Since 2003, if prospective car buyers wanted a Volkswagen with sufficient size and space, the choice was limited by default to the rugged Touareg SUV. Those looking for a less expensive, smaller option that offered ample storage but not SUV-like fuel economy were out of luck at VW dealerships.
Three new Volkswagens aim to solve that problem when they debut this year. The Volkswagen Tiguan, Volkswagen Routan and Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen will all be in VW showrooms by this fall and offer completely different approaches to hauling passengers and their gear.
Somewhere in between the compact hatchback Rabbit and compact crossover Tiguan sits VDub's all-new station wagon, the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen. Set to go on sale this summer, the SportWagen adds the one key aspect that the already-solid Rabbit/Jetta lineup currently lacks: space. As fuel prices rise and drivers search for a more fuel efficient alternative to large, bulky SUVs and crossovers, Volkswagen is betting that small, spacious station wagons become a wild success.
The main draw of the Jetta SportWagen is going to be the improved cargo capacity when compared to other similar Volkswagens like the Rabbit. Surprisingly, the Tiguan and the SportWagen share basic chassis components although the station wagon holds a distinct advantage when it comes to storing gear. With seating for five, the SportWagen can offers up to 32.8 cubic feet of storage space, but opens up to 66.9 cubic feet by easily folding the second row seats flat (for comparison, the Tiguan holds 23.8 cubic feet with the seat up and 56.1 cubic feet with the seat folded down).
Upon first glance, the SportWagen is identical to the Jetta sedan from the B-pillar forward, while the cargo area carries a similar design to the Rabbit's unique hatch and C-pillar. In transforming the Jetta from a sleek sedan into a station wagon, Volkswagen did not compromise the car's overall look, feel or driving characteristics. Aside from keeping most of the crucial lines and curves that make the Jetta and Rabbit so unique, the extra sheet metal added only 55 pounds to the total weight - keeping the 3,285-pound station wagon nimble.
The overall experience of the SportWagen was just as its name suggests - sporty. The four-wheel independent suspension may not have allowed the SportWagen to corner like the S4 Avant (review soon to come), but it handled as one would expect from what is essentially an extended-length Rabbit. The truth is, the SportWagen feels like the small hatchback or sedan from which it is derived rather than a typical station wagon or compact crossover to which it will most likely be compared against.
As much as we loved the interior of the R32 and Eos we have recently tested, it was nice to see what the base trim levels offered - and it was surprisingly pleasant. The dash layout, center stack and center console were pretty much the same, but the SportWagen was devoid of sport seats or flashy dash inserts. The cloth seats were comfortable on long trips and the driver's seat allowed for precise adjustment with the manually adjustable fore and aft position and seat bottom height and the power-adjustable seat back angle. The tilting and telescoping steering column not only ensured that the driver had optimal comfort to prevent fatigue, but also gave an unobstructed view of the instrument gauges and driver controls.
Unfortunately, the SportWagen we tested wasn't equipped with VW's optional 2.0-liter TDI four-cylinder diesel, but the standard 2.5-liter inline five cylinder performed surprisingly well. At times, the 170 horsepower felt a little underpowered, but the six-speed automatic Tiptronic transmission took up most of the noticeable slack. Even with the standard Electronic Stability Program engaged, the front wheels still managed to break loose at times under hard acceleration.
Unlike the rest of VW's lineup, the SportWagen is designed to run on regular 87-octane saving a little bit of savings at the pump when filling the 14.5-gallon fuel tank. With estimated EPA fuel economy of 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway, the Jetta SportWagen is slightly more fuel efficient than the popular compact crossovers such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.
Prices have yet to be announced for the 2009 Jetta SportWagen, but with the sedan starting at $16,990, a base price in the low-$20,000 range isn't unreasonable with the TDI model probably coming with a mid to upper $20,000 price tag.