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Expert Reviews 2 of 11
By Joe Wiesenfelder
July 28, 2008
I predict a resurgence of what we used to call station wagons as a consequence of two things: SUVs and gas prices. While we appreciate the extra cargo space and versatility of a hatchback as opposed to a trunk, gas prices now make undesirable the very class of vehicles that hooked a generation of Americans. Fortunately, wagons remained popular in Europe, where gas prices have always been this "bad," so a ready supply can't be far off. Right now there are a few true wagons on the market, including the 2009 Jetta SportWagen, which marks its return after leaving its sister Jetta sedan all alone in the American market after the 2005 model year.
The Jetta wagon has improved, with sportier handling and interior quality that outdoes its already impressive previous generation. While driving very much like a car, it somehow manages to offer more cargo volume than the VW Tiguan SUV and midsize Passat wagon, let alone the compact wagon and wagon wannabes with which it competes. Like most VW models, it's priced between mainstream and luxury brands, but the fact that it's a wagon is sure to raise its appeal in a size class dominated by sedans.
2009 Jetta Sedan
2009 Jetta SportWagen
2009 Tiguan SUV
2008 Passat wagon
Overall length (in.)
Turning diameter (ft.)
Passenger volume (cu. ft.)
Cargo volume (behind backseat, cu. ft.)
Cargo volume (backseat folded, cu. ft.)
EPA-estimated mpg (city/highway)*
Towing capacity (lbs.)
NR = not rated *Front-wheel drive and manual transmission **Base S trim level with 2.5-liter five-cylinder; Jetta SportWagen SEL ($25,990) with 2.0-liter turbo gets 21/31 mpg. Source: Manufacturer
As the table shows, the SportWagen takes up no more exterior room than the Jetta sedan and boasts the same EPA gas-mileage rating, yet it offers 1 cubic foot more passenger volume and double the cargo volume - and that's without folding the backseat. It also has more space than the Tiguan (reviewed last week), both with and without their respective backseats folded. (The Tiguan has a fold-flat front passenger seat too, though, and the Jetta wagon doesn't.) So why would you choose a Tiguan over a Jetta wagon? Well, if you want all-wheel drive, the Jetta is out of the running. The Tiguan is shorter from bumper to bumper, and you ride a bit higher. There's also something to be said for the height of the Tiguan's cargo area, which is a bit greater, and then there's the fact that the Tiguan is more likely to be perceived as an SUV if you're too much of an image weenie to be seen in a wagon. If it's worth an additional $4,000-plus and 3 fewer mpg to you, by all means, weenie it up. It's good for the economy. Exterior & Styling The Jetta SportWagen is very much a wagon, with an elongated and rather inelegant cargo area that hangs over the rear wheels more than the Audi A4 Avant's does. Likewise, the more affordable Subaru Impreza hatchback is just that — a four-door hatchback — though it's considered a wagon by some.
There's not much on the outside that differentiates the Jetta wagon's trim levels, which include the S, SE, SEL and TDI — the last being a clean-diesel version that's closest in price and equipment to the SE. Apart from the chrome trim around the side windows of all but the S trim level, it's mainly about the wheels. There are 16-inch steel rims on the S trim level, 16-inch alloys on the SE and TDI and 17-inch alloys on the SEL. The S can be upgraded to the SE's alloy wheels (as my test car had been), and the SE and TDI are eligible for the 17-inchers as an option. Going & Stopping The Jetta SportWagen lineup features three engines: a normally aspirated 2.5-liter five-cylinder in the S and SE, a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the SEL and a 2.0-liter turbo-diesel in the TDI. Manual transmissions are standard: a five-speed in the S and SE, and six-speeds in the SEL and TDI. An additional $1,100 gets you a six-speed automatic in any trim, though the S and SE use a conventional automatic transmission and the SEL and TDI employ an automated manual called DSG, for Direct Shift Gearbox.
Jetta SportWagen Drivetrains
2.0-liter turbo 4-cyl.
2.0-liter turbo-diesel 4-cyl.
gasoline (87 octane)
gasoline (91 /87 octane*)
diesel (ultra low sulfur)
Horsepower (@ rpm)
170 @ 5,700
200 @ 5,100-6,000
140 @ 4,000
Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
177 @ 4,250
207 @ 1,800-5,000
236 @ 1,750-2,500
0-60 mph (sec.)
City/highway mpg (manual)
City/highway mpg (automatic)
Trim level eligibility
*Results in decreased performance. Sources: Manufacturer, EPA
I enjoyed my test car's five-cylinder and five-speed manual. Though six-speed gearboxes are becoming the norm, the 2.5-liter had healthy torque at low engine speeds — enough to break traction more than I expected. There is a slight accelerator lag, though, which is noticed mainly if you jab the throttle in the middle of a downshift — known as rev-matching. The lag is brief and consistent in duration, such that it makes little difference when in gear, but it's still a downer in a car that's otherwise surprisingly sporty. This type of thing is all too common nowadays, so I'm not suggesting it's some strange anomaly.
The engine's biggest drawback is its vibration, which seems an unfortunate hallmark of five-cylinder engines. Some are worse than others, though, and this one's worse. The sound is a bit rough, and though the vibration isn't so great that you feel it throughout the car, the clutch pedal put the buzz to my foot. Perhaps it would be a non-issue with the automatic transmission. The journeyman manual transmission is otherwise as reliable as ever, with good clutch takeup and a decent but not exceptional shifter. I have come to prefer VW's location of Reverse gear, to the left of 1st.
At 21/29 mpg city/highway, the five-cylinder's mileage is decent — better than the Impreza hatchback and the luxury wagons, but not as good as the more-affordable Pontiac Vibe hatchback. The turbo four-cylinder is more than a second quicker to 60 mph, and its mileage is estimated at 1 to 2 mpg better than the five-cylinder's, but it only comes in the SEL trim level, which costs almost $7,000 more than the base SportWagen.
I tested the new VW clean-diesel engine in a Jetta sedan, which I address in its own review. Its estimated 30/41 mpg in the wagon version is a great alternative for anyone who wants to release less carbon. Whether you'll save money or not in the long run is another question. The TDI adds about $2,200 to the price of the SE — but almost $4,600 to the base SportWagen. Though the mileage advantage should make up for the higher price of ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, there are no guarantees that the disparity over gasoline won't increase. Because of its small size, the VW 2.0-liter will be one of few clean diesels that doesn't require a store of liquid urea onboard to treat the exhaust for emissions control.
The standard antilock four-wheel disc brakes stop the SportWagen with authority. Ride & Handling Where we found the Tiguan's ride quality overly firm, the Jetta SportWagen's is appropriately firm — good enough for long-haul comfort while providing better handling than you might expect from a wagon. Actually, that's an undersell; it's much better than you'd expect from a wagon, and better than some cars. The wheelbase is the same as the sedan's, which makes for responsive steering, and though VW doesn't cite weight distribution figures, the wagon feels more balanced than the sedan when pushed.
In case things get out of hand, a standard electronic stability system is always at the ready to keep you pointed in the intended direction. The Inside If it weren't for its vaunted interior quality, Volkswagen wouldn't be able to charge the premium prices it does. While the rest of the industry finally woke up and started to make some headway in this area, VW didn't slack off like other class leaders have (Toyota: Please report to the principal's office). Though my test car was the entry trim level, the materials were high-quality, and the fit and finish were excellent. The Jetta S' upholstery is velour, which sounds worse than it is. The middle trim level (with the SE and TDI virtually identical) is upholstered in V-Tex leatherette. ("Leatherette" means imitation leather, and "V-Tex" means they're so proud of it they thought it deserved a name.) The SEL comes with real leather that, because it's real leather, doesn't need to be ornamented with made-up names.
The SportWagen's standard driver's seat is manual, including a height adjustment, supplemented by a powered backrest. Both front seats have a manual lumbar adjustment, in the form of a regrettably out-of-reach knob on the seatback. The SEL adds a fully powered driver's seat with 12-way adjustment, including four-way lumbar and three-driver memory. A tilt/telescoping steering wheel is standard on all trim levels, as it should be.
I found the seats comfortable — in a supportive rather than an overstuffed way. The center armrest and its underlying storage compartment are minimalist, but the glove compartment and door pockets are reasonable in size. The rear view is quite good despite relatively large D-pillars.
In terms of interior dimensions, the SportWagen is in the middle of the compact-car pack, with slightly less backseat headroom than the Jetta sedan. Given today's fuel prices, I suspect the confines of a smaller, more efficient car will look like a more reasonable compromise than they would have a year or two ago. Safety The Jetta sedan got the top score of Good in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests, and though it isn't always the case that different body styles share test results, IIHS has determined that the SportWagen will have the same favorable ratings for front, side and rear crash tests. In the rear crash test, which basically reflects whiplash protection, the Jetta scores only Marginal.
The SportWagen's standard airbags include frontal, side-impact torso bags for the front seats and side curtain airbags that cover the side windows for front and backseat occupant protection. Unlike most cars, the Jetta offers optional side-impact torso airbags for the backseat. Cargo The SportWagen's overall cargo picture is very positive, as reflected by its remarkable interior volume of 66.9 cubic feet with the backseat folded. Four-door hatchbacks don't come close. For that matter, the elongated rear grants generous volume behind the backseat. There's a relatively shallow area under the subfloor, but the articulated cover can be propped up in a couple positions to help contain grocery bags or the like. A retractable shade-type cargo cover is standard.
The one downside to the cargo picture is the way the backseat folds. It's split 60/40, and all but the S trim level include a flip-down center armrest and a pass-thru. Where the Tiguan has one-step backseat folding, the Jetta requires you to flip the seat cushion forward before lowering the backrest — and though the head restraints nest pretty tightly into the backrests, it's all but assured that you'll have to jog the front seat forward for it to clear on its way down. Though this is an inefficient process, it seems to make efficient use of space, and the resulting cargo cavern probably justifies it. Jetta SportWagen in the Market If car valuation were a matter of looking at a list of features and specifications side by side, it would be hard to justify the extra money for a VW — or a luxury model, for that matter. (And you wouldn't need people like me.) It's hard to quantify what makes VWs worth their premium price, but, clearly, many buyers see it, as do I. Increasing this VW's appeal is the fact that the SportWagen is a wagon — and one with generous cargo volume — at a time when SUVs' shortcomings seem as great as gas prices are high. Across the board, the Jetta SportWagen is very nicely done.