On The Road Review: Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagon

After Honda, Toyota and Nissan “stole” the small car segment from the class originator, Volkswagen, here in the States, VW decided that the best avenue for reintroduction was to create multiple compact cars that exuded a more premium feel, small cars with extra standard equipment, safety features and character.

This strategy has led to increased sales in Europe and other countries and is now leading VW’s resurgence in America. That and the inclusion of the latest TDI-clean diesel engines.

Diesel power accounts for more than 50 percent of all new car sales in Europe. Volkswagen — and all of the other German automakers — have perfected the diesel engine technology with variable valve timing, variable ratio turbochargers, direct fuel injection, plus urea injection into exhaust outlets that all adds up to greater power, lower emissions than many gasoline engines, as well as lofty fuel economy ratings that come close to hybrid-power efficiency.

These engineering changes have removed most of the dynamic objections to diesel engines in passenger vehicles. The latest clean diesels are much quieter while vibration levels are also greatly reduced. Smoky, smelly exhaust is also a thing of the past as new low-sulfur diesel fuel — much like low-sulfur gasoline — helps to eliminate the noxious, and obnoxious, fumes that used to accompany a diesel wherever it went.

Volkswagen has done such a good job of integrating this clean diesel technology into its best-selling Jetta platform, that the Jetta TDI and Jetta TDI Sportwagon have been named the Clean Car of the Year for 2009. To borrow an old phrase, this is not your father’s Volkswagen.

Volkswagen is not new to this diesel power option, as several variants have appeared through the years. Besides previous Golf, Rabbit and Jetta diesels Volkswagen also debuted a diesel-powered Touareg SUV that got almost 30 mph in regular driving. A lofty retail price handicapped the Touareg V-10 TDI’s sales, but VW made the point handily — diesels work great in both small vehicles and larger passenger vehicles.

The latest Jetta TDI Sportwagon works extremely well. Drivers will quickly notice that the big-box Jetta gives up none of the regular Jetta’s adroit road manners, smart steering feel or premium feel. The controls and equipment levels are typical VW upscale appointments such as one-touch up/down power windows, tilt/telescoping steering wheel and heated seats.

What the Sportwagon gets you is one very large cargo hold that equals or betters many compact class CUV/SUVs. Fold the split rear seats down — one easy motion, no headrests to remove — and you get a flat load floor that can swallow up to 67 cubic feet of gear. That’s more cargo room than any of the small Jeeps, more than Nissan’s Rogue, Saturn Vue, or even the VW Tiguan.

Best of all, though, is how well the Jetta TDI Sportwagon works. The engine is smooth and responsive in every gear with the light clutch and the standard six-speed manual gearbox. Step off power from a standing start is a little soft, but this lasts for a mere second and from there on the diesel is eager and efficient. There is surprising power even in sixth gear as the diesel engine delivers an abundant 236 pound/feet of peak torque from a low 1,750 rpms. No other compact family car — foreign or domestic — provides as much torque as the Jetta TDI. Torque is very good.

Fill-ups are few and far between as the Jetta travels 350-plus miles — on half a tank of fuel. With little regard for fuel mileage, I averaged 40.2 mpg for our week together.

Later this year, a TDI version of the Golf hatchback joins the VW fleet, while a handsome Miata-sized two-seat diesel convertible called the BlueSport is scheduled for next summer.

Diesel-powered cars are here to stay, and we should welcome them. With VW TDI sales now accounting for almost 40 percent of all new Jetta sales, this is no trickle in the pond phenomenon.

Just the Facts: Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagon

VW Jetta Sportwagon starts at $18,999 with standard 170-hp five-cylinder engine. SE model jumps to $21, 349 with another $1,100 for the six-speed Tiptronic automatic. TDI version with 140 hp starts at $23,590. Add $650 destination fee to all of these prices.

Base Sportwagon comes with traction and stability control, brake assist, tilt/tele steering wheel, cruise, heated cloth seats, heated power mirrors with turn signals, MP3 equipped stereo, remote entry, heated washer nozzles, and more. TDI adds upgraded stereo with satellite radio, larger alloy wheels, trip computer w/outside temp and compass and steering wheel audio controls.

Base Jetta wagon has EPA ratings of 21/30-mpg with the five-speed manual. TDI model jumps to 30/41-mpg ratings. VW claims higher independent lab testing mileage results of 36-city/44-mpg highway. Estimated fuel economy drops one mile per gallon with automatic transmission.

Next week: Kia Forte


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