Most American car buyers would reject this straight away. As a wagon, it still carries the “neutered” stigma developed in the era before minivans. As a diesel, it is different, and therefore is terrifying. And as a manual, most people could not operate it, and would not be bothered to learn. So the Jetta Sportwagen TDI cannot possibly appeal to the mass droves of uninterested laymen, and that means it must be pretty good. This is a thinking person’s car, and among high MPG wagons, it is by far the enthusiast’s choice.
You see, not all enthusiast cars need to be about high performance. They just need to be engaging for the driver in performing a given task. Practicality and fuel efficiency define the main purposes of the Jetta Sportwagen TDI. It is undoubtedly a car that will be daily driven, and used for all manner of tasks. As a wagon that can see over 40mpg, its only real competitors are the Toyota Prius V and the Ford C-MAX. Obviously those are both hybrids, so the VW’s approach is quite different from theirs.
You would be mistaken in thinking economical driving is a passive affair, it isn’t. Lazy driving is passive, and lazy driving usually involves paying attention to everything else but the road. In reality, if you want to minimize your fuel consumption, you will need to pay just as much attention to the road as you do when you’re driving fast. Momentum is everything in fuel efficiency, and it is imperative that you are in tune with your car, and what it is doing on around you. Often times, taking a downhill corner at 70mph so you can get over the next hill without using the gas pedal is just as important as accelerating gently and setting the right cruising speed. Efficiency is not about driving slowly, it is about driving well. And that is something I think every enthusiast driver can identify with.
The Jetta Sportwagen is a bit of a Frankenstein in the VW lineup. It is actually built in Europe on the previous generation Jetta’s platform, and not the current Mk6 platform which is built in Mexico. If you know VW’s lineup then you will also notice that the Jetta Sportwagen has the front end from a Golf. This is because it is marketed both as a “Golf Wagon” and a “Jetta Sportwagon” in different markets around the globe.
Overall I find the Sportwagon’s styling to be handsome, but a little on the bland side. There is something cool about having a wagon, though, a sort of slight nonconformity that shows you can think for yourself. As a visual object, the Jetta Sportwagen doesn’t stand out in a crowd, but it does say something good about its owner. The manual TDI model I have here shows its depth gradually. It is a very interesting car but its appearance alone doesn’t really give it away.
The interior is all pretty standard VW, and that’s a good thing. The Sportwagen sits on the nicer end of VW’s economy range, so the seats are leatherette, but everything feels well put together. I actually like leatherette because it doesn’t wear out like real leather does. The car I drove was loaded, and had navigation, satellite radio, etc. All to be expected, and all well carried out.
The driver seat was nice, comfy, and decently supportive. The back seat had plenty of space, and I think five people could definitely work in this car, if need be. Being a wagon, cargo space is expectedly massive. If this car won’t fit something, you would’ve needed a van or a truck anyway. Practicality is one of the Sportwagen’s major strong points.
Everything mentioned above is good, but unsurprising. This Sportwagen TDI starts to show its true merits when you notice the huge panoramic sunroof overhead. I think this is an especially nice feature for a wagon because you could conceivably sleep in the back with the seats folded down. How nice would it be to be able to gaze up at the stars at night? The sunroof is a nice bonus feature, one that begins to set the Sportwagen TDI apart from the vanilla first impression it gives you.
On the road
Once you get moving the Sportwagen TDI starts to show its hand more and more. To start with, it can be had with a manual gearbox, something that eludes its two Hybrid competitors. The surprise is that its gearbox is actually quite nice, because often times with economy cars everything is too rubbery, and numb feeling. In the Sportwagen, right as you set off, you’ll notice that while the clutch pedal is fairly, it has some solid engagement feel. Make a few shifts, and you’ll find the gear-throw smooth and precise, with just a bit of a pop that lets you know that you’re in gear. Having such a nice gearbox makes driving this car an absolute joy, which is further enhanced by the car’s diesel engine.
Torque is the name of the game here, and it gives this car solid acceleration in pretty much any gear, at any speed. This is probably the easiest manual car I’ve ever driven. The diesel’s torque allows you to cruise around in a high gear most of the time, without the need to worry about downshifting to speed up. On the highway I never had to leave 6th gear, even when accelerating from 70mph to 85mph to pass someone. Also, if you’re on a level surface, you don’t need to balance the clutch with the gas pedal to get moving. You can simply let the clutch out with a little finesse and the car will get rolling on its own.
Buyers wanting an automatic can get the Sportwagen with the DSG gearbox, but if you know how to drive stick, I suggest you try this one first. It is a very relaxing manual car when you just want to chill, but you also get that fantastic connection to the driving experience when you want to have a little fun.
Speed wise, you might think the Sportwagen TDI would be lacking, with just 140hp, but 236ft/lbs of torque does a lot to make up for it. The torque gives this car a solid amount of in-gear pull, and its powerband is useable throughout the entire rev range. Gun it in 3rd or 4th gear and you will have no trouble at all merging onto the highway or passing someone driving slow in their Prius. The performance of a diesel is about using all that torque to your advantage, and having a manual gearbox gives you that extra bit of control that really makes driving this car an enjoyable experience.
Adding to that enjoyment is the Sportwagen’s solid handling. You see, the reason car enthusiast’s love wagons, is bacause you get all that extra space while keeping car-like handling characteristics. Being built on the previous Jetta’s platform, the Sportwagen has a proper multilink rear suspension (Like the Jetta GLI), and not that torsion-beam nonsense found on the current Jetta sedans. The result is a car that handles legitimately well, especially when compared to the Prius V and the C-MAX. It feels like a proper sporty European car, and it is plenty of fun to throw through a few corners. Obviously you can’t expect GLI type performance, but it will pleasantly surprise anyone who takes driving seriously. Handling is important for both fuel economy and performance, so rest assured that the Sportwagen TDI can keep quite a good pace on some winding back roads.
The handling is good, the engine is good, and the gearbox is good. Lets face it, this is a pretty damn good driver’s car. Its purpose may not be high performance, but it is still a car that needs a good driver to get the most out of it. The Sportwagen TDI is efficient and practical, but it is also surprisingly fun and engaging. That is what sets it apart the most from the Prius V and the C-MAX. The Sportwagen TDI is a real car, one meant to be driven and enjoyed, not just a mere transportation appliance like the other two. For anyone who values driving, that should make the decision easy.
In the market
What about how it compares in MPG to the two hybrids? The EPA rates the Jetta Sportwagen TDI at 30 city/ 42 highway mpg, but most reviews I’ve seen from real owners report overall averages in the low 40mpg range. That puts the VW right in line with the Prius V, as well as with what owners are actually seeing from their C-MAXs (The EPA’s 47mpg claim has proven a bit hopeful in real driving).
In real world terms: the Jetta will really shine on the highway compared to the two hybrids. If you do a lot of highway and country driving, the VW is absolutely the way to go. If you are in a city, and rarely go over 40mph, then the hybrids may be a better option for you.
There is also the question of longevity, though. Hybrids are good for about 150k miles (if that) before they will need a new battery. That will run you a few thousand dollars, and it usually takes place after the warranty has run out. Most people will just opt to get a new car at that point. The Sportwagen TDI on the other hand, is just a simple turbodiesel, the like of which has often been known to go 300k-400k miles when well maintained. The point is that the VW will get you more usage for your money if you intend to keep the car for a long time.
Speaking of money, the loaded Sportwagen TDI I drove came in at $29,370. By comparison, fully loaded Prius Vs and C-MAXs run around $36,000 and $32,000, respectively. Consider what I said above, and you will see what a great value the Jetta Sportwagon TDI is, even with all the options fitted. If you can forgo the toys, you can have one for just under $26 grand. All things considered, I’m not sure why anyone would buy either of the hybird wagons over this VW, but as I said earlier, this is a purchase made by thinking people.
The Jetta Sportwagen TDI is definitely the enthusiast’s choice for practical, economical transportation. It uses the tried and true method of diesel technology the way it has been done in Europe for decades. Diesels are the norm over there, and they laugh at us Americans and out hybrids because their diesels have been getting this sort of fuel mileage for quite some time now.
People who know cars know this already, and recognize the merits of having a diesel. They also know that driving a manual is more fun, and gives you more control over the car. When given the choice between a crossover and a wagon, these same people will chose the wagon every time because it handles a lot better, and is a lot safer because of that. I am not saying you need to be a car enthusiast to enjoy the Jetta Sportwagen TDI. I am just saying its appeal is obvious to an informed enthusiast. If you are looking for a car with lots of space and great fuel economy, take it from me, this is the one you should buy.
WoM Score: VW Jetta Sportwagen TDI Manual
Primary Function: MPG: 2
Secondary Functions: Performance(2) Luxury(2) Practicality(2): 2
Visual Appeal: 1
Build Quality: 2
Value for Money: 2
Final Score: 9/10
PS: A special thanks to Ken Doebler at Volkswagen of Langhorne.