The previous gen Jetta was one of the few small station wagons available in the U.S. It garnered a dedicated following amongst those who needed extra space but didn’t have to prove anything to anyone by driving an SUV. When the bulbous fifth generation Jetta debuted, the wagon was missing– but promised. Three years later, it’s finally here. Was it worth the wait?
From the doors forward, the SportWagen looks like any other Jetta, with trapezoidal headlights and grille bisected by an oversized plastichrome bib. Aft of the doors the bulbous cargo compartment looks like it was designed at a different time in a different place for a different car. Over all, there is no over all. VW’s design team needs to put on its overalls and give this one some of the Tiguan’s coherence, post haste.
There’s a lot more to like on the inside, though narcoleptics need not apply. Like many a VeeDub, the dashboard doesn’t have any style per se, but everything’s exactly where you expect it to be. In black, the SportWagon’s interior is so dark that even troglodytes would bring a flashlight. Thank Gott for the now-obligatory aluminum strip bisecting the bleak haus. Things brighten-up when you turn on the lights. Then the instruments glow in the brightest violet this side of a rave, surrounded by the usual VAG orange controls. Thankfully, judicious use of the panel light dimmer can tone down the electroluminescent ecstasy.
¡Viva México! The SportWagon’s cabin’s is well-screwed together using first-class materials. The base S model comes with velour upholstery. The high-zoot SEL has gen-u-wine cowhide. The SE and TDI come only with butt-blistering V-Tex leatherette. Para la gracia de Dios, our tester didn’t come with the optional panoramic sunroof, which turns the interior into a solar oven.
Never mind the heat, feel the bustle. Not to go all quadralingual on you, but back end is the SportWagen’s raison d’être. Fold down the Jetta’s rear seat and it’ll hold 66.9 cubic feet of whatever you feel compelled to take with you. Even with the seat up, there’s 32.8 cubic feet for stuff. As a bonus, there’s a hidden compartment under the floor. Of course, it’s only about three inches deep, so if you’re thinking about using it to smuggle something across the border you’re limited to pizza pans and picture frames.
The SportWagon will haul a lot of stuff, but it won’t haul ass, at least in base or SE trim. Under the hood: VW’s what-the-hell-were-they-thinking 170hp 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine. It sounds coarse when you start it and never seems to smooth out. No matter where or how you drive it, it always feels like the engine’s straining to keep up. When really pushed, the SportWagen will labor to 60mph in 8.4 seconds, protesting all the way.
The smooth-shifting six-speed Tiptronic automatic tries to make up for the engine’s deficiencies, but there’s that silk purse into sow’s ear thing that no one seems to be able to accomplish. If you’re willing to dig deeper into your wallet for higher trim levels, there’s a 200hp turbo four or the torque-happy TDI. America’s penny-pinching wagonistas (are there any other kind?) will rejoice at the news that all engines are available with a third pedal.
It’s a shame the engine puts such a damper on the fun as the SportWagon’s chassis is more than willing to come out and play. With McPherson struts out front and a coil spring multilink setup bringing up the rear, the Jetta always feels composed and ready to rumble. The electrically-assisted power steering is light without feeling over-assisted and the brakes whoa things down quite quickly when requested (as I discovered in a panic stop situation).
The SportWagen SE is reasonably priced. The base car starts at just over $21k. Pile on the options and the price goes up faster than you can say Fahrvergnügen. The automatic transmission costs a cool $1500, while alloy wheels, premium audio and a cold weather package (just the thing for those chilly Atlanta September mornings) ran our tester’s sticker up to a tad over $24k. Add in the glass roof and nav system and you’re pushing $27k. At that price point you’re overlapping a number of tall wagon-type CUVs.
But very few of these offer the handling or even the cargo space of the SportWagen. But do the great chassis and gaping cargo make up for the mediocre engine, blah interior and the misshapen rear end? It all boils down to how emotionally involved you like to be with your cars. If you’re looking for a frugal workhorse, this is it. If you’re looking for one of those “driver’s wanted” deals, well, did you know you can put a cargo box on a GTI?
[Volkswagen provided the car, insurance and tank of gas for this review.]