Thirty minutes with the 2008 Jetta Sportwagen

As station wagon lovers ourselves, we were just as disappointed as many of you were when we heard the news that the new Jetta Sportwagen had been delayed due to a plant fire which destroyed 12,000 - 15,000 cylinder heads. After all, with nearly as much space as the average SUV or minivan but with much better fuel mileage and more sport to go with it, what's not to like? And those are just the practical considerations. What about how the car drives? That's an excellent question, so, when we got a chance to get some seat time in an '08 Jetta Sportwagen at the 2007 American Station Wagon Owners Association Convention, we jumped on it.

Here are a few quick details to keep you interested enough to keep reading after the break, which is where you'll find our driving impressions. The wagon (or... wagen) version of the Jetta has 32 cubic feet of cargo space with the back seat in place, and more than double that with the seat folded down at 66.9 cubic feet. Engine choices start with the 2.5 liter inline 5 cylinder with the 2.0T engine as an upgrade. If you're into saving gas with an oil-burner, the 2.0 TDI will be available too. That engine will give up to 60 miles per gallon on the highway..

Follow the jump for more.

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The Jetta Sportwagen drives pretty darn good. This is not particularly surprising, since the vehicle is based on the same architecture that has been winning comparison tests left and right since its introduction. The version that I drove, which happened to be the only 2008 Jetta Sportwagen in the entire United States at the time (better not crash!), was equipped with the base engine and the six-speed automatic transmission. I found that the transmission was rather responsive when I gave the gas pedal the boot. That turned out to be a good thing, because that base engine is the 2.5 liter five cylinder that comes standard in the Rabbit and Jetta models. While the recently getting a bump from 150 to 170 horses, it still feels like anything but a powerhouse. Still, considering that it is the base engine in a vehicle costing less than $20,000, I don't have much bad to say about it. It powers the vehicle down the road adequately and goes about its duties mostly unobtrusively. Most enthusiasts would prefer the optional 2.0-liter turbo unit that powers many vehicles carrying the VW and Audi badges. This engine is much more to our liking, as it feels more like a good V6 than a small-displacement inline four. Of course, if mileage is your number one concern, we would recommend waiting a little while for the TDI. The bad news is that the date hgasn't been set for the release of that engine. The good news is that you'll be able to get it no matter what state you happen to live in.

The ride/handling compromise felt typically European. That is to say, you will most certainly feel the irregularities in the road surface, but it takes a large jolt to upset the structure. We think the tradeoff is well worth it, as the car feels much more connected to the road than many of its competitors. We'll get to its competitors a little later as well. The steering felt direct, with little play in between feeling reactions from the wheels to your requests. Stability control will be standard on the Sportwagen. The vehicle I drove had been fitted with non-standard wheels and rubber, so I can't comment too much on the handling, other than to say it should be similar to other Jettas.

One area in which we were pleasantly surprised was in how quiet the car is. Many wagons are penalized with booming sounds coming from the open rear of the vehicle. Not this one, as it was quite easy to carry on conversations between occupants in the front and the rear. Speaking of occupancy, if you are over six feet tall, as I am, don't expect to put another person of such height behind the driver's seat. Also, with the seat adjusted properly for myself, the rear seat could not be lowered to fold flat. As for the rear seat, when that is folded down, there is a vast expanse available for those frequent trips to Home Depot. Plus, if more room is required, the passenger seat also folds down for longer options. The rear seat is split 60/40, and also includes a pass-through for long, skinny items. The version we drove had the fake leather option, which was pretty convincing and almost certainly will hold up better than the real thing. For those who must have animal hides inside, they're available, of course, while cloth is standard.

Features include a very large, two-pane sunroof. There is a nifty button at the front it, behind the windshield which has detents which allow the glass to open to preset sizes. The driver can also press a button with forward and reversing arrows to perform that function manually.

We did not have proper seat time to make any mileage calculations, unfortunately. With a six-speed automatic, I am sure that the car will eek out the most from what it has, but be ready to put your foot in it with the base engine when you need to pass, which will undoubtedly have a negative effect on fuel consumption. You know the line: your mileage will vary.

All in all, we feel that the Jetta Sportwagen has quite a bit going for it at the base price of admission. The car should be available for less than $20,000 when it goes on sale. The price was not officially set yet, but VW claims it will be the least expensive Euro-wagon in America. That is easy to believe, being that the next cheapest is likely from Volvo, and comes in closer to $30 grand than $20,000. Other competitors to be considered are the outgoing Subaru Impreza wagon, Subaru Outback, Suzuki Forenza and possibly the Dodge Magnum, although it is quite a bit larger. The most likely vehicle which would have been competing for sales was the Mazda 6 Wagon, although it, like the Impreza wagon, won't be available much longer.

In conclusion, we think that the Jetta Sportwagen offers a pretty compelling package for the price. For you wagon or (Volks)wagen lovers, this one is likely to be a slam dunk. Judging from the reactions from the crowd at the station wagon convention, VW got their target market right. The real question worth asking is: how many members of the target market exist in America? We are about to find out, starting in early '08.

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