By Chris Haak
I just finished reviewing a large, seven-passenger Chrysler Town & Country minivan, and now find myself moving onto my next task. In the Town & Country review, I laid out my argument for why minivans are really the ultimate family vehicles: they’re comfortable, safe, and efficient given the size of their interior.
Now, I want you to forget about everything I said about minivans, because really, you are looking at all the car an American family of four needs.
This 2011 Jetta SportWagen has plenty of room for four people – even when the parents are around six feet (or more) tall. It has a surprisingly large cargo area, multiple luxury features, excellent driving dynamics, and superior fuel economy. The Sienna might be comfortable, but it’s also not getting anywhere NEAR 40 miles per gallon. This car can do that in a heartbeat, even with me driving it. (Believe me, that’s a big accomplishment).
Car buyers in Europe and Asia almost certainly think that we Americans are weird for our fascination with large vehicles. A phenomenon likely due in large part to the car culture of the 50s and 60s, plus cheap insurance and cheap gas, Americans’ appetite for large, powerful vehicles remains nearly as strong as ever.
Rather than forcing small vehicles on us that few Americans will buy because they’re too small, too slow, or too uncomfortable, we seem to be at a tipping point in the US market where automakers are giving us advanced-technology vehicles that require very few compromises in order to deliver excellent comfort, mileage, and performance, and all for a fairly reasonable price.
Quite simply, if you do any kind of driving other than stop-and-go city driving, a car with a small diesel is the most efficient way to get from Point A to Point B. How efficient? The 2.0 liter TDI (paired with VW’s very good six speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox) is rated at 29 MPG city/39 MPG highway. (With the standard six-speed manual, the numbers climb to 30/42). Despite these impressive numbers, it’s actually fun to drive, unlike most hybrids (and certainly unlike most 40 MPG-plus hybrids) with 140 horsepower and an impressive 236 lb-ft of torque (and the torque peak comes at 1,750 RPMs).
I hadn’t read the Monroney (car-industry speak for the window sticker) prior to driving the car, so I assumed that it was rated at around 40 MPG on the highway. In most cars, the highway mileage number represents an absolute best case scenario, in which you’re driving gently, rarely stop, and don’t exceed 55 miles per hour. In the real world, I’m almost always a few MPGs below the published highway number, even on a 100 percent highway trip, if for no other reason than I drive faster than 55 MPH.
So as I took my family on a day trip from our home in southeastern Pennsylvania to the Chesapeake Bay area (about 60 miles each way), I was pleased with both myself and the Jetta SportWagen as I watched the average fuel economy number climb to 40 MPG and beyond. When I finally looked up the EPA highway number, I was even more pleased with myself. However, most of the credit goes to the car, because I wasn’t driving it particularly gently or slowly. Working in my favor for this trip, there were no major high-speed highway jaunts and light traffic, but I also wasn’t particularly gentle with the accelerator. With a family of four and two kids’ bikes in the cargo hold (a 12-incher and a 16-incher), we arrived at our destination sporting a 41.3 MPG average for the first leg of the trip. The return trip got us a little less, but a still-impressive 39.4 MPG.
That the car is enjoyable to drive in spite of its excellent fuel economy is just icing on the cake. Acceleration from a stop is strong after a brief hiccup of turbo lag. No diesel that I have ever met has liked to rev – including the very strong inline-six diesel in the BMW 335d – and this 2.0 liter four is no exception. There just isn’t a ton of passing power up there; the solution is to keep the engine in its midrange (the torque peak actually begins at 1,750 RPMs, but remains until 2,500; while that 750-RPM range may sound narrow, remember that 1) diesels don’t have a broad operating range on the tach, and 2) the torque doesn’t drop off to zero past 2,500 RPMs).
It’s fun to shift gears using the DSG, because changes are instant. Up or down, each tap of the lever (if in the +/- secondary gate) moves the transmission to the next gear. With the diesel’s strong torque, there isn’t really much need to downshift very often. Diesels don’t really do engine braking, and just letting the DSG/engine do their thing is usually more than sufficient in the majority of situations. The DSG transmission also has the advantage of creating a more direct, loss-less connection between the engine and wheels than a conventional torque converter-based automatic, which helps both performance and economy. Not all is perfect, though – low-speed maneuvers like backing out of a parking space or stop-and-go traffic tend to befuddle the transmission. It actually gives you the sensation of the clutch pedal in a manual transmission-equipped being slowly released. I also observed that sometimes after releasing the brake, the car did not move until I actually hit the gas pedal.
I have groused about Volkswagen’s decision to “dumb down” its US-market Jetta and Passat to remove cost and make the cars softer and larger for “fat, dumb Americans.” Yet VW continues to sell more Jettas year after year. When I briefly drove the sedan counterpart to this test vehicle a year ago, the only things I liked about the car were its engine, transmission, and rear-seat space. Mercifully, the Jetta SportWagen is based on the old Jetta sedan – the one that car reviewers liked for its driving dynamics, high levels of fit-and-finish, and general solidity. So in the case of the Jetta SportWagen, it actually may pay to get the older version of the car rather than the latest version. The sedan does have more rear-seat legroom than the SportWagen. While two and a half inches more may not sound like a lot, next time you’re in the back seat of a car and your knees are against the seatback, imagine what another two and a half inches would feel like. Oh, and the sedan is cheaper than the wagon – about $3,350 less at MSRP. TrueDelta.com tells us that the SportWagen has about $800 in additional features vs. the sedan, which makes the equipment-adjusted price differential more like $2,500 at MSRP and $2,100 at invoice, both in favor of the sedan.
The dashboard is soft to the touch, and there are tasteful touches throughout the cabin that lead you to believe that this car is more than just a cheap economy car. For instance, the A-pillars are covered in fabric, which is something even the current Honda Accord can boast. While competitors are using furry cardboard headliners, VW gives this car a woven fabric one. This is not a luxury car, mind you – the seats, though they kind of, sort of feel like leather, are just high quality vinyl. If you buy this car, you’re getting good materials and a car that’s screwed together well, but your $26,865 is not getting you a power seat, navigation system, or sunroof. This particular test car did not have any options beyond the TDI model’s standard equipment, and it’s already closer to $30,000 than to $20,000.
That being said, when I put the Jetta SportWagen head-to-head against the ugly duckling Prius V in the TrueDelta price-comparison tool, a funny thing happened. The cars are so closely matched price-wise that they’re nearly even, with a feature-adjusted price differential of just $200 at MSRP (vs. the Prius V Three mid-level model). I wonder if Toyota was looking closely at VW’s pricing when setting its Prius V pricing.
Of the advanced-technology compact hatches that the Jetta SportWagen competes most closely against (Insight, Prius, Prius V), I’ve spent extensive seat time in all but the Prius V – which unfortunately is its closest competitor. (However, we did score a first drive in the Prius V.) And I can say without qualification that the Jetta is the most enjoyable to drive, in terms of ride, handling, power delivery, braking, and steering. There’s none of the artificial sensation that a car with electric steering, regenerative/friction braking, and gas/electric drivetrain with a CVT seems to suffer.
You will pay for that driving experience at the pump, though. While the Jetta is rated at 29 city/39 highway/33 combined, the Prius is rated at 51/48/50, the Prius V is rated at 44/40/42, and even Honda’s lame Insight is rated at 40/43/41. In other words, the worst of its competitors are topping its combined fuel economy rating by eight miles per gallon. The Jetta Sportwagen’s interior furnishings are better than any of those other three cars’ by far, too.
Whether to buy a Jetta Sportwagen or not comes to a question of where your priorities are. If you want to save fuel but still want decent acceleration, a more “normal” driving experience, don’t want the complexity of a hybrid drivetrain, and are comfortable with the idea that VW has hopefully put its reliability problems behind it, then go with the Jetta. If you want to save even more fuel and only want to get from Point A to Point B, or want a car with Toyota’s reliability reputation instead of Volkswagen’s, then consider the Prius. Either way, forget about the Insight unless you just have to own a Honda.
This is a car that I tried to talk my wife into buying with our own money to replace a Sienna that’s too big on the outside and too thirsty at the pump. The fact that one of our reviewers was ready to buy a Golf TDI last year after testing it, and I’d seriously consider doing the same for the Jetta SportWagen TDI should tell you a lot about what we at Autosavant think about these two jewels of VW’s lineup. It’s easy to get jaded by new cars and to complain about small nuisances when you have the opportunity to drive so many of them, and when they actually do manage to impress us, it means a lot.
Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.