reason for this? Is this simply due to undeserved stereotypes that won’t die, or a deficiency in the vehicles themselves?
      Several perceptions about diesels seem to continue to find traction: diesels’ low horsepower numbers result in a slow car, diesels are exclusively for hyper-milers, diesels are noisy, diesels are smelly and emit blue exhaust. Like an episode of ‘Myth Busters’ we set out to determine which of these perceptions are true. What better brand to seek the answers from than VW. We spent time behind the wheel of a Shark Blue Metallic VW Golf TDI 5-door and discovered a lot about the modern oil burner.
      One of the first things you’ll notice behind the wheel of this diminutive diesel is the difficulty of engaging the clutch effectively. Between the three editors (each of whose personal daily drivers have a 3rd pedal) we stalled more than 15 times, myself accumulating five stalls in two days. The transmission might be kindly described as vague and rubbery (or bluntly dismissed in favor of the optional and excellent DSG) and the clutch does not give a clear read on its pickup point. Once in motion, however, this car becomes quite entertaining. Torque is ample and provides brisk acceleration (VW says 0-60 mph in 8.6 seconds), something unexpected when reading the 140 hp rating. The real savior here is the torque rating of 236 lb-ft at 1,750 rpm: not shabby for such a small car. Perception #1 debunked.
      The handling abilities of the car were unanimously praised. For a tall-roof 5-door whose perceived audience is believed to be those seeking frugal fuel consumption, the Golf’s resistance to rolling in corners was a pleasant surprise. The nicely weighted and commendably direct steering was enjoyable in the few corners one can find in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.  VW’s latest Golf proved to be more than just a car sipping fuel on the open road. Perception #2 debunked.
      Once inside the Golf we found the materials were of the high quality expected from Volkswagen, though this interior was all black with only a few splashes of bright-work. Ergonomics are straightforward including climate controls that a pre-schooler could master. Seats had a pseudo-plaid pattern in black and grey, managing to remind one of the bright red plaid interiors of the GTI from years past, but without offending those with a more cautious sense of style. In this latest version Volkswagen appears to have repositioned the steering wheel for a more appropriate reach, even for those in excess of 6 feet tall. In the past, taller drivers had a full arm’s reach to grab the steering wheel, which was nestled up against the instrument panel. The Golf now provides adequate telescoping abilities resulting in a comfortable driving position that betrayed the idea that this was merely an economy car. Rear seat room was fine for two but comfort was somewhat hindered by a seatback that was a bit too upright. The interior proved to be sufficiently quiet to the point where I had to remind myself this car was actually diesel powered. Not until you step outside can you hear the unmistakable diesel rattle, and even then it is no louder than a gas powered car. Perception #3 debunked.
       So what about that diesel smell and blue exhaust? For all the miles we accumulated on the pedestrian looking VeeDub, it never exhausted a cloud of blue smoke from the tail pipe.  And about the diesel smell? You will still have to deal with that at the pump. So it looks like we have debunked perception #5 while perception #4 proves to remain based in reality but far from a deal breaker.
      Oh, there is another perception about diesels: high fuel mileage. EPA rating on the Golf TDI is 30 mpg in the city and 41 mpg on the highway and we managed to routinely exceed that even with a heavy right foot. For those who value frugal fuel economy, don’t listen to the talking heads who think a Prius is the only way to travel efficiently. Having successfully dismissed several negative perceptions about diesels as automotive myth, the Golf TDI comes recommended as the enthusiast’s alternative to the hybrid.

The Good:
Plenty of torque on hand for spirited acceleration, high grade interior materials, superb fuel economy, comfortable and supportive seats.
The Bad:
Upright rear seats, vague clutch pick-up point, a little plebian looking.
The Verdict:
The enthusiast’s alternative to a hybrid.

Photos by Jason Muxlow

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  1. Jim
    August 18th, 2010 at 09:04 | #1

    One more perception, is their start-up reliability in sub-zero temperatures (at least, back in the 80’s that was a big deal). Can you comment on that?

    They also just seem too expensive to own. Not that the technology is at fault, I realize the US government regulations make it unfavorable for automakers to develop diesels for this market, but the reason notwithstanding, it’s something like a ~$4k or 20% price differential ($19k vs $23k for the 4-door hatch). If your really into fuel economy, you buy a hybrid instead for about the same price and get much better fuel economy. Or for that matter, the Chevy Cruze will have a similar EPA rating for much (around $19k for the 1.4T version). If you’re into performance, something like the GTI is only slightly more expensive ($24k) and comes with more standard features (or better yet, a MazdaSpeed3 for the same price). Being somewhere in the middle of performance and fuel economy for a $23k compact isn’t particularly good in my opinion. Then you have the fact (in my area at least) that diesel fuel is priced about the same as premium unleaded.

    Don’t get me wrong, I would consider buying a diesel someday, but it’d have to priced more competitively with gasoline counterparts. 10% price premium max in my opinion.

  2. Erich Gernand
    August 19th, 2010 at 20:12 | #2

    Cold starting was something we obviously weren’t able to test out, since we drove this in July. However, I do remember the cold temperature diffuculty our ’78 Olds diesel had when it had exceeded 100,000 miles, leaving my father stranded at work more than once. My ’92 Chevy with the 6.5L turbo diesel never had cold start problems (it had 117,000 – 130,000 miles on it during my brief ownership) even though it was 12 years old at the time. I suspect things have improved. One thing I didn’t mention is that these direct injection diesel’s don’t seem to require you to wait for the glow plugs to warm up – something my ’92 still required.

    Regarding cost, we didn’t do a breakdown to find the break even point for the added expense. We did take a look at that when we test drove the Mercedes-Benz ML350 bluetech and found that it wasn’t a bad deal. I would also consider resale value – if looking to buy new, these VW diesel’s appear to hold their value very well. I was considering a diesel Jetta a few years back when I bought my GTO (I know – very dissimilar cars). I ended up passing on the Jetta because used ones with 50k + miles were selling for nearly the same price as a new car, and I was shopping during a time when VW was between diesel powertrains on Jettas. When factoring in the lack of depreciation, you might actually come out ahead.

    Thanks for your thoughts Jim – good points all around!

  1. September 4th, 2010 at 07:47 | #1
  2. November 21st, 2010 at 05:10 | #2
  3. April 1st, 2011 at 17:41 | #3
  4. May 9th, 2011 at 23:31 | #4
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