2010 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup Edition – Click above for high-res image gallery

Station attendant: “You sure you wanna put diesel in that?”

Me: “Yeah.”

Attendant: “It doesn’t look like a diesel.”

Me: “That’s kinda the point.”

And so it goes. That wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last that we got quizzical looks when grabbing a plastic glove and topping up the 14.5-gallon tank on our Salsa Red 2010 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup Edition tester. After all, when you think diesel, a body-kitted sports sedan doesn’t spring to mind. Particularly in the U.S., where (Cliche Alert!) old-school oilburners conjure the soot-covered nostalgia of smoke-belching Benzes, dirty shoes, smelly hands and searching for the appropriate pump at truck stops.

But in the 21st century – and throughout Europe for the last several decades – the modern diesel is a mainstay. Nearly half of all new cars sold across the pond swill ultra-low sulfur diesel, and after years of being hamstrung by California bureaucrats and the Feds, the high-mileage misers have finally returned to our shores.

But can a diesel really be sporty?

Volkswagen obviously thinks so, and after fielding “numerous inquiries” about offering a replica of its TDI Cup cars for the road, V-Dub has begun offering a kitted-out version of its diesel-powered Jetta to the fraction (of a fraction) of enthusiasts who want a more entertaining way to burn through a tank of ULSD.

So the Cup Edition certainly looks the part, but how’s it get on? Let’s find out.

Photos by Damon Lavrinc / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

After years of slogging through the SEMA Show, we’ve become justifiably jaded when it comes to various models’ body mods – and that doesn’t even cover the cars (*badum-ting*). So when the TDI Cup concept debuted way back in 2008, it barely registered on our radar. In the annals of the Las Vegas Convention Center, the side skirts, rear valance and redesigned front bumper with its comically massive air dam weren’t extreme enough to stand out. But off the show floor and on the pavement, it’s a different story for this oil-powered sports sedan costing $31,113 as tested (a far cry from its $24,990 base price).

Although the front fascia packs more mesh than a New Orleans Gentlemen’s Club, take solace in the fact that this is the same body kit fitted to the TDI competition cars. It’s got racing lineage, even if it’s a decidedly less glamorous pedigree than some alt-powered rocket from Audi or Peugeot, at least it’s more direct.

The remainder of the model’s modifications are pulled from the VW performance parts bin and include the sway bars and stiffened suspension from the last Jetta GLI. The red-painted calipers are also carryovers, and they grip larger brakes (12.28-inches up front and 11.26-inches in the rear), framed by 18-inch, 10-spoke “Charleston” wheels. The hoops are right off the show car, but unfortunately the Yokohama 225/40R18 ADVAN sport tires have been swapped in favor of “all-season high-performance” Pirelli P Zero Nero’s sized 225/40R18. They’re mud and snow rated, for whatever that’s worth.

Make your way passed the tri-colored graphics spanning the doors and you’re greeted by another badge on the sill to remind you that the TDI Cup is more than a tarted-up aftermarket Jetta. Despite the “Interlagos” cloth inserts, the seats shouldn’t be confused with the GTI’s supremely bolstered thrones. Complete with lumbar support, they’re adequate enough for diesel detail, but be prepared for impromptu forearm exercises while hammering around on-ramps.

Thankfully, the leather-wrapped wheel is a nice thing to clutch, and comes standard with twelve (12!) steering wheel-mounted controls for the stereo and multi-function display between the tach and speedo. The buttons are more flush than you’d find in other applications, which should make mid-corner station changes and volume adjustments less of a hassle, but on more than one occasion we inadvertently skipped a track in our playlist.

If AM, FM, satellite radio or one of six CDs on order doesn’t suit your tastes, VW offers three ways to port your digitized music into the touch-screen stereo. A small slot below the display accepts an SD card, while an auxiliary jack is mounted on the center console, aft of the cup holders and a “Media Device Interface for iPod® Integration” (read: $199 cable) is fitted inside the claustrophobic arm rest.

Our tester’s nav-less touch-screen was easy to operate after a few days of exploration, and we’ve yet to crack the owner’s manual in frustration. However, one thing to note about using an iPod along with a smartphone: You can’t toggle between the two. If you want to use the 1/8-inch jack to stream tunes from your phone, you’ll have to physically disconnect the iPod from its cable as there’s no way to select an individual auxiliary source.

But enough of this prattling on about functionality and ergonomics. This is, after all, a Jetta. And we’ve got one question to answer and two of our favorite California test roads await.

The drive to our first paved playground involved a run across a few freeways, and here the TDI’s Teutonic flavor shown through. Despite its stiffened suspension, the Jetta was equally at ease during high-speed passes and battle-scarred, right lane drudgery. The 140 horsepower offered up by the 2.0-liter turbodiesel won’t set the world (or tires) on fire, but the 236 pound-feet of torque makes simple work of the six-speed DSG’s ratios, catapulting you to freeway speeds with an assured quickness. Each successive gear is dispatched with the slightest (and we really mean slightest) pause, further proof that while ye ol’ torque converter is alive and well in the new century, the dual-clutch gearbox continues to be a modern masterpiece (talk to Ferrari and McLaren if you’re in doubt).

As you’d expect, the engine note isn’t a sexy serenade – the idle is decidedly diesel and there’s a mild racket at 75 mph (around 2,500 rpm), which is lessened/consumed by wind noise by the time you reach 80. However, the steering is sublime. The weighting is near perfect, corrections are rare and the feel is wonderfully direct, if not supremely communicative.

By the time we hit the off-ramp to tackle the first mountain pass, we were impressed. The power delivery is smooth, the gearbox’s shifts even smoother. And then things started to get twisty.

Flogging a diesel in a performance setting is an odd one. As you’d expect with most any engine that’s got a turbo dangling off the exhaust manifold, there’s a fair amount of lag before peak torque arrives at 1,750 rpm. But when you’re piloting a petrol-powered turbo, you muscle through the lag and are rewarded by a heaping helping of boost until redline (or near it). With the diesel, the powerband is so shallow and you’ve only got so many revs to work with before the transmission shifts at 4,500 rpm – 500 rpm revs below redline – that finding tractable power through low-speed bends is damn near impossible. And to exacerbate the situation, no matter what setting we put the gearbox in – Drive, Sport or Manual – the shifts always came 500 rpm shy of redline. With peak horsepower arriving at 4,000 rpm, that severely limits your options.

To make matters worse, most of our test road would normally be taken in second gear with an occasional upshift, but the gearbox boffins insisted on third, and combined with the tranny-imposed redline, we were out of the meaty powerband when the time came to get back on the throttle. It was remarkably reminiscent of the traction control issues we experienced in the Hyundai Genesis Coupe during our comparison test (throttle, wait, wait, wait, power!) and equally as frustrating, TC engaged or not.

So how do you have fun? Charge into a corner carrying a touch too much speed, brake with your left foot and try to keep the revs dialed in with your right. But then, despite loading up the front tires, the all-season rubber gives up the ghost and brake fade – something that was largely kept in check during our first run – came on (predictably) quicker. Entertaining? No. Rewarding? A bit. Frustrating? More than we can describe.

However – and this is important – high-speed blasts are a completely different beast. Keep things in third or fourth and you simply fly. The chassis, reworked suspension and, in particular, the larger rear anti-roll bar, all work in concert to deliver a surprisingly sporty experience, soaking up bumps with aplomb and doing a remarkable job of communicating what’s going on at all four-corners. The brakes, while a bit mushy on first application, firm up further down the travel and fade comes on much later thanks to longer bouts between applications. Understeer rears its head earlier than we’d like, but the aforementioned mid-bend dab of the brake quells it to a point. The TDI Cup still needs stickier gumballs to live up to its nameplate, and a beefed-up set of brake pads would be a requirement for track time.

So can “diesel” and “sport” co-exist? In this case, it depends on the setting. In certain situations, we would’ve preferred the control afforded by a manual gearbox, and thankfully, VW obliges with a standard row-your-own six-speed as an option, though we suspect the dual-clutch is just what the doctor ordered for everyday commuting. Upgrade the tires and fit some high-performance pads, and you’ve got an entertaining daily driver that can play nice on the track. And just as importantly (if not more so), on the way there you’ll be hitting 30 mpg in the city and 42 mpg on the highway. During our time we were averaging around 37 mpg – easily unmatched by anything this side of a hybrid – and we had assuredly more fun in the process. Given the right stretch of road and a proper set of performance tires, the Jetta TDI Cup Edition has real potential. And we’ve got a sneaking suspicion that an on-track rendezvous is in our very near future. Stay tuned…

Photos by Damon Lavrinc / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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