Last weekend, we finally traded in my Nissan Pathfinder for a new vehicle. The old girl had 147,000 odd miles on it, the exhaust system was falling off and it was doing annoying things like shutting off when I applied the brakes too hard. As if to make the point that it really didn't want to go to the big recycling plant in the sky, it died at the largest intersection between my house and the dealer where we had been looking at cars the week before. After a bit of swearing, pleading and pounding on the steering wheel, it wheezed into the dealer's lot and gracefully expired as it coasted into a parking spot.
After weeks of test drives, visiting dealers and doing some research, we settled on the 2010 VW Jetta TDI (diesel.) I've always had a sneaking love of German cars, born of racing AFX cars in the basement, reading racing magazines and dreaming about flying down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans in a Porsche 917. My first German car, a used 1998 Audi A6, sealed this love affair and also confirmed everything that my engineer father thought of them- "over-engineered and over-priced" he would fume at the dinner table. Being an engineer he just couldn't see any point of designing anything beyond the functionality of an engine, four wheels and a steering wheel. The Audi was like dating a beautiful, tempermental woman. When it worked, it was an absolute blast to drive, luxurious and absolutely bulletproof when driving way beyond the safety limits on a snowy highway. When it bitched and was in a snit, it was horribly expensive to fix, cranky and tempermental. At one point I actually owned two Audis as I re-built a 1991 Quattro V8 which I bought for $ 3,500 cash but that's a story for another day.
Anyways, in the rush to build green vehicles with great gas mileage, Volkswagen has gone back to the future in the TDI. Years of building diesel vehicles (and testing them on the racetrack in Audi's TDI program) has yielded a vehicle that seems to do the impossible- get great gas mileage and yet be fun to drive. Many of the problems that hounded diesels in the past such as engine noise, wet and cold start issues ("don't call me when it's four degrees out" huffed my dad) have been eliminated. The interior is very well appointed, functional and the fit and finish is nice and tight. Turn the switch to the first position, wait a second for the glow plug light to go out and the 4 cylinder diesel rumbles to life.
4 cylinder you say ? No power you think ? Wrong again. Although the engine only generates 140 horsepower, it also pushes nearly 230 pounds of torque to the front wheels. Mash the pedal, wait amount for the turbo to spool up and the beast punches you back into your seat (rumor has it that Audi's new electric sportscar will generate over 1,000 pounds of torque.) This is no breadbox with batteries stuffed into every nook and cranny, it is 3,600 odd pounds of solid German iron that makes me shake my head everytime I see a Prius. Although diesels have never really caught on in the US the way they have in Europe, Volkswagen may have finally come up with the right package of fuel efficiency, power and luxury to make more car owners take a serious look at vehicles like the TDI.
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