Some years ago, colleagues and I had an informal discussion about what would be the perfect car from an automotive journalist's perspective. It would have to be a wagon, because we all appreciate utility combined with carlike maneuverability. A diesel engine made the requirements list for superior fuel economy. And it would also need a manual transmission, because we all liked the engagement of driving stick.
Well, our dream car is made real in the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI.
Volkswagen's Jetta Sportwagen TDI holds a rare place in the U.S. market, being only one of two diesel wagons available. BMW claims the other spot with its new 328d Sports Wagon.
The Jetta Sportwagen shows similar lines to the Jetta sedan update Volkwagen launched in 2011. Headlights nicely bookend a narrow grille, and the hood drops low toward the front in a graceful curve from the windshield. A large graphic holds the side windows in a continuous flow all the way back to the cargo area, and the hatchback complements the front with the same, fluid curves. The stance is low, as the Jetta Sportwagen is not trying to be a crossover.
It is an attractive and modern body design.
Despite what would seem to be a niche vehicle appreciated primarily by automotive journalists, Volkswagen offers the Jetta Sportwagen TDI in a number of configurations. First, you get to decide between the six-speed manual or DSG automated manual transmission. Then there is the base model, the sunroof model, or the model with navigation and sunroof. I reviewed the middle version, which lacked navigation but still featured a decent LCD in the dashboard for audio and phone screens.
The Jetta Sportwagen TDI uses Volkswagen's tried-and-true turbocharged 2-liter diesel engine, making 140 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. That high torque figure is typical for diesel engines in passenger cars, as is the 5,000rpm redline. Also typical for a diesel is the engine's clatter, which sounds louder than comparable gasoline engines.
However, Volkswagen did an excellent job sound engineering the cabin, so that engine noise is largely muffled even at idle.
And unlike the Chevrolet Cruze Diesel I reviewed recently, the Jetta Sportswagen TDI does not require any special exhaust cleanup fluid, lessening maintenance costs. Volkswagen has managed to meet EPA emissions requirements with its passenger-car diesel engines for years.
Even more delightful, the Jetta Sportwagen TDI didn't lag when I hit the accelerator, responding immediately with all that available torque. I would attribute that responsiveness to the car's six-speed manual transmission, but I wouldn't be surprised if the DSG version was equally as good.
However, the lower diesel engine speeds required me to adjust my clutch work, and I actually stalled it a couple of times when creeping along in stop-and-go traffic. Fortunately, Volkswagen gave the car a hill-hold feature, making it easy to take off from a stop midway up one of San Francisco's legendary inclines.
The shifter moved smoothly through the gate, not as tight as a sports car transmission, but suitable for the more-suburban requirements of the Jetta Sportwagen TDI. The car didn't fuss as I shifted through the gears to bring the car up to freeway speeds, and the engine even had enough guts for the occasional passing maneuver, especially given the ability to gear down to third.
Electric power steering boost was evident from how the wheel felt. Somewhat overboosted, it was easy to turn the wheels while stopped, and electric boost means a direct and uninterrupted power flow through the steering rig.
The Jetta Sportwagen TDI also benefits from better rear suspension engineering and brakes over the base Jetta sedan. The Sportwagen gets disc brakes all around and a multilink suspension at the rear wheels. That leads to solid and competent handling, and a firm ride.
I very much liked how this Sportwagen drove, as it had a feeling of premium quality.
Of course, the whole point of a diesel engine is to get ridiculously good fuel economy. The Jetta Sportwagen TDI boasts numbers of 30 mpg city and 42 mpg highway. With diesels, I've found it easy to beat the EPA highway number, and in this VW, I was seeing an average around 45 mpg on the trip computer while driving at 65 mph.
My overall average came in at 37.6 mpg, and most people should expect to remain in the the high 30s for fuel economy.
As for the cabin amenities, an upgrade to the sunroof version is worth it, thanks to the sheer amount of glass over the passenger compartment. This panoramic sunroof stretches over front and rear seats, although only the front section opens up.
An $800 bump in price brings in the navigation unit and keyless entry. I like the latter feature, but this particular navigation unit is pretty basic, lacking even real-time traffic. I would be inclined to leave it off and go with a portable unit or smartphone, when needed.
The phone and stereo systems covered what I would consider the basics for cabin tech. My phone paired easily to the car through Bluetooth, and I was able to place calls using the car's very limited voice command. The touch-screen LCD also made it easy to access phone functions, and included its own built-in speed dial presets.
The Bluetooth connection also streamed audio seamlessly from my phone to the car's stereo, and even showed track information on the LCD. Volkswagen makes it more difficult to plug an iPhone or USB drive into the car. As is standard with Volkswagen models, the Jetta Sportwagen TDI has a proprietary connector, and comes with a cable adapter for a 30-pin iOS device. Plugging in current Apple devices means adding a 30-pin to Lightning adapter on to the cable. Volkswagen also makes a separate cable adapter available that terminates in a USB port.
It would be simpler, of course, if Volkswagen just mounted a USB port in the Jetta Sportwagen TDI.
Satellite and HD radio also figure in the audio source mix, along with an SD card slot at the bottom of the head unit. Missing are any connected sources, such as Pandora. Voice command offers no control over music selection, but the touch screen made it easy to select stations or music from a local media source.
Volkswagen equips the Jetta Sportwagen TDI with an eight-speaker audio system standard, with no upgrade options. The sound from this system was pretty average, merely playing music without bringing out detail or highlighting particular frequencies. I was disappointed to find that Volkswagen isn't making its excellent Fender audio system available in this model.
And while large windows all around offered an unimpeded view, a backup camera would have been nice for avoiding bumper taps and aiding parking.
Long range, low tech
The 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI really impressed me with its drivetrain response and premium-car feel, especially considering the mid- to high-20s price point. The diesel engine delivered excellent fuel economy, although buyers will have to take into consideration that diesel fuel prices near premium gasoline. I like Volkswagen's six-speed manual, but clutch-shy drivers will likely find the available DSG automated manual transmission quite good.
The Sportwagen TDI is also a good-looking car, but it pushes no boundaries when it comes to cabin electronics. Drivers who rely on real-time traffic should not opt for the navigation system. Volkswagen's insistence on its proprietary media port is also a little annoying, and will require some extra fiddling around with adapters to hook up some media devices. However, the Bluetooth system works very well for hands-free phone calls and streaming audio.
|Model||2013 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen|
|Power train||Turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder diesel engine, six-speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||30 mpg city/42 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||37.6 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional flash-memory-based system|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Bluetooth streaming, iPod integration, USB drive, SD card, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Eight-speaker system|
|Price as tested||$28,390|