The small wagon, one of the most practical body styles, is back with the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen. The small wagon mostly gave way to the more sporty hatchbacks in the 1990s, but Volkswagen seems confident in the body style, launching the wagon version of its Jetta sedan. There isn't much difference between the Jetta sedan and the Jetta SportWagen when it comes to the drivetrain or cabin electronics, which is really too bad. We were hoping for Volkswagen's next-generation navigation system, which we saw in the Passat CC at the 2008 Detroit auto show. And the name SportWagen is a little misleading, as the car doesn't offer what we would consider an exciting driving experience.
Test the tech: Putting the sport in SportWagen
As our Jetta SportWagen didn't have much in the way of cabin electronics, we ran some acceleration tests, timing runs made from 0 to 60 mph. We hooked up a performance computer and planned to do three runs, one using the six-speed automatic transmission's standard Drive mode, one using its Sport mode, and one using the Tiptronic mode, shifting manually.
We head out to our testing ground, performance computer hooked up and ready to go.
For our first run, we put the car in Drive and waited for the computer to calibrate. Once it was ready we slammed the accelerator and the car took off. We modulated the throttle a little at the start, to avoid wheel spin, something the Jetta SportWagen's 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine produced earlier in some enthusiastic starts. We watched the tachometer run over the 6,000rpm mark before it dropped with each shift. The car felt quick up to 40 mph, but that final 20 mph, up to 60 mph, seemed to take a long time. After we had crossed the 60 mph mark and slowed back down, we checked the computer, and it told us the car took 8.1 seconds to get to 60 mph.
We got ready for our second attempt by pulling the shifter down to the Sport position and again calibrated the computer. Once it was ready, we matched our previous technique, keeping the wheels from spinning early in the start, then just mashing the pedal. The car handled well with this launch, without notable torque steer, but again seemed swift to about 40 mph. Getting up to 60 mph felt like a struggle, but when we checked our time for this run we came in at 7.73 seconds, which isn't bad.
Our acceleration times show a lag between 50 mph and 60 mph.
Finally, we set up for our Tiptronic run. We put the car in manual mode by sliding the shifter to the right of the Drive position, then waited for the go signal. With this shifter, we would need to push up for each upshift. As we took off, we modulated the accelerator and watched the tachometer needle swing past 6,000rpm. We pushed the shifter up for second gear, continuing to accelerate, when something odd happened. The car jumped into third gear before we were ready to shift. We tried the run again, thinking we might have accidentally tapped the shifter up, but got the same result. In manual mode, the car didn't let us push its rpms higher than it would normally do in Sport or Drive mode. Because of this intervention, we discounted the results of this run.
In the cabin
The small wagon styling of the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen is very functional, offering seating for five, with a little rear seat squeeze, and the cargo area. Or, fold the rear seats down and you've got enough room for the worldly possessions of a college student. The capacity seems greater than your typical hatchback, while the Jetta maintains its small car feel. Volkswagen employs nice styling on the SportWagen, with gracefully curving exterior lines.
Inside, the SportWagen seems based on the Jetta SE trim--it comes standard with an upgraded stereo system, along with comfortable leatherette heated seats, a telescoping and height adjustable steering wheel, and automatic power windows. What we didn't have were automatic headlights, an electrochromic rearview mirror, or any audio controls on the steering wheel.
The stereo interface is simple, and only lets you skip through MP3 folders one at a time.
The stereo has satellite radio and an in-dash six-disc changer that can read MP3 CDs. Although the stereo display shows the current track name from satellite radio stations or MP3 CDs, the interface is only mediocre. With an MP3 CD, you can't browse a list of folders, merely push a button to go through them one at a time. iPod integration is available, but its interface is very poor, merely letting you choose from your first five playlists or scrolling through one track at a time, with no track display.
On the plus side, the audio system sounds very good. The audio controls are right on the front of the face plate, with separate knobs for treble, mid, and bass, something you don't see very often. There are 10 speakers around the cabin, with tweeters in each A pillar, a mid and woofer in each front door, and two more speakers in each rear door. These speakers offer good clarity, but distort at high volume. And without a digital signal processor, you tend to mostly hear the speakers in the door next to you.
Tweeters on the A pillar help round out the audio in the Jetta.
The stereo is the only real cabin tech option on the Jetta SportWagen. Bluetooth cell phone integration isn't offered, and we don't believe there is a navigation option, as this car seems based on the Jetta SE, which doesn't have optional navigation.
Under the hood
Volkswagen engineers took the Goldilocks approach with the engine, finding that four cylinders weren't enough, six were too much, but five were just right. The displacement on this engine is 2.5-liters, a nice round number for five cylinders. It puts out 170 horsepower and 177 foot-pounds of torque, hitting the front wheels through its six-speed automatic transmission. While reasonably fast, as shown in our acceleration testing, we would hardly call this an exciting power train. Volkswagen will also sell the SportWagen with a turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder engine, and a 2-liter four-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine.
With the 2.5-liter engine, the SportWagen's EPA numbers are the same as with the sedan, at 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. Although emissions ratings haven't been published for the SportWagen, they should also be the same as for the sedan. For California and the other states that follow the California Air Resources Board regulations, the Jetta earns a very impressive Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle rating, meaning it only produces 1 pound of hydrocarbons during more than 150,000 miles of driving and has zero evaporative emissions.
Although the Tiptronic transmission has a manual mode, we found that it shifted before we were ready.
Handling is very similar to that of the Jetta sedan. The steering feels responsive, but there is body roll in hard cornering and understeer, typical for this class of car. Despite the SportWagen label, this car works best for commuting and hauling. It's sprung more for comfort than sport.
As with the Jetta sedan, it gets a host of road-holding electronics, including antilock brakes, traction control, and a stability program. It also uses electric power steering. Volkswagen is also good about fitting Jettas with a complete airbag package, with fronts for the front passengers, and side curtain airbags all around.
When shown at last year's Washington, D.C., auto show, Volkswagen said the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen would come in the same trim levels as the Jetta sedan, S, SE, and SEL, with prices starting at $19,000. Other sources suggest a model like the one we reviewed will go for almost $25,000. Volkswagen hasn't released definitive information about the Jetta SportWagen as of this review.
The Jetta SportWagen barely rates as a tech car because of its poor to nonexistent cabin electronics. While the audio quality stands out, the stereo interface is mediocre at best. The performance is decent, as the power train gives the car adequate power. But it really stands out for its excellent emissions rating. The handling isn't numb, either. And we give it extra props for a good design, as the small wagon is a body style that deserves popularity.