America has long gotten the short stick when it comes to diesel cars. Volkswagen is willing to sell its European buyers a Golf GTD, the diesel equivalent of a GTI. Here in America? Volkswagen doesn’t sell diesels at all, anymore. When Volkswagen did sell us diesels, we never really got the sporty variants sold in other markets. The exception to this was the single-year-only 2010 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup Edition. Buyers got performance suspension, better brakes, a bold body kit, and plaid seats, turning a thrifty diesel into the closest Volkswagen came to giving us a diesel sport sedan.
Last time on Holy Grails, we departed from our usual course of oddball cars to show off a rare motorcycle. A few decades ago, Honda was obsessed with making its own versions of the stereotypical American cruiser motorcycle. Honda’s Spirit of the Phoenix project led to the development of the flagship Valkyrie, which was essentially a Gold Wing’s engine lowered into a cruiser frame. The Valkyrie drew so much attention that Honda decided to follow it up with a motorcycle that had no specific purpose and no limitations, it just had to look awesome. Out of the other end came the Valkyrie Rune, a piece of motorcycle art that allegedly cost Honda $225 million to build.
This week, we’re back to reader suggestions, and this one brings us back to a time when “diesel” wasn’t a dirty word.
Once again, we’re headed back to a time when enthusiast versions of regular cars were abundant. If you were a devotee of Rudolf Diesel’s magical engine in the 2000s, you had some pretty interesting choices. Mercedes-Benz had the E320 CDI, a diesel that stomped out a 60 mph sprint in 7.1 seconds, which was measurably faster than its gasoline equivalent. Mercedes also had its minivan people carrier R-Class available with a diesel. Jeep was willing to sell you a diesel version of its Liberty and its Grand Cherokee. Actually, I am a bit surprised that nobody has suggested Jeep’s diesel offerings.
Meanwhile, Volkswagen also wasn’t afraid to flirt with oil burners. For a time, the Volkswagen Passat was the only midsize car you could buy in America with a diesel. Volkswagen sold diesels in a surprising number of flavors. In addition to the Passat, you could come home with a diesel engine in your Beetle, Golf, Jetta, or Touareg. Yep, you could have diesel power in everything from the adorable Beetle (available as a convertible) to the mighty Touareg. The Touareg in itself was pretty special as at first, its diesel was a horribly complex 5.0-liter V10 twin-turbo diesel. I own one of those and it still scares me.
Despite Volkswagen’s then affections for diesel, something America missed out on were oil-burning performance variants. Europeans were able to get their Golfs in GTD flavor, which is exactly as it sounds: GTI bodies with tuned diesel engines. In 2010 and only for 2010, America sort of got just a taste of this with the Jetta TDI Cup Edition, and it was really just a race replica.
A Long History Of Sporty Diesels
Volkswagen has a long and colorful history with diesel engines. The marque’s first attempt at it dates back to 1951, and it’s a story that was covered by our own Jason Torchinsky:
Way back in 1951, the Korean War was making gasoline unsettlingly difficult to acquire, while Diesel fuel remained nice and cheap. Volkswagen decided, logically, that adapting their bread-and-butter product the Beetle to diesel would be a pretty good idea.
To figure out how to do it, Volkswagen turned to their research and development arm, also known as Porsche. I think the firm may have produced some other, unrelated works you may have heard of.
Porsche designated the assignment Project 508, and set about to figure out how to convert the Type I engine to a compression-ignition system.
The modified engine dispensed with a carb and instead had a simple diesel-injection system. The cylinders and block may have been beefed up a bit to withstand a diesel’s inherently greater compression, but overall the engine was only around 50 lbs heavier than the stock 1300cc engine it was based on.
Porsche built two test engines and apparently, they were so slow that the diesel-equipped Beetle reached 60 mph in 60 seconds. The Beetle wasn’t fast to start, and the diesel engines were down at least 10 horses from their gasoline counterparts. I think my bus is faster than that Beetle was.
Volkswagen would introduce its first diesel production car in 1976 with the Golf D. Its 1.5-liter diesel four-cylinder churned out 50 ponies, or about the same power found in the company’s 1.1-liter gasoline four at the time. Equipping the first-generation Golf with a diesel engine was Volkswagen’s response to the era’s oil crises and, reportedly, company brass didn’t believe a VW diesel engine could be made cheaply enough and develop enough power. The Golf D was indeed a slow vehicle: it hits 60 mph in a leisurely 19 seconds. But what it didn’t have in speed it made up for in 36.2 mpg fuel economy.
The Golf D ended up being a smash hit. Volkswagen initially built 75 units a day, but had to increase production to 2,500 units a day to keep up with demand. This is what some mark as the beginning of Volkswagen’s obsession with diesel.
It also didn’t take long for Volkswagen to start cranking up the power. As Volkswagen notes, the idea for the Golf GTI started off as a secret project in 1974 involving half a dozen employees. The Golf GTI Mk1 made its world premiere in 1975 before hitting the market in 1976.
However, the GTI treatment wouldn’t just stick with gasoline engines. In 1982, right before the end of the MkI’s life, Volkswagen engineers decided to make a fun diesel. The Golf D 1.6-liter got a turbocharger, which bumped power from 53 ponies to 69 thoroughbreds, nice! But the engineers didn’t stop there, as they styled this new Golf after the GTI. Thus, the GTD was born. To the untrained eye, the two cars looked the same, but Volkswagen gave the GTD subtle differences. For example, you got a silver stripe around the grille instead of a red one and the wheels were different, too.
The performance benefits were tangible, too. A Golf GTD hit 62 mph in 13.5 seconds, far quicker than the 50 HP unit the Golf D started off with. We technically didn’t get the GTD in America. We got the Rabbit with this engine, but it didn’t come with GTI styling.
This started a tradition where the Golf would usually have a performance diesel model to sell alongside the GTI. Even the Jetta got a rare GTD version in its second generation. These cars weren’t always called a GTD. The Golf MkIV, for example, had a GT TDI (above). Here in America, you could buy a 2003 Golf TDI that made 90 HP from its 1.9-liter diesel. In Europe? You could have bought a Golf GT TDI with a 1.9-liter diesel making 148 HP.
In 2010, Volkswagen would finally throw diesel fans in the United States a bone. We didn’t get a GTD, but we got something still pretty neat.
A Fresh Jetta
Today’s grail is a Jetta, the sedan derivative of the Golf. Introduced in 2005, the fifth-generation Jetta took the handsome design of its predecessor and moved it upmarket. MkV buyers were treated to features like optional dual-zone climate control, active head restraints, emergency brake assist, electric power steering, and for those who don’t row their own gears, Volkswagen’s Direct-Shift Gearbox dual-clutch transmission.
The Jetta also came with a plethora of interesting engines. Out of the box, you got a 2.5-liter inline five that made 150 HP. With the right aftermarket exhaust, these sound like baby V10 Lamborghinis. This Jetta also had the GLI, which netted you 2.0-liter 200 HP turbo four GTI power in sedan form. It also spawned another Holy Grail, the Jetta SportWagen SEL, which had that same engine, but in a wagon body.
In terms of diesel power, you could have your Jetta with a 2.0-liter diesel four making 140 HP and 236 lb-ft torque. I have a version of this engine in my two Jetta SportWagens (above) and while I wouldn’t describe the performance as something that will make your heart race, you can have some fun with them. As Car and Driver notes, a Jetta TDI sedan with this engine and a DSG could reach 60 mph in 8.1 seconds. Not bad for a diesel!
Sadly, Volkswagen wasn’t willing to sell Americans a diesel with any sporting pretensions. Enthusiasts have begged for Volkswagen to bring over a hotter diesel for some time and at least in 2010, the company delivered, sort of.
In 2008, Volkswagen set up the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup. This single-make racing series was a Sports Car Club of America-sanctioned driver development program for people aged 16 to 26. For an entry fee of $45,000, up-and-coming drivers hopped behind the wheel of race-prepped Jetta TDIs and beat their cars around tracks for $50,000 in prize money, and for the champion, Volkswagen factory career advancement support and $100,000.
This seems like a bad deal, but for that $45,000, racers got driver training, media training, tires, fuel, preparation, a fitness program, and more from Volkswagen. Drivers in the Jetta TDI Cup included everyone from kart racers to SCCA autocrossers, and all of them wanted to get into professional racing.
As Car and Driver notes, there was a divide in wealth among the racers. Volkswagen made racers pay for repairs to their Jettas, so poorer racers had to race clean while wealthy racers had more room to bang their cars up. Notably, the cars were so efficient that they were able to complete 10-race seasons on just two tanks of diesel.
Along with a stiffer suspension, giant brakes, sticky Pirelli racing tires, and the requisite safety gear, the Jetta TDI Cup racers came with European-spec 2.0-liter fours making 170 HP and 258 lb-ft torque, a mild increase over what the TDI Volkswagen sold to Americans.
In 2010, Volkswagen decided to celebrate the Jetta TDI Cup by releasing a roadgoing replica of the race cars. This is what reader TR H calls a true grail:
2010 Jetta TDI Cup Edition (1 year only gli with a tdi engine, with a unique body kit developed by NeuSpeed I think?) The infotainment was actually unique too, it was not found on other jettas but was the same as in the toureag if I recall right. Oh and that body kit cost $3300 and the damn front bumper was $2500 to replace on it’s own and the part numbers for the body kit were only held by VW NA corporate. It was not in the dealer parts catalogue….I still have a Post-it with the entire body kit parts numbers because I had to replace mine 3 times.
Indeed, as our reader notes up there, the 2010 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup Edition was sold for just a single year. Designed to celebrate the racing series, these Jettas were given mild performance improvements and a pretty wild body kit. From Volkswagen:
Born from the popularity of Volkswagen’s groundbreaking Jetta TDI Cup race series – now entering its 3rd season – and enthusiast demand for a race-inspired version of the popular Jetta TDI, comes the 2010 Jetta TDI Cup Street Edition. Various modifications inside and out ensure the Street Edition is instantly connected to the TDI Cup cars racing on tracks throughout North America. The Street Edition offers the same full body kit found on the TDI Cup race cars with an aerodynamic front bumper, side skirts, and rear valance. Also included are 18-inch “Charleston” wheels with high-performance tires, larger GLI brakes with red painted calipers, and the European-tuned sport suspension from the GLI. Sport seats with Interlagos cloth, a leather-wrapped, multi-function steering wheel, and brushed aluminum door sills mark the interior. Volkswagen’s proven 2.0L TDI Clean Diesel engine makes 140 horsepower and 236 lbs.-ft. of torque, sent through either a six-speed manual, or a six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) transmission.
In short, these cars were essentially Jetta GLIs with TDI engines. Sadly, as you’ve already noticed above, Volkswagen did not sell these with the hotter European engines. But you did get a better suspension, better brakes, plaid seats, 18-inch wheels, and other GLI goodies.
On the road, the handling improvements seemed to impress journalists while the lack of additional power was found to be disappointing. From Autoblog:
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).
Autoblog‘s tester found that the DSG and all-season tires killed a lot of the fun, but at speed, the changes made a difference:
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.
In Car and Driver‘s testing, a Jetta TDI Cup Edition with a six-speed manual hit 60 mph in 8.8 seconds, slightly slower than the 8.1 seconds it took for a DSG Jetta to complete the same run. Car and Driver‘s tester seemed confused by this, but it’s worth noting that VW’s DSG shifts faster than a journalist can, and I can imagine losing 0.7 seconds to having to row a couple of gears.
At least from my reading, it seems like the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup Edition gave enthusiasts the handling package they were wanting in addition to bold styling and plaid seats, but Volkswagen missed the mark on the engine. That’s why I’m saying that this car is perhaps the closest America got to a diesel sport sedan with a Volkswagen badge.
It seems like Volkswagen got it so close. The good news is that getting extra horses out of the Cup Edition doesn’t appear to be too hard, so you could make it into the diesel sport sedan it’s trying to be.
When new, a 2010 Jetta TDI sedan had a price of $23,580. The Cup Edition was $25,740 before paying $2,350 for the body kit and $499 for the wing. If you wanted a sunroof, that was another $1,000 and it was another $199 to get your iPod to talk to the car. Fully loaded, a Jetta TDI Cup Edition was over $30,000.
According to Volkswagen, few Americans stepped up to buy one of these. Just 1,501 units were sold, with 913 units getting equipped with DSGs and 588 coming home with manual transmissions. Weirdly, manual Jetta TDI Cup Editions are nearly as rare as manual transmission Passat W8s.
With Volkswagen being done with diesel here in America, cars like these are a dying breed. Diesel power in passenger cars was once seen as the future, now, it’s likely destined for the dustbin of history. Still, I think these are worth a second chance, if not at least just a test drive.
Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at email@example.com or drop it down in the comments!
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