This past week, as part of my dog sitting contract, I negotiated the use of a 2012 Volkswagen Golf TDI (diesel). The car was purchased less than a month ago and only had 800 miles on the odometer. Ever since the Audi R10 made its debut at the 2006 12 Hours of Sebring (which I attended) and the launch of the VW TDI Cup racing series in 2008, I have been curious as to what it would feel like to race a diesel powered car.
Every year that diesels have run at the 24 Hours of Lemans, I listen to the broadcasters debate that the sound of a racecar is essential to the overall racing experience, while another will point out that the speed and relative silence of a diesel powered racecar allows for other audible ambiances to emerge, such as the gearbox and related drivetrain, tires, and wind noise over the bodywork at 200+ mph, which are equally as visceral as a gasoline powered race engine.
Besides the racing pedigree of the TDI, which is key in my interest in selecting a vehicle, I read an article in Grassroots Motorsports Magazine that featured professional racecar driver Randy Pobst’s 2000 Jetta daily driver that he had converted to run on straight vegetable oil (which he buys in 5 gallon containers at Costco, not wanting to deal with the hassle and mess of treating waste oil from restaurants). This flexibility creates a much more intriguing option over a hybrid that still relies on fossil fuel, however the conversion will void the warranty if applicable. Also in Grassroots Motorsports, the publisher Tim Studdard wrote about purchasing a used 4th generation TDI Jetta wagon for his wife, which they did not keep long, stating that the engine’s powerband through the rpm range was too uneventful and therefore not appealing to drive.
Now that my TDI preconceptions have been stated, I will continue with the test drive. The Golf I drove was appointed exactly as I would have wanted it, 6 speed manual, no sunroof/navigation option and no technology package. The only thing I would change would be the color, I would go with Candy White as it would provide a bit more racecar appeal by following with the ‘body-in-white’ purchase option for factory race car shells. Additionally, since I live in Florida, the white paint would provide a comfortably high albedo, although I do admit the United Gray Metallic of the test vehicle is appealing.
Getting in the car, you notice the nice cloth black interior and plenty of head room due to the exclusion of a sunroof. Although I am not the tallest driver out there, I have long legs which require me to move the seat far back to properly operate the pedals, which can create an issue with performance driving, as you want to have the steering wheel up close to your body to gain full maneuverability and reaction time. Typically I compromise this situation by moving the seat closer than what is comfortable so that the steering wheel is the right distance away. When adjusting the seat, I moved the seat back (as the vehicle’s owner is very short) and noticed the steering wheel distance was not ideal, I by chance checked to see if it was a telescopic wheel, and surprisingly it was, which allowed me to move the steering wheel closer and into the proper performance driving position. This is a great feature that I have never had in any of my vehicles before.
The starting procedure was the same as a gasoline engine, press in the clutch and turn the key. Being a diesel I had anxiety over trying to find the glow plug button or if I needed to leave the key in the on position momentarily before activating the starter in order for the glow plugs to be ignited. These are procedures that I needed to follow during my previous diesel driving experiences, which were limited to a Chevrolet Suburban diesel, a Dodge Ram dually diesel, and some sort of diesel passenger van that I drove in Panama after our local guide became too intoxicated to drive. Once rolling, the shifter operation was smooth, not quite Honda precise, but much better than the Subaru I currently drive. The clutch pedal had a low amount of resistance, which would be nice for driving in traffic, and the steering wheel had a very expensive feel to it. The radio controls are on a touch screen and I had no trouble learning and operating even while driving.
The engine felt very powerful and you get a definite turbo surge from right before 2000 rpm up to 3000 rpm. The turbo 'sweet spot' for this engine is basically the opposite of my vehicle, a Subaru WRX, which you wait until after 3000 rpm to feel the turbo kick in. You don’t need to take my word for it, peak engine torque for the Golf’s 2.0 turbo diesel is 236 ft lb at 1750 rpm (where as my WRX is only 217 ft lb at 4000 rpm). Given the large amount of torque this engine produces at such a low rpm, the car feels very powerful when driving around town, since you do most of your driving at lower rpms. Conversely, once you pass 3000 rpm, the engine power levels off and you reach the 5000 rpm redline quickly and without drama. Interestingly the engine makes a maximum 140 hp at 4000 rpm but compared to the large torque peak, this goes unnoticed. Given these engine characteristics, I would be curious what it would be like to drive the Golf TDI on a race track where you keep the engine operating at high rpm. During the driving experience, the engine note is very quiet, but you can identify it as a diesel if you listen closely. Compared to the 2.0 liter, 8 valve gasoline powered Golf that this TDI replaced for the current owner, the interior engine note is actually quite similar.
The car’s suspension was silky smooth and quiet, and with the 17” Continental tires, the car handled well too. While one might think the Audi A3 fitted with the TDI engine would be sportier than the golf, it should be noted that the A3 is not offered with a manual transmission and weighs considerably more. In conclusion, I believe the Golf TDI is the sportiest diesel available in the US and would make a fun daily driver, while yeilding over 40 mpg.