Despite its fresh face, this Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI is full of cues to the automaker's familiar past.
Take the the windshield washer fluid that sprays out with fire hydrant intensity, accompanied by an ammonia-intense scent to sear your nostrils. Then there are the door hinges, which look like they could have prevented the Bastille from being stormed. In case you really like to layer, there are no less than four hanger or clothing hooks in the rear seat area. Oh, and we can't forget about the 10-speaker stereo system, which does a remarkably mediocre job blasting your favorite tunes to every corner of the cabin.
In short, the five-door Jetta is a reminder of how VW once overwhelmed drivers with overengineering.. That's not quite the case any longer; the Jetta sedan, an increasingly distant cousin to the SportWagen, was dumbed down for buyers in this market with a chintzier interior and far fewer doo-dads. Naturally, it was panned by most members of the critical media – Leftlane included – although we note with some head-scratching that it has been a sales hit.
No, the Jetta SportWagen is still positioned as an upmarket model here – and we learned to love it for what it represents. Here's why.
What is it?
Despite its nameplate, the Jetta SportWagen is actually more of a stretched Volkswagen Golf than a five-door Jetta. When the North American-market Jetta was redesigned for the 2011 model year, it gained a longer wheelbase, a less sophisticated rear suspension and a more basic interior – not to mention a lower base price.
The SportWagen, meanwhile, was treated to a 2010 model year nip-and-tuck that gave it styling more aligned with the Golf. In fact, the SportWagen is sold in Europe as the Golf Variant.
While a 2.5-liter five-cylinder powers base Jetta SportWagens, the most popular powertrain is actually the optional 2.0-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder, which mates to either a six-speed stick or, in the case of our tester, a six-speed dual-clutch automatic. From there, a trio of trim levels culminate in our range-topping, moonroof and navigation-equipped tester. VW tells us that upwards of 80 percent of all SportWagens sold here are diesel-powered.
At nearly $30,000, it's nearly the most expensive Jetta-badged vehicle an American can buy, but it's the most lavishly equipped in many ways.
What's it up against?
Wagons are pretty rare around these parts, but some shoppers might consider stepping up to the larger and pricier – but much less fuel efficient – Acura TSX Wagon.
What's it look like?
Up front, the SportWagen was one of the first VWs to adopt a now-familiar “pinched” front fascia, a pleasing look to our eyes. At the rear, it retains the more rounded shape that characterized the last Jetta lineup.
Our tester was optioned up with 17-inch alloy wheels that filled the wheel wells nicely. Further aiding utility was a roof rack, but cross bars are an extra.
The range-topping model included a proximity key, but sensors are only located on the front door handles, an obvious oversight on a vehicle likely to be bought by families. In addition, the handle sensors required a concentrated push to activate, while the interior starter button awkwardly placed on the steering column had to be pressed hard for several seconds. This is not a well thought out system.
And on the inside?
Ah, so this is why we used to love VW interiors. Even though we have mixed feelings about VW's durable but less-than-luxurious leatherette (think vinyl) upholstery, the rest of this interior speaks the upmarket language.
Materials are premium throughout – even the hard-touch lower surfaces are nicely grained and have a substantial feel. Hidden upmarket touches like cloth-covered A-pillars, felt padding in the door pockets and a multi-adjustable center armrest are usually lacking in most sub-$30,000 cars – including the built-to-a-price Jetta sedan.
While the seating surface isn't our favorite, the front thrones are tremendously supportive and offer a decent range of manual and power adjustment. VW's line-wide three-spoke steering wheel feels good to the touch and features convenient repetitive controls. Through the steering wheel sits a classy gauge cluster with a much larger information screen than that found on the sedan. Moving toward the center stack, we find a big navigation display and a trio of climate control knobs. VW's navigation is effective and fast, but it doesn't allow for easy panning across the map, while the audio system really needs a permanent tuning knob. As it is, tuning is a needlessly menu-intensive affair when the radio is set to display presets.
Rear seat passengers aren't treated to gobs of leg room, but they do get a comfortable bench and their own household-style power outlet. At the rear, a commodious cargo area is, once again, beautifully finished.
If the SportWagen offered leather seats and glossy wood trim, it could convince most passengers that they're in a Mercedes-Benz. If only we could say that for the sedan.
But does it go?
Figures like 140 horsepower and 236 lb-ft. of torque aren't going to blow away Camaros and Challengers at stop lights, but that's not what this five-door is about.
Solid fuel economy is the name of the game, and the big number here is 39 mpg on the highway (and 29 mpg in the city). The manual transmission version might net a more impressive 30/42, but we still came away positively floored with the way we could routinely hit 42 mpg in our test wagon. Even in aggressive urban driving, we never saw the trip computer dip below 30 mpg.
That said, the SportWagen isn't a slouch, although it's not going to win those aforementioned drag races. From a complete stop, it takes a little throttling to motivate both the transmission and the engine. Torque peaks at a low-ish 1,750 rpm, but this is a diesel, so redline isn't that much further away. Once into double digit speeds, the SportWagen picks up steam, especially in terms of mid-range acceleration, where its turbocharger kicks in and delivers smooth and unexpectedly strong power. Moreover, the diesel emits few noises underhood - it's quieter than most gasoline four-cylinders we've encountered lately.
The DSG slaps through the gears quickly, although a balky feeling under mild throttle input at low speeds is exacerbated when the transmission is cold. After a brief warm up, the transmission settles down considerably.
Most people wouldn't expect a beige diesel wagon to be a corner carver, but we found our tester to be precise and safe, if somewhat short of genuinely engaging. The steering is light but predictable, and while there's enough body lean on board to remind drivers that this isn't a Corvette, the SportWagen doesn't mind being hustled through the twisties. The firm ride is ultimately compliant, owing in part to a sophisticated rear multi-link setup far more sophisticated than the twist-beam on an equivalent Jetta sedan. Braking, with discs at each corner, was a low drama affair.
Leftlane's bottom line
At first, we appreciated the Jetta SportWagen for its class-above interior and thoughtful touches, but there is way more than meets the eye with this five-door.
With its six-speed transmission doing its best to keep revs down at speed, we found highway cruising to be the Jetta SportWagen's forte. In fact, with its commendable cargo capacity and perfectly achievable 40 mpg, we started to wonder why anyone would want a crossover over this wagon - err, wagen.
2012 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI with Sunroof and Navi base price, $29,220. As tested, $29,990.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.