A while back, my wife and I decided we would become parents. As soon as I saw the little wand TURN blue, I knew we'd need a bigger car. That was almost three years ago. We still need a bigger car. The problem with knowing a little bit about cars is the dizzying plethora of choices and the rumored promises of what's on the horizon. We didn't want the soccer-mom stigma of a minivan, or an SUV that drove like a truck and got 12 mpg. We wanted a car with room for two parents and one, possibly two, baby seats, and all the gear that comes with a growing family. I insisted the car have handling as near a sports car as possible, burn as little gas as possible and cost less than $25k. Oh, and is it too much to ask for style?
My mom said, "You want it all, don't you? Just buy something." Which, of course, only incited me to a new level of stubbornness and a vow to find the perfect car. After more than TWO years shopping, our family car Holy Grail just might be German.
All photos Copyright ©2008 Chris Tutor / Weblogs, Inc.
Volkswagen's 2009 Jetta SportWagen has style. In my opinion, a two-box wagon design is hard to screw up. Rooflines can flow all the way to the rear bumper, fender creases can begin at the front and end at the very back with no interruption. And when the designers start with a car as handsome as the Jetta sedan, their jobs are even easier. The SportWagen shares most of the sedan's look all the way back to the rear doors. At the rear, though, the sedan's two-piece, multi-element taillights are switched for a one-piece, monochrome red unit to accommodate the rear liftgate. While the switch likely improves VW's profit margin, it's a downgrade for the car's overall look that should have aftermarket shops salivating.
The S model gets 16-inch steel wheels and the SE model comes with standard 16-inch alloys, but our tester was upsized to Continental-wearing 17s. The car's Monroney shows the upgrade only cost $450, but we couldn't replicate that on VW's Web site. We'd be willing to pay a good bit more for a set of those Hufeisen 18-inch wheels off the GTI. But as far as we can tell, they aren't a SportWagen option.
For a whole week we thought we were sitting on leather seats. In fact, we were prepared to commend VW for making premium seating standard in a mid-range model but wished the leather quality equaled the GTI's. We had been fooled! The SportWagen SE's "leatherette" seating is that good. Buyers of the S model get "velour" seats, which we got to sample a few months ago and found the gray cloth against the matching gray interior boring at best. It gave the S wagon a bargain-basement econocar feel instead of our SE tester's entry-level luxury. Just add $2,300 to the S's $18,999 base price to get the SE model. That gets the fake leather, a better sound system with satrad, a rear-seat armrest and some exterior upgrades. If you insist on nothing but real cowhide, VW requires you pony up $4,600 for the turbocharged SEL, which has a base price of $25,990. The 6-speed Tiptronic adds $1,100 to each of those.
My wife and I didn't miss VW's infamously disappointing iPod dock ($200), though the optional navigation system (a $2,000 option) would have come in handy. In fact, the only option we wished our tester had was the $1,300 panorama sunroof. It's a 4.5-foot-long, double-pane hole in the top that spans both front and back passengers. At the push of a button, a translucent fabric sun shield automatically extends to keep out the rays.
The SportWagen also met our cargo-carrying needs with ease. When hauling around a toddler, a car's rear seats are rarely folded. But even with the Jetta's seats deployed and ready for use, the car boasts 32.8 grocery-hauling cubic feet. The rear floor lifts to reveal two concealed storage spaces for small valuables, and a cargo cover hides larger items. Another compartment on the left opens for even more out-of-sight storage.
For carrying extra long items, the rear seats retain the sedan's center pass-through. But to accommodate both length and width, dropping the back seats is fairly easy though not quick. First, flip the bottom seat cushions forward. Then remove the headrests. Then fold the seat backs flat. We've seen simpler processes, but the end result is a totally flat floor that will take almost 67 cubic feet of cargo.
Black roof rails atop the car seemed superfluous considering all the interior space available, but they proved useful at the big-box home improvement store when four 4x8 pieces of lattice were too wide to fit through the rear hatch. Strollers, luggage, groceries and many other things not intended for construction weren't a challenge for the car's interior.
For those who still don't think station wagons can be cool, keep in mind this is a SportWagen. Yeah, we know "sport" is an automotive clich, and you shouldn't be expecting even A3-levels of performance from this car's 170-hp engine. There is sufficient power to get you around town, and the transmission's sport mode will keep the revs up in the engine's power band. But there's more to performance than horsepower. Put the SportWagen in some twists and turns and the all-independent suspension makes you proud to be the owner. Unlike some of those less-deserving cars sporting "Sport" badges, the s-word doesn't appear anywhere on the car, not even preceding the word "wagen." To your friends and family, you're driving a Jetta sedan with a hatch.
That somewhat stiffer suspension comes at the cost of some ride comfort. It may also be responsible for the intrusive road noise we heard. Neither were unbearable and it's understandable a wagon will naturally be louder than its sedan counterpart. Perhaps the solution is to keep the back loaded with stuff as much as possible.
VW's got ya covered on safety, too, with standard antilock brakes, anti-slip regulation and 4-wheel discs. The driver and front passenger get standard front and side airbags, but rear passengers are forced to come up with $350 for their own side bags. We're disappointed that they're not standard, but at least they're not that expensive.
We certainly enjoyed putting 487.3 mostly city miles on the SportWagen and pumped 18.41 gallons of regular into it. That comes to an impressive 26.4 mpg, right in the middle of the EPA's 21 city/29 highway. And I'll admit to judicious use of the transmission's "S" mode, which probably means "slurp" as much as it does "sport". We'd expect your real-world numbers will come in even better than what we did.
Volkswagen is also promising even better fuel economy when the diesel-powered TDI model debuts in the fall. While the EPA rates an automatic TDI with an average of 34 mpg, VW hired its own testing firm and claims the 140-hp four-cylinder diesel can average 41 mpg. With 236 lb/ft of torque and a standard DSG transmission, it should make for an even sportier wagen. VW says the TDI version will start at $23,590 with a 6-speed manual, though the feds are offering a $1,300 tax credit for TDI purchasers that will largely erase its $2,000 premium. The diesel comes with an even bigger optional bonus, though. A DSG transmission for $1,100.
Mom, it looks like we found our vehicle. It's not our perfect car (it doesn't come in orange), but we think its perfect for our family. The SportWagen is roomy, stylish, economical and sporty enough. With the options we want, it cost us about $26,000, which is over our budget, but it has a 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty plus all routine maintenance is taken care of by VW for three years or 36,000 miles.
And just as we're ready to buy, our local VW dealer tells me there's already a waiting list for the TDI SportWagens. Customers are being told not to expect cars until at least September, and maybe not even until January. Hmmm. That means we'll get to see all the new cars that are announced at the North American International Auto Show in January before deciding. Sigh. Our search may never end.
All photos Copyright ©2008 Chris Tutor / Weblogs, Inc.