2009 Jetta SportWagen 2.5 – First Drive

Volkswagen has been selling wagons in the U.S. for over fifty straight years. Go back far enough to ads for the first Transporter, and before everyone started calling it the Microbus, VW called it “The Volkswagen Station Wagon.” That line kept going until the first Type IIIs hit the market, which gave way to the Type IV, which led to the Dasher, then the Quantum and Fox wagons, and finally the Passat, which has kept the flame alive since 1990. VW brought over a handful of Jetta IV wagons from Germany, all of which sold quickly, and most of which have retained crazy resale values – I sat down with Volkswagen PR and browsed eBay, finding some four- to five-year-old examples, with more than 50,000 miles, still bringing $19,000.

Although it is built off of the Jetta, the SportWagen is not just a sedan with a hatch grafted on. The vehicle is all new from the B-pillar back. The stamping of the rear doors is unique to the SportWagen, and the new roofline tapers down over two thin C-pillars before continuing out to wagon-specific rear quarter panels and taillamps. Even the rear headrests are different, sitting lower as to not block visibility out of the hatch.

In spite of the extra metal required to stamp out VW’s newest breadbox, Volkswagen’s numbers show the SportWagen is only 50 pounds heavier than its sedan counterparts. And since all the Jetta’s extra junk is in its trunk, it actually helps balance out the car’s typically nose-heavy front-drive, 60/40 weight distribution.

The upshot of the Jetta’s weight is that the suspension — MacPherson struts up front and a fully independent, multi-link rear — can be sprung more firmly without worrying about turning the interior into a paint mixer. I carved up a few Virginia backroads in a midline SE model with a manual transmission, and the ride is sporty, but not jarring. The electro-mechanical steering is still muted in terms of overall feedback and slightly numb on center, but its weighting is bang-on and it’s more precise than anything else in its admittedly tiny class.

Standard and midrange SportWagens come standard with the 2.5-liter aluminum inline five that’s deployed across the rest of the VW lineup and makes 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. Step up to the SEL model and the wagon comes standard with the same 2.0-liter turbo four that’s been lifted from the Jetta Wolfsburg and the GLI. These engines have been powering Jettas and Rabbits and GTIs for years, and in this application they’re no different.

The engine that’s keeping its acolytes awake at night is the upcoming 2.0-liter clean TDI diesel, available a month after the Jetta’s July launch. Producing 140 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque, and mated to either a six-speed manual or six-speed DSG transmission, the clean-diesel TDI has been given a green light by all fifty states. Designed as part of the BlueTec co-operative (but not using the name, since buyers associate it with Mercedes), the TDI controls its NOx output — the downfall of diesels — by using a NOx trap. The trap sequesters the nasty stuff, periodically burning it off while the engine is running. As a bonus, the ultra-refined combustion process that produces those low emissions also quells the marbles-in-a-colander noises for which old oil burners are known.

The SportWagen’s interior is straight Jetta from the seats forward. Since the wagon isn’t arriving on the scene until July, as a 2009 model, it will also be available with the running changes being applied to all ’09 Volkswagens, including VW’s new touch-screen navigation that comes with a backup camera and can play DVDs when the car’s parked. Other than that, the gauges, instrument panel, seat fabric, and controls will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s had seat time in the sedan.

It’s when you look up that things change for the drastic. The traditional single-frame sunroof has been replaced by the panorama roof, a 12.7-square-foot expanse of tinted, tempered glass that spans from the front seats clear across to the cargo hold. A split pane, similar to what Audi uses in its Q7 SUV, the front panel can be tilted up or motored up and out. Since the panel extends so far behind the rear seat, there’s no way that anyone up front could operate a sunshade the window’s full length. A power-operated, perforated vinyl shade is part of the package.

Popping open the rear hatch presents you with 32.8 cubic feet of carpeted cargo storage behind the seats — actually less room than the last-generation Jetta wagon thanks to the rake of the SportWagen’s rear window. What space is available back there, though, is endlessly reconfigurable in enough ways to entertain even the most jaded organizational junkie. The rear load floor is articulated and can be reconfigured into divider walls to keep your goodies from flying about, and there’s storage cubbies under the carpet to hide your roadside unmentionables. The rear seatbacks fold perfectly flat and, when they’re so deployed, the Jetta opens up into a 66.9 cubic foot cavern. That makes the SportWagen able to swallow larger loads than small SUVs like the Saturn Vue (56.4 cu. ft.) or Nissan Rogue (57.9 cu. ft.).

Manual-equipped base models are expected to start at $19,000 and the mid-line SE should check in at $21,400. The fully-loaded SEL model, which comes standard with the 2.0T, is projected to be a hefty $26,400. Prices have been kept somewhat in check because Volkswagen anticipated that turbulent global economies could result in them being hammered on exchange rates, and moved production of the Jetta wagon — and even the European Golf wagon — to its plant in Puebla, Mexico, where production costs can be controlled more closely. Of course, if Mexico is producing all the wagons for Europe, that means they’re also equipped to build 4Motion cars. When VWoA COO Mark Barnes was prodded as to whether or not that could mean we’d see 4Motion wagons or even sedans in the United States, he just replied that “anything is a possibility.”

VW doesn’t expect the SportWagen to be a volume player – of the 300,000 wagon sales in the U.S. every year, they’re only expecting to snag 14,000 of those – but they’re confident that there will be a buyer for every one on the lot.

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