Reader Phil Brown shares his experiences with his Jetta Wagon
Volkswagen still has the temerity to sell a compact station wagon in an American market scarfing up CUVs, and bless them for it. I should have been in the heart of the CUV market when looking for a new vehicle in 2010, but I ended up in a MkVI Jetta Sportwagen. It isn’t brown and it doesn’t burn diesel, but after four years and 51K miles of ownership I can understand some of the fervor of wagon fans here on TTAC. There is just something so fundamentally sound and good about the way this car drives, the way it goes down the road, and the surprising utility it offers. With the recent ascension of the Volkswagen Golf to the MQB platform and the 1.8TSI engine on North American shores, I thought it would be an appropriate time to share my longer-term ownership experience of the outgoing platform.
The VW replaced a second-hand 1996 “champagne” beige Camry (how appropriate, for what better title could you give a 1996 Camry than the Champagne of Beiges?) which I had owned for 8 responsible years. Despite being the crème de la crème of 1990s sedans and exhibiting a build quality rarely seen in a Toyota showroom since, it was completely lifeless from behind the wheel and falling badly behind on safety features. Kids were coming. ABS, side airbags, and LATCH anchors were suddenly a priority, and I wanted at least a whiff of driver involvement. Time in a Focus ZX5 and the joker-faced Mazda 3 had opened my eyes to affordable driving enjoyment, and I wanted some of that in a package that could haul a couple of kids and their accompanying detritus.
Turns out that was a lot to ask from a $21K budget when a hatchback/wagon body style was mandatory. Lightly used CUVs were ruled out after realizing they were as dull as the Camry despite acing the functional criteria. It’s hard to swallow 4 years of payments on a used vehicle when you don’t actually like it. Every other hatchback or wagon had a fatal flaw, whether too small in the cargo area (xB & Soul), too small in the backseat (Mazda3), or too cheap and nasty to warrant the asking price (Matrix). The Jetta Sportwagen was about the only offering left, and poking around one at an auto show left a really good impression. Subsequent test drives only improved on that.
I never thought I’d walk into a VW dealership after seeing the pages of Consumer Reports splattered like a crime scene with black dots from the infamous Mk IV days, but once those Mk Vs landed in 2005 the dots turned to white and red. So I put aside brand bias and worked with a very professional and low-pressure sales manager to order a base S model with the 5 cylinder engine and 5 speed manual from the factory. Five weeks later, the Mexican-assembled wagon arrived wrapped in bug-splattered plastic.
Most will openly wonder why on God’s Green Earth one would special order a gas Sportwagen instead of picking a TDI already on the lot. The answer is $4500, the price difference between the cheapest TDI with its obligatory bundled options and an already well-equipped base 2.5S. Being trendy and undersupplied, TDI Sportwagen inventories were low in my area that year and the dealers weren’t about to budge a nickel on them. I wasn’t seeing $4500 worth of value there, but time will tell if the higher depreciation and fuel costs wash out the initial price savings.
Regardless of engine choice, this car treats both the driver and passengers well. It provides some feedback and involvement without beating up or cramping passengers, and provides class-atypical levels comfort and refinement without completely anesthetizing the driving experience. The suspension and structure absorb broken pavement, potholes, and jarring ripples with poise and composure that no Civic or Elantra can manage, yet the handling is still responsive. The steering provides respectable feel and precision at speed, with no center dead zone and none of the tiring dartiness some quick ratio systems provide. The driving position is excellent and seat comfort is superb. It is hushed, stable and confident on the highway and just eats up miles for hours on end without fatiguing you. I’m six feet tall and can still find a good driving position with twin rear-facing toddler seats behind me, although anyone taller will have trouble. An SUV’s worth of cargo capacity resides behind the backseat so I can haul both kids and gear. Without the family aboard, I can turn off the traction control and dump-n-ride the clutch to shriek the tires across half an intersection if I’m feeling like an abusive imbecile. That is a smile you cannot get from a CR-V.
The interior of this generation of Golf/Jetta received unanimous praise in the media, and it is well-deserved because the materials quality is closer to an entry-level luxury car than a $20K compact. Happy little details are hidden everywhere, from the glovebox lined in faux felt to the brilliant tilt-and-telescope center armrest to the standard heated seats to the real metal door pulls that release the latch with such a satisfying feel and sound. The speedometer is absolute genius, marked in 10 mph increments until 80 and in 20 mph increments beyond, so you can have your stupid obligatory 160 mph speedometer and not sacrifice legibility in the 0-80 mph range. The interior shows no wear on the touch points, so whatever shoddy craftsmanship plagued the MkIV interiors is not present here.
The interior and solid structure can perhaps be cheerfully compared to Audi, but several things remind you this car was built to a low price. The HVAC fan roars like a tornado and the air conditioning is a bit tepid. There is no modern infotainment technology to speak of. No trip computer. No Bluetooth. No USB integration. You get AUX and a CD slot with a stereo head unit that is laughably basic even if the sound that it routes through the eight speakers isn’t bad. My biggest complaint involves the brakes, which are mushy and require a surprisingly good stomp to extract all of the mediocre performance despite being four-wheel disc. The unparalleled bitching about the 2011 Jetta’s rear drums was amusing considering it stops in a shorter distance than my car.
The engine won’t fool an Audi owner either, but for $20K why should it? VW’s 2.5 liter 5 cylinder is controversial, I believe it deserves a final defense. The 5 cylinder was never going to engender anything but irritation from journalists narrowly focused on acceleration stats or how vigorously the needle swings to redline. Well, ignore their regurgitated groupthink because this is an affordable workhorse that is more relaxed and well-suited to everyday driving than most C-segment engines it competed with. The oft-quoted torque peak occurs above 4000 rpm, but 90% of that is available at 2000 rpm, so it pulls better at those engine speeds than a GLI with its sleeping turbo. Going for a hole in traffic doesn’t usually require a downshift. You can move out nicely in 3rd gear at 30mph and that gives you an advantage against a lot of other average cars that need to wake up and downshift before they can provide much thrust. In Everyday Car and Driver Land, this is more important than a 0-60 sprint.
If those sprints still interest you, the tires will chirp going into second but the engine doesn’t really rev eagerly and feels pretty much done by 5000 rpm. Expect an automatic Sonata to keep pace with you. Expect the GLI to flatten you. You’re just not going to win many stoplight races. Rest in peace anyway, noble 5-cylinder. You were a decent effort considering VW has approximately zero interest in normally aspirated engines.
I find the notorious fuel economy of this engine to be…adequate, but getting less so each year, as the industry extracts more power from the same amount of fuel. I get 28-34 mpg on the highway depending on whatever. It’s a 3200 pound car with 170hp so I wasn’t expecting 40 mpg, but cars of this weight and power should be getting 10-15% better. A section of the brain fixates on that, even if it doesn’t really dent the pocketbook.
I suppose we need to discuss reliability. No VW review is complete without stories of hellacious repair records, preferably of experiences 10, 20, or 30 years ago extrapolated far beyond the proper scope of inference to every VW model and powertrain produced today. Look, either you believe data collected by Consumer Reports and TrueDelta or you don’t. Those sources show the MkV Golf/Jetta far outperforming the MkIV and achieving parity or better with the rest of the industry, particularly for 5-cylinder cars. This is my personal experience: in 51K miles I’ve had one repair stop, a faulty ignition coil at 15K miles that didn’t leave me stranded or make me late to anything. The rear seat ski pass-through likes to jam as well and I have had that addressed 3 times during oil changes. Apparently it is a model-wide design flaw, but it’s not as if the window is dropping into the door. Otherwise, the car has been flawless. I don’t expect an easy 200K, but if I can run it for 10 years and 150K miles without headache you won’t ever see me criticizing this model’s reliability on the comment boards. Bulletproof reliability beyond 200K is something for the second owner to worry about, as the Camry taught me that 15 years of perfect operation is a critical asset only if you want to keep the car for 15 years.
I’ll probably pay for that reliability gap when I try to sell this thing in a world where used Civics fetch such high prices, and I’m fairly certain the manual transmission will be a resale hurdle as well. That’s OK. The modest gain in resale at the tail end of the depreciation curve is not worth driving a car I do not enjoy for a full decade. Volkswagen converted a skeptic here, and should this wagon not implode on me in the next 100K miles and render me an embittered hater of all budget German metal, I may just move into a GTI.