By Fred Ortlip
In 1975, I bought a groundbreaking new Volkswagen, introduced in 1974 as Golf but called Rabbit in North America, in what was the start of an affectionate relationship with VW’s unorthodox hatchback model.
Over the years, the new ’75 was followed by used models — a ’77, an ’89 GTI and a ’96 GTI. Then in what would be the first of two leasing forays, we signed for and drove away a 2006 Rabbit (regretting only the short-lived return to that awful name) and then switching to a Jetta in 2009.
After years of driving older cars, then six years of driving newer cars but having nothing to show for it after the clock ran out, it was time to make another long-term commitment.
Given that I’ve long been enchanted by VW’s turbo diesel, selecting a Golf TDI was an easy choice.
The early models — the antithesis of today’s “clean diesel” — were industry leaders in fuel economy at the expense of being smoky, smelly, noisy and dog slow. Autoist correspondent Richard Van Treuren owned a 1982 five-speed Jetta diesel, producing all of 48 horsepower, and I still remember driving it around the neighborhood when he passed through town after a club convention. The car felt like it was dragging an anchor.
“It was scary trying to merge with traffic going uphill,” Rich recalled recently. “You’d turn off the a/c to accelerate, and I had no problem because my 30-mile commute was flat and had only one light.”
Rich says he routinely got 42-43 mpg, an unheard of achievement in those days. “I got really bold once with (a space shuttle) orbiter mechanic friend who brought tools to allow a precise engine timing at about 40,000 miles, which included what was something like a richness setting on the injector pump,” he said. “Picked up 2 mpg and noticeable pep with that.
“When tire time came, I installed low-rolling resistance Pirelli P8 tires, picked up an honest 2 mpg with that. Amsoil synthetic gear oil for the tranny made a noticeable difference in ease of shifting, and another 1 or 2 mpg. For some reason Union 76 diesel fuel gave us consistently 1-2 mpg more than any other brand — now defunct, of course. So at about 80,000 miles if I could find 76 fuel and was fairly careful, we would routinely get 50-51 mpg.”
At the 90,000-mile mark, he tried Amsoil diesel fuel additive “and though they swore it was OK, we noticed a little fuel seepage on the pump. It was trade-in time anyway because we had to have a wagon. The fellow who bought it from the dealer the same afternoon just ignored the drip as long as we knew him.”
You’ve probably heard that in the three decades since, VW has made notable progress with its diesels. Today’s high-tech direct injection engine is dubbed a “clean diesel,” and the days of 3 yards and a cloud of soot are long gone.
I don’t have the benefit of driving many cars to appreciate and compare their nuances, but using the five-cylinder 2006 Rabbit and ’09 Jetta as a bench mark made me realize how splendid the 2012 Golf TDI is.
I assumed this Golf would be fairly comparable, after hearing how the newer turbo diesels were more like the gas engine cars. But it exceeded expectations. This TDI has some serious cojones, measured at 236 lb.-feet of torque at 1,750 rpm. By comparison, the 2009 Jetta is rated at 177 lb.-feet at 4,250 rpm. (The ’82 Jetta diesel cranked out 75 lb.-feet at 2,000 rpm.)
In real-world terms, the TDI is a go-getter that’ll take only a couple of seconds to push you back in your seat. Factor in the electromechanical power steering, nicely bolstered seats, sport suspension and the six-speed DSG automatic with sport mode (plus the clutchless Tiptronic manual shifting option that includes paddles on the steering wheel), and what a combination of fun and economy this car offers.
The engine note is no longer that disconcerting clatter but more of an understated rumble announcing something special is afoot under that hood. If ever a car offered a hand-in-glove feel, it’s this one.
It even sips fuel like Richard’s old oil-burner. Remarkably, though the new Golf is 1,200 pounds heavier than his ’82 Jetta, its fuel mileage is comparable. A month into ownership, we made a 1,700-mile round-trip trek to Toronto, getting around 42 mpg (based on actual consumption, not the computer estimate).
This TDI has many fine touches, including heated front seats and washer nozzles; premium sound system; Bluetooth streaming that turns my iPhone into a convenient hands-free device; multiple controls on the steering wheel; and the halogen fog lamps that turn on automatically to illuminate a dark turn.
Attention to detail is notable throughout the cabin, with one glaring exception: the climate controls, which are nearly impossible to read. VW might counter with a “don’t you have those memorized by now?” and I’d say, sure, but that’s not the point. Even then, I sometimes have to take a second look to find the red indicator mark on the righthand dial.
I’m also developing a love/dislike for the three-stage heated seats. At level 3, you’ll get serious warmth within a couple of minutes, but if you’re able to stick with “3” for a little longer, you’ll gain a new level of empathy for the Thanksgiving turkey.
I want level 2 to be my heated-seat cruise control stage, but even it can get too toasty at times and I have to downshift to 1, which soon begins to feel too much like “off.”
Perhaps a serious cold snap will allow “2” to be more accommodating. In the meantime, I toggle while longing for the more-precise thumb-dial option in the 2006 and 2009 models.
Another quirk (or annoyance to some, based on Internet grousing) is the jerking that can take place with the DSG transmission and TDI engine.
Under normal acceleration, the upshifts are uber smooth. But braking to a stop in all conditions is a reminder that this is a different critter.
Autoist correspondent Cliff Leppke explains: “Due to the diesel’s high compression ratio, downshifts and upshifts are often more obvious than on lower compression gas engines.
“So you might notice some jerkiness, as the diesel has more braking effect when you lift off the throttle pedal. However, VW programs the engine management system to reduce this so that it feels more like a gasoline engine.”
But I’m regularly reminded that I’m driving a diesel. Picture a tug-of-war in reverse — it’s like the engine is pushing the brake pedal harder from the opposite side than the driver, who has to modulate the pressure accordingly and ignore the feeling that Superman has a grip on the rear bumper.
In time you anticipate the downshifts and know when to ease off. Sometimes, in a gradual slowdown or when making a turn, you don’t have to brake at all until the last seconds.
Cliff, who wrote in detail about the DSG in the Sept/Oct Autoist, said: “My only gripe is that the turbo diesel and the DSG tango more than I’d like under light throttle at lower speeds.”
For the first three or four months, I was experiencing that similar shudder at 2-3 mph in a parking lot, where throttle response can be minimal. But after logging more than 7,000 miles, that seems to be happening less frequent, so perhaps muscle memory is combining happily with engine/transmission break-in.
On just a handful of times, I’ve experienced a notable jerk or two when almost coasting at around 30 mph. The quick solution is to either get out of the throttle altogether or goose it.
The situational shuddering is “inherent in most turbo diesel cars and trucks because the powerband is relatively narrow,” Cliff said. “That said, VW’s power delivery is fairly wide and easy-going for a diesel — good enough that some don’t notice that it’s a diesel.”
In the big picture, it’s not that big a deal. For me, it’s a quirk I’ve happily embraced, a characteristic that adds personality to the TDI’s unique package of power, economy and fun.
Kind of like that 1975 Rabbit. VWCA
Fred Ortlip | email@example.com
ALSO IN THIS ISSUE:
- 2012 GOLF: Cliff Leppke takes VW's venerable hatchback for a test spin.
- WOLFSBURG TROPHY: Local Clubs have good reason to be judged as the most active.
- CONVENTION 2013: The VW plant tour isn't the only attraction in Chattanooga, Tenn.
PLUS OUR REGULAR COLUMNS:
- Frontdriver – Richard G. Van Treuren