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2009 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI: The upscale, practical niche

Posted by Bill Griffith  December 31, 2009 09:00 AM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)


Over the winter last year I was interested in test driving - and likely purchasing - a 2009 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI. The TDI is the clean diesel engine that now has become legal to sell in all 50 states.

However, the dealer I contacted said there would be a wait because he had a waiting list and no demos.

Thus I abandoned plans to try and find that black SportWagen TDI with a saddle interior.

So what is today's test car? It's a black 2009 Jetta SportWagen TDI with a saddle interior. It even has the manual transmission I would have preferred. Sometimes it's strange how the fates treat us mortals. In this case, in addition to writing a review, I get a chance to write about "what might have been."

Let's jump to the bottom line: Would I have wound up buying this car? Most likely yes.

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This is an upscale, sporty wagon with German styling, good handling, the diesel's mother lode of inherent torque, and nicely proportioned ergonomics. The interior space is nicely apportioned among the front-seat passengers, rear-seat riders, and cargo area. It's a minor example, but Mrs. G and I both noted that there was plenty of elbow space for each of us in sharing the center armrest.

Need more space? Fold the rear seats and cargo space jumps from 32.8 cubic feet to 66.9 cubic feet.

Since my winter search, the price of diesel has dropped to roughly the same as unleaded regular, making the TDI's EPA mileage range of 30 city to 41 highway even more attractive. We averaged 38.6 mpg in a mix of driving. Frankly, that was a bit disappointing because I remember early diesel Rabbits, despite their clatter and smoke, averaging in the 50 mpg range - or so their owners claimed.

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The reasons I was originally attracted to the SportWagen remain. It's pretty much in a niche of its own as a reasonably priced European wagon with a decent list of upscale standard features including air conditioning, heated seats, cruise control, leatherette interior, and stability control, plus EDL (electronic differential locking) and EBA (engine braking assist).

Base price of the SportWagen is $23,870. Add a $700 destination charge and you're at $24,570. Our version didn't have the touch-screen navigation ($1,990) or large, panoramic sunroof ($1,300). Also available are some alloy wheel and tire packages in the $1,300 to $1,800 range, Bluetooth ($325) and several iPod adaptors ($199 and $250).

It's easy to tell you're driving a diesel. For starters, there's a minimal but noticeable bit of clatter and vibration. There's also a ton of torque (236 lb.-ft) off the line at the lower and most used rpm range (1,750 to 2,500 rpm).

The six-speed manual transmission is smooth, and the wagon has plenty of pulling power around town. On the highway, the torque tended to evaporate in the overdrive ratios of fifth and sixth gears. But that's also when the on-board computer is giving instant mpg readings in the high 40 and 50 mpg range.

VW's red-and-blue instrument lighting is always a treat, and the interior engineers have done a nice job of incorporating the red illumination into most of the buttons and knobs.

Just as important, you don't need an engineering degree to figure out the controls. Our version (sans nav system) was nearly completely intuitive. If you're coming from a vehicle with the Japanese-style cruise control switch, you'll need to spend a minute to familiarize yourself with the VW cruise switch, one that's easy to master.

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We parked it in front of a popular Newburyport restaurant, and several folks mistook the SportWagen for the café owner's 2000 BMW 528i wagon. In truth, parking them nose-to-tail made the VW look like the BMW's little brother.

That says the BMW's classic looks remain current and that the SportWagen is in good company.

So what is the SportWagen missing? For starters, it's only available in a front-wheel drive configuration.

We'd also have liked to see maybe a bit fancier steering wheel or at least audio and cruise controls on the wheel.

Fog lights would have been welcome, too. And, as much as we liked the styling of three sides of the Sportwagen's exterior and its entire interior, the VW grille looked too heavy to our eye.

On longer trips, we'd have liked more thigh support in the front seats.

And while we're working on our wish list, it'd be nice to have an iPhone and iPod charger/adapter standard along with Bluetooth.

But overall, this is a car you look forward to driving. Which is why I woulda, if I coulda, bought one.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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