By most accounts, clean diesel is beginning to make its run into the automotive mainstream in the United States. So, we decided to take the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI out for a test drive to judge for ourselves.

“If any car is going to wake America up to the diesel movement, it’s this one,” Ben Davis, road test producer for PBS’s MotorWeek, told The Jetta TDI’s combined benefits—high performance, high fuel economy, and small carbon footprint—come at the right price: about $22,000. That’s less than half the price of Mercedes’ Bluetec vehicles, the only other clean diesels available in all 50 states.

We achieved 36.4 miles per gallon with the Jetta TDI in a 181-mile mixed driving loop in an around the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. The test was comprised of approximately 70 percent highway driving, and 30 percent city driving. The results put this compact diesel ahead of most subcompact cars, and on par with many hybrids currently on the market.

The Jetta TDI is powered by a 2.0-liter common rail turbocharged engine—producing 140 horsepower and an eye-opening 236 pound-feet of torque. The high torque output is characteristic of a diesel powertrain, resulting in very fast launches from zero, and effortless acceleration on the highway.

The Jetta provided excellent handling and a smooth ride, in the tradition of meticulous German engineering. The car took corners at a good speed without any body roll. The vehicle was extremely balanced, and gave a very planted road feel. The well-weighted steering was quick and responsive. Overall the ride was very comfortable—supportive seats lend themselves to the long commute or road trip. Considered a quasi-luxury brand, Volkswagen offers plenty of optional equipment and amenities.

Based on our experience on the road, the 2009 Jetta TDI could be what today’s car shoppers are looking for: a solid feel and great fuel economy, offered at a decent price.