Who needs a hybrid when you can have a diesel! VW has done a great job packaging everything into this car. It is the ideal size for a lot of people.
For a variety of reasons, North Americans have shied away from diesel powertrains. Questionable engineering and lack of technology advances in the 1980s soured the experience for car buyers for decades to come. People came to associate the word “diesel” with noisy motors, black smoke, dirty fuel, leisurely performance, poor reliability, and poor cold-weather performance… just to name a few. The Germans continued working at their North American diesel formula, and that gave me the opportunity to drive their latest offering: a 2013 Volkswagen Golf TDI Highline 5-door.
Hybrid electric powertrains are all the rage nowadays. Attractive marketing and the social stigmas that advertisers created helped move hybrids into the forefront of alternatively-powered transportation. The flag-bearer Toyota Prius became “cool” to own (just take a look at the roads in California – they’re everywhere). They provided attractive fuel efficiency numbers and the promise of being on top of the latest automotive technology. Nearly all automakers are jumping on the electric (hybrid or not) bandwagon as a means to either meet new governmental regulations, or to get brownie points with the public. It’s not just for efficiency anymore either: some marques associated with sports and racing cars are getting into the hybrid game as a means to increase performance.
The thing is: diesel powertrains make more sense to me. You don’t have to worry about replacing large batteries about ten years into ownership. You don’t have to deal with the added weight penalty from carrying all these batteries around. If you are driving long distances on the highway, a hybrid electric powertrain’s advantages largely disappear as the gasoline motor is running most of the time anyway. The diesel engine in its most basic form was invented in the late 1800s. There are some fundamental differences in how the diesel engine works, but they are not drastically different in how they get to the end result of delivering horsepower and torque you can feel.
Volkswagen provided me with a Candy White TDI Highline 5-door model, with their DSG automatic transmission. This was a fully-loaded model, which included features such as leather seating surfaces, satellite navigation with Bluetooth navigation, 17” wheels, fog lights, and sunroof. In typical VW fashion, I found fit-and-finish to be excellent all around, with good-quality plastics and materials inside and out. There is a lot of headroom and legroom to be had in all seating positions, and the rear hatch makes for all sorts of useful cargo-carrying possibilities. For its tidy exterior dimensions, VW has done a great job packaging everything into this car. It is the ideal size for a lot of people.
The headline feature of this car, to me, is the TDI powertrain. People have said that getting the TDI is the only way to go when buying a VW – and I can totally understand what they mean. Nearly all the disadvantages that people have come to associate with the diesel motor are gone! You still hear the motor at idle with the windows down, but I do not consider it offensive. It is a subtle reminder of the different technology at play underneath the hood. There is no more black smoke coming out the exhaust under normal operating conditions, and no more diesel stink (for those who love the smell of gasoline, myself included)!
Why this TDI motor is so special is how it combines torque output and efficiency. It is rated at 140hp, and a much more impressive 236 lb-ft of torque between 1700rpm and 2500rpm. For driving in normal conditions, you spend a lot of time within this torque range. Massive torque (given its 2.0L displacement) is always available at nearly every speed. Downshifts are usually not required to make a highway pass.
My tester came with VW’s automatic DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) transmission. This double-clutch unit features six-speeds and an optional Sport mode. VW has been in the DSG game for a long time, from about 2003 onwards. Their experience has paid off – so far this is the most refined double-clutch gearbox I have driven with. Launching the car is drama-free, and gearshifts are quick, firm, and smooth with little to no driveline shock. The gearing makes excellent use of the TDI’s rich torque output – you spend a lot of time within the 1700-2500rpm range where the motor is happiest. Downshifts to pass are rare, as you are able to just power through the rev range in the same gear. One thing that I saw little use for was the Sport mode. Traditional gasoline motors often make most of their power higher up in the rev range, which requires a transmission that allows for higher revs before shifting. In the Golf TDI, you don’t need to rev the motor very high to extract maximum power, yet the transmission’s programming would only end up producing more noise while the TDI powerband trailed off.
Fuel efficiency is another diesel strong point. Volkswagen rates the Golf TDI Highline at 6.7L/100km in the city and 4.7L/100km on the highway. They also point out the ability to go as far as 1100km per tank of diesel (all on the highway, of course). I was able to manage about 7.5L/100km in the city and 5.3L/100km on the highway. These are excellent numbers, easily obtainable without much effort. I attribute my numbers to the cold Canadian weather, combined by the fact that diesel motors take more time to come up to full operating temperature. While I did have heat in the cabin, the coolant temperature gauge did not move off the bottom for almost 10km. My own gasoline-powered car comes up to optimum operating temperature in less than half that distance. It is possible that the TDI motor runs less efficiently while it is still cold, in the same way gasoline motors do.
This is the first time I have driven a diesel-powered car for any length of time. While I have always understood the advantages behind diesel, I was never able to experience it for myself. Gasoline has always been the default, and will continue to be for many people. Diesel really is such an ideal powertrain for so many driving conditions. Combine the useful power delivery, efficiency, and practicality of a hatchback design and you have a great comfortable little car for somebody who does a lot of commuting, whether on the city or highway. I will miss it.
2013 Volkswagen Golf TDI Gallery