Testing America’s Best-Selling Diesel Car, the 42-MPG VW Jetta

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Volkswagen (VLKAY) ties Toyota (TM) and General Motors (GM) for being the world’s largest auto company with 10 million cars per year sold.  The Jetta is Volkswagen’s best-selling car world-wide, and in the U.S. Volkswagen dominates diesel sales by an extremely wide margin, some 70%+ of the total.

It is therefore only appropriate that we test the outgoing 2014 Volkswagen Jetta diesel, even though it is about to be replaced by a refreshed 2015 model that will also have a redesigned diesel engine. The car I drove for a week cost $25,545 plus tax.

At this price, the Jetta diesel includes, among other things, upgraded wheels, SiriusXM radio, leather steering wheel and fake leather seating where the driver’s seat is partially electrically adjustable. While that is good, at this price it also lacks a few important features.

For example, you still have to stick the key into the ignition, the lamps are not automatic and there is no backup camera. The biggest failing is around the infotainment system.  I could not figure out how to set up Bluetooth connectivity to any smartphone, and when I plugged in a handful of smartphones into the hard-wire jack, I couldn’t figure out how to get any of them to work.

Perhaps I would have been able to figure it out if I had consulted the manual.  However, these things should be sufficiently easy to use so that one doesn’t have to consult a manual in order to avoid an “F” grade. The only thing I was able to operate on the sound system was the radio, including SiriusXM, which worked just fine.

The complete inability to get Bluetooth and the auxilliary jack to work were, fortunately, the only major drawback I found on this car. There are, of course, some minor blemishes.

The size of the car itself is between compact sedan, and mid-size sedan.  It is usually compared with the smaller sedans, but I find that it is very close to the market’s best-selling midsize sedans.

The exterior styling is highly restrained.  Nobody will say it is ugly, but nobody will remember it either. Opening the doors, and closing the doors, you immediately start feeling the superior build quality.  It reminds you of a $40,000-$80,000 Mercedes, not a $25,000 standard sedan.

The front seat is good, the space around the pedals is excellent, and the steering wheel is extremely pleasant in its superior choice of leather.  So what’s wrong with this picture? Only one thing -- the glue that ties it all together. The distance from the pedals to the steering wheel is not long enough. The steering wheel needs to be able to telescope further away from the pedals.

If the steering wheel only telescoped at least an inch or two closer to the driver, away from the pedals, the seating position and overall comfort experience would be as good as in any car, even those at a much higher price.  

In the back seat, foot and knee spaces are adequate, but headroom falls at least one inch short. The VW Golf sister model has better headroom.

The Jetta’s trunk is legendary and second to nothing in its sedan class. Prospective buyers should also consider the wagon version, as well as the shorter but better-shaped Golf.

This brings us to the car’s single most impressive parts: the diesel engine and its associated automatic transmission. There is no doubt that this is the best engine/transmission combo you can buy anywhere near this price.

The diesel engine pulls almost as well as an electric motor, and the transmission shifts like a Porsche. BMW and Mercedes diesels are generally just as good, but they are much more expensive.

The VW Jetta diesel is rated at 30 miles per gallon city and 42 mpg highway. Without trying hard I managed 35 mpg in the city and 47 mpg on the highway. These are phenomenal numbers for a non-hybrid.

Reinforcing the superior drivetrain experience are the handling and overall quality feel of the body. More than any other car anywhere near $25,000, this is the car I can see myself buying today and driving until they take away my keys at age 115.  If you want a car that feels and acts “solid,” look no further than this 4-cylinder VW diesel.

Actually, it’s more than just the “solid” feel of this car that impresses. It is also crisp. The steering has no peer, the pedal feel is even better than a Porsche, and the handling is on par with the best in its class. Without a doubt, this is your optimal driver’s car unless you’re paying twice as much.

This is the engine you want in every other car in the market, aside from the not-very-direct comparison of an electric car.  For Volkswagen itself, I would like to see this engine in at least three following cars:

  1. Tiguan: This small SUV would be ideal for this engine and is sold as such in Europe.
  2. Routan minivan: This was a rebadged and now discontinued Chrysler-Dodge minivan. It is also the most optimal body of any car sold in the market. Volkswagen ought to make its own minivan in the future.
  3. Touareg: This larger SUV is due for a weight-saving redesign and to be offered in two versions: Two-row five passenger and three-row seven passenger. This 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder engine could power both.

In fact, this engine is so superior that almost every time I drive a non-electric car I think it should have this engine. I even thought about it when I drove the 2015 Dodge Challenger recently. You name the car, and it should have this diesel engine/transmission combination.

So should you buy this car? Well, this Jetta diesel and its Golf and wagon variants are my standard recommendation for anyone who doesn’t need a larger car such as a minivan.

Once you are comfortable with the boring -- almost unfinished, slab-sided looks of this car -- the only thing you need to ensure before you write the check for the VW Jetta diesel is that the car works with your smartphone. I could not get it to work with my devices.  You need to have the VW dealer show you and prove that it works before you pull the trigger.

You may want to pay for a few more thousand dollars of options, which could buy a better infotainment unit. That said, not only VW but also every other car company in the world should buy a Tesla and learn how it’s done. Whatever the other pros and cons of Tesla's (TSLA) car, I think the one undisputable Tesla advantage is the superior infotainment system. Basically, it is 10 to20 years ahead of everyone else in the industry.

In summary, there are only three reasons you shouldn’t buy the VW Jetta diesel:

  1. You can’t get the sound system to work with your smartphone.
  2. You need a bigger/taller car (wagon, SUV, minivan).
  3. Your driving needs are well-suited for an electric car such as Nissan's (NSANY) Leaf.

For everyone else, the Volkswagen Jetta diesel -- and its Golf and wagon sister models -- should be at the top of your car buying list -- 42 mpg average, real-life result, with superior quality and driving feel.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned, although positions may change at any time.

Follow @antonwahlman

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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