What I'm Driving At: Un-rageous Excitation

I have been having the best time this week. I've been scootin' around town in a zesty little compact sedan. It's nimble, maneuverable, roomy as all get-out, and it turns heads. "Whassat?" asked my hunting buddy as I rolled up for a predawn rendezvous last weekend. "Sounds like a Paris taxicab."Well, not exactly. Yes, it does sound like that; but it isn't the sort of dud-mobile that my buddy's tone of voice seemed to intimate. The new-for-'98 Jetta TDI from Volkswagen is actually a very cool car. Very cool. You can trust me on this one ... please.You see, the TDI Jetta is, well, a turbo. It's got high-tech new direct-injection fuel metering (for incredible combustion efficiency). And it's, um, a ... diesel. Now, stop right there -- no smirking. If ever there were a car that deserved the benefit of the doubt (or, more to the point, the benefit of a test drive), it would be VW's turbo-diesel Jetta. I can only begin to tell you why.First, there's the way the five-speed manual transmission hooks up with a powerplant that delivers two-thirds more torque than horsepower. That's a diesel for ya: grunt at the expense of gallop. When you drive such a thing, the broad, low powerband of 149 ft.-lbs. kicks in at 1900 rpm, so you find yourself "short-shifting" into the next-highest gear in a distinctive, syncopated, sing-songy way. Heavens, the motor redlines at only 4700 rpm -- before you know it, you're rollicking along in fourth or fifth gear, and the motor's purring like an overachieving sewing machine.And the beauty of it is, you've got fistfuls of torque available for use at any speed you choose to cruise -- another diesel attribute, mind you. Go ahead and nudge it at, say, 80 mph. There -- you're pulling away like a shot from a sling. And you're able to do it at the expense of the nation's second-best fuel-economy rating of 40 miles per gallon/city, 49/highway. The only car with better numbers is Chevy's micro-size Metro coupe, which boasts a 1-liter engine and only 3 cylinders (44/city, 49/hwy.). But, heck, the Jetta's got 13 percent more interior space, almost double the power, and three times the torque. Now decide which is the better mileage rating.Diesels are supposed to be economical, trustworthy, brave -- the honor scouts of the motor pool. But they're not supposed to light up the tires. So the TDI has a definite discipline problem in this regard. Despite its measly little 90 HP, the Jetta TDI is constantly squealing away from a stop amidst a fanfare of diesel-distinctive exhaust notes and the shrill sibilance of its spooling turbo. This car just loves to whistle while it works."Much ado about nuthin' much" is what any red-blooded, gas-pumpin', all-American performance buff is bound to think about this little Euro-spud, with its tinky-sounding motor. Fine, so maybe this car has a different audience. Better to try spreading the word among people who want a modest price for a roomy interior in a compact package. To get downright specific about it, the Jetta rates 39.2 inches of headroom and 42.3 inches of legroom up front with a 15-cubic-ft. trunk. The Ford Contour yields headroom and legroom of 39.0/42.4, respectively, with a 13.9-cubic-ft. trunk -- but needs it nine inches more wheelbase and 2 inches more body width to do it.The TDI Jetta lists for $16,270 (base plus destination charge). With air-conditioning, sunroof, and premium cassette/stereo, the sticker hikes to $18,205. Add options like anti-lock brakes and side airbags, which weren't installed on the tester I drove, and you're still under 20-grand at $19,375. Those are competitive numbers in this wide-open, free-for-all category. In addition, V-dub wants to make amends for a less-than-flattering tradition of, shall we say, reliability irregularities; so don't forget to factor the 10-year/100,000-mile warranty into the picture, along with two years' free roadside assistance. In a very literal sense, this car proves that it can pay to be just a little bit different.Seating comfort for the driver is my only real complaint -- that and the goofy slider/roller controllers for manually adjusting the wing mirrors. The over-stiff seat back tilts laboriously with a hard-to-reach rotating adjuster that's way back below your fanny. The lever under your thigh (where seat-tilters usually live) is actually a catapult launch, ostensibly for raising the altitude of the seat. Beware not to deploy the airbag in reverse when this crafty device launches you forward into the steering wheel.The one tech spec that defies precise definition, however, is the TDI's decidedly unrageous personality. After coming to terms with the uncanny, rhythmic tick of this little diesel-powered metronome, you will perhaps find yourself basking in peace behind the wheel. Road rage suddenly becomes an inscrutable abstraction; there is no way to project or feel anything but bliss about your wonderful fellow travelers along the highways and byways of life. You can be zipping along the Interstate at a very good clip or sparring quite sprightly with a twisty stretch of country highway, but the TDI never flusters. It just keeps on ticking, with all the friskiness of an atomic clock, until you arrive at your destination on the other end of an errand's time-space continuum. O brave, new, diesel-powered, underrated world.

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