Personal Pick?

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2007

I've been writing about vehicles since 1989. I haven't bought a car in years. I didn't need to. A new vehicle is delivered to me each week. Full tank of fuel. Insured. But what if I needed my own car? I decided I might buy one, just in case.

Car buying day began at a huge sale that brought together multiple dealers. As I walked into the sea of new and used cars, I already knew what I was looking for. I just didn't expect to find it.

"Can I show you a Dodge Stratus?" a smiling salesman asked. "No, thank you," I replied. "How about a Chevy Blazer?" he continued. I laughed and shot him a not-on-your-life look.

My wife and I walked all over the acreage, rejecting suggestions from a phalanx of salespeople. As we were preparing to leave, I saw my intended parked away from others, with no posted price. I asked a salesman about it. Hmmm. It had been traded in that day by a Naples couple for a new Scion, he told me. He walked to a tent to determine its price.

I tallied a ballpark figure in my head. Here's what I demanded:

Safety. My car had to score at the very top after crash testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. I wanted front air bags, side air bags and head curtains down both sides. I also demanded anti-lock brakes and traction control. The fuel tank had to be between the side rails and the axles, preferably under the rear seat, preferably made of plastic. The car should be close to fireproof.

Economy. Nothing under 30 mpg in the city would even be considered. And I did not want a "toy" car with tiny wheels. I wanted top-notch safety in a compact size.

Excellent ergonomics. All controls must be intuitive to use, located in traditional places. Instruments would be readable at night even by the colorblind. Seats had to be comfortable for long trips.

Handling. Jackrabbit performance in today's overcrowded traffic was not on my list of desires, but the "fun" factor in driving is important. No boring cars, please.

Longevity and maintenance. In the best of all worlds, my purchase would last for many years, requiring only regular maintenance.

Here's how my choice stacked up:

It was the Top Pick in its class in 2002 after crash testing by the Insurance Institute. It returns 34 mpg in the city under hard driving and 40 mpg on the highway with some city driving mixed in. It's a darling of the "green" set, and will more than hold its value for that reason. It has beautifully thought-out ergonomics and even came with a pricey stereo system. It's great fun to drive. Its engine should last a half-million miles or more, if I continue to change oil every 10,000 miles and replace the timing belt when needed.

Guessed yet?

It's a diesel car. A 2002 Volkswagen Jetta TDI.

I know the engine from previous tests of new VWs. The most memorable was a roundtrip drive to Maine, during which I averaged 52 mpg. But even more went into my decision. In Europe, where gasoline sometimes hits $8 a gallon, half of all new cars being sold are diesel powered, and many get 81 mpg. In the U.S., I'm part of a 1 percent minority.

To me, the Jetta TDI is more than just an economical driver today. It's my hedge against tomorrow's fuel crises.

Consider that most military vehicles have diesel engines, as do all trucks that transport goods and supplies in this country; many garbage trucks and fire trucks are diesel-powered; farm tractors and machinery use diesels; as do fishing fleets and public buses. Airplanes, trains and ships use a cruder form of distillate; heating oil is yet another diesel-like fuel.

My bet is that diesel production will not-cannot-be allowed to fall short of demand. Our country's infrastructure runs on it. Our national defense depends on it. It must be top priority.

I could be wrong. Gasoline could be cheap and plentiful for years to come. But I don't see the world erupting in peace as this is being written.

I've put a thousand miles or so on my new-used Jetta TDI and just love it. It's quiet, comfortable, aerodynamic and good looking, gentle on the earth, extremely kind on my wallet and makes me feel secure because of VW's advanced safety engineering.

They say a New Age of Diesel is only a few years away. My bet is I'll drive my Jetta for many years, then trade it in at a big car sale for a used Honda Accord i-CTDi, coming in 2010.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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