Diesel-powered cars save on fuel, but many of them won't save you any money.
That's because they cost thousands more to buy in the first place, compared with similar gas-powered models. And many automakers usually offer diesel engines only in combination with a pricey set of standard features.
So it can take years — if ever — to make up for those upfront costs through savings at the pump.
That's what makes the latest addition to Volkswagen's growing diesel fleet, the Jetta TDI Value Edition, so intriguing. It offers the same diesel engine used across VW's lineup in a stripped-down package with an aggressive price: $22,115 with a manual transmission and $23,215 with a dual-clutch automated manual.
That cuts more than $2,300 from the price of the standard Jetta TDI and makes it by far the least expensive U.S. diesel car. It undercuts VW's other diesel models — including the Golf, Jetta Sportwagen and Passat — by an even wider margin. The Value Edition also stands out for its rare mix of a premium drivetrain with only basic standard features, a combination we'd like to see more of across the industry.
The pairing of the TDI engine with VW's standard-setting dual-clutch gearbox is among the best in the industry at blending fuel economy — 30 miles per gallon in the city and 42 mpg on the highway — with driving fun.
The engine is VW's 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo diesel with a modest 140 horsepower but gobs of torque, at 236 pound-feet. The torque translates to impressive power at the lower end of the rev range, making it shine in both city driving and freeway passing.
From an efficiency standpoint, the Jetta is merely good in the city but terrific on the highway, approaching the fuel-economy of the most efficient gas-electric hybrids. On a trip from Los Angeles to Phoenix, we saw 43 mpg and got better than 600 miles out of a single tank of fuel.
But that same trip highlighted what you give up for the sake of value. Hours spent in the cabin reinforces the cheapness of the interior. Gone are upscale dash coverings and silver inserts in the door panels. Every surface in the interior is a cheap slab of shiny black plastic.
The cheapening extends even to the steering wheel, which loses the leather wrapping and chrome accents available on more upscale Jettas. The cloth seats — instead of the leatherette in many Jettas — also look low-rent and could be more comfortable, particularly on long trips.
Buying the more expensive version of the Jetta TDI, which starts at $25,545, gets you 16-inch alloy wheels, chrome trim on the grille and windows, carpeted floor mats, heated washer nozzles, lumbar adjustment in the driver's seat, a multi-function steering wheel, Bluetooth and VW Car-Net, which connects to your smartphone.
That's a substantial upgrade, but it drives the price to a point where the diesel makes less sense as a pure efficiency play. The economic math on the Value Edition, by contrast, is compelling when compared with gas-powered economy cars in the same price range and lower-end hybrids such as the Toyota Prius.
The cheapest Prius costs $25,010, a substantial premium over this new entry-level TDI. The Toyota is arguably a nicer car, and gets better fuel economy, particularly in city driving, but the Jetta is more fun to drive by a wide margin.
The benefits of VW's diesels get better over the long term because of two related factors: Longevity and resale value. Anyone who has shopped for a used TDI has experienced sticker shock, even for older models with high miles. They resell so well because there's a short supply of used diesels and the engines are known to last for hundreds of thousands of miles.
Whether you want to log all those miles in a bare-bones interior, riding on steel wheels with plastic hubcaps, is a matter of personal taste. But recent sales of the entire Jetta lineup would suggest there's a large customer base that cares more about value than upscale features and superior build quality.
When the sixth-generation Jetta was released in 2010, many auto critics hated it, calling it a dumbed-down Americanized remake that lacked the German sophistication of the previous generation Jetta, which was essentially a sedan version of the Golf.
American buyers have had a much different reaction — running down to their local VW dealer, cash in hand. VW sold more than 163,000 Jettas in 2013, compared with about 74,000 in 2010, the last year of the pricier, better equipped fifth generation.
By undercutting most other U.S. diesels by thousands of dollars, VW may well add to that total this year.
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