First Drive: 2009 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen

2009 VW Jetta Sportwagen – Click above for high-res gallery

While we were in Virginia attending the inaugural race of the Jetta TDI cup series, Volkswagen provided us hacks with a some new Jetta Sportwagens with which to make the 45 minute morning and evening commute between the Berry Hill Inn and the race track. Like the last generation Jetta Wagon, the new Sportwagen is branded as a Jetta in North America because Jetta is Volkswagen's top-selling model here. The rest of the world, however, knows this estate-bodied Volkswagen as the Golf Variant. No matter, because the Golf/Rabbit and Jetta share all their important hardware and are, for all intents and purposes, the same car.

In typical fashion, the new Sportwagen has grown since the previous model was retired and is now nearly as big as the last-gen Passat wagon. My first impression upon climbing into the Sportwagen was how it felt nearly as roomy as the 2000 Passat wagon that resides in half of my garage at home. VW provided an assortment of cars with both 5-speed three-pedal and 6-speed two-pedal transmission arrangements. Unfortunately, all were paired with the base 2.5L inline five-cylinder engine. Check out my impressions of the new Jetta Sportwagen after the jump.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

As I said, the interior volume of the newest Jetta is comparable to the last Passat even though its wheelbase and overall length are five and four inches shorter, respectively. The previous Passat shared its platform with the Audi A4 of the time, meaning its engine and transmission were mounted longitudinally, taking up more space in the front of the car. The smaller Jetta Sportwagen has the same transverse configuration that Jettas, Rabbits and Golfs have always had. The interior of the car, in typical Volkswagen fashion, is attractive and well laid out. The gauges are large and legible, and the HVAC controls consist of the classic, simple three-round-knobs setup.

The seats, in typical German fashion, are also comfortable and supportive -- if somewhat confusing to adjust. One of the long-time complaints about many German cars that don't have full power adjustment is the wheel you have to twist to adjust the backrest angle. This delivers precise control of the angle, but ergonomically, it's terrible. The Jetta now has a power adjuster for the seatback but manual adjusters for the fore-aft position and the bottom cushion angle. Once you get the seat in position so you can reach the pedals, the steering wheel can be adjusted for both rake and reach. For those who like natural light, the Sportwagen has an available panoramic sunroof replaces almost the entire roof with glass. The front half pops up and slides back over the rear half.

On the road, the Sportwagen is a bit of a dichotomy. The chassis clearly outclasses the standard five-cylinder engine. The suspension is well-articulated and seems to do a decent job of absorbing the road contours, although the worst pavement in rural southern Virginia still outclasses the best in Michigan by a pretty wide margin. Once I get to sample the Jetta on my home turf, I'll give a better evaluation of its ride. Going through the curves, the Sportwagen felt more like a GTI than a Country Squire which is always a good thing.

Even though the Jetta is a few inches smaller than the previous-generation Passat wagon, at 3,250 lbs it manages to come in at about 150 lbs heavier. Most of that is due to increased levels of equipment like additional airbags and nav systems, but improved body structure also plays a part. The five has 20 more horsepower than the 1.8L turbo that resides under the hood of the Passat in my garage. It also has 22 more lb-ft of twisting force available, with a rating of 177 lb-ft. VW quotes a 0-60 time of 8.5 sec for the automatic sedan, which is adequate for almost all driving. The problem is the torque peaks at 4,250 now compared to the 1,750rpm peak of the turbo four. In normal driving, the five-cylinder just doesn't feel very strong. The rather coarse sound of the engine also seems to outweigh the thrust by pretty good margin.

The easy-shifting 5-speed manual box manages to make the most it can out of the available power. The six-speed autobox shifts smoothly but does nothing to enhance performance. The 2.0L TDI diesel that's coming this summer will be paired up with a 6-speed DSG and will certainly be the combination to have in this car. The diesel has 140hp but cranks out 258lb-ft of torque at almost any engine speed. It will also be capable of fuel economy in the 40s and potentially up to 60mpg on the highway. Volkswagen expects the TDI to make up half of all sales of the wagon and 35-40 percent of sedan sales. The first batch of TDIs should be arriving about a month from now and we're waiting patiently for our chance to spend time with a TDI Sportwagen.

VW hasn't announced pricing on the Sportwagen yet, but the sedan runs from $17,000 - $23,000. The wagon offers plenty of space for four passengers and their gear -- and five in a pinch. Currently, there aren't a lot of wagons available in this size class in the U.S. market, so if the estate body style appeals to you, this may be one worth checking out, particularly with the diesel engine.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.

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