Some years ago, colleagues and I had an informal discussion about what would be the perfect car from an automotive journalist's perspective. It would have to be a wagon, because we all appreciate utility combined with carlike maneuverability. A diesel engine made the requirements list for superior fuel economy. And it would also need a manual transmission, because we all liked the engagement of driving stick.
Well, our dream car is made real in the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI.
Volkswagen's Jetta Sportwagen TDI holds a rare place in the U.S. market, being only one of two diesel wagons available. BMW claims the other spot with its new 328d Sports Wagon.
The Jetta Sportwagen shows similar lines to the Jetta sedan update Volkwagen launched in 2011. Headlights nicely bookend a narrow grille, and the hood drops low toward the front in a graceful curve from the windshield. A large graphic holds the side windows in a continuous flow all the way back to the cargo area, and the hatchback complements the front with the same, fluid curves. The stance is low, as the Jetta Sportwagen is not trying to be a crossover.
It is an attractive and modern body design.
Despite what would seem to be a niche vehicle appreciated primarily by automotive journalists, Volkswagen offers the Jetta Sportwagen TDI in a number of configurations. First, you get to decide between the six-speed manual or DSG automated manual transmission. Then there is the base model, the sunroof model, or the model with navigation and sunroof. I reviewed the middle version, which lacked navigation but still featured a decent LCD in the dashboard for audio and phone screens.
The Jetta Sportwagen TDI uses Volkswagen's tried-and-true turbocharged 2-liter diesel engine, making 140 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. That high torque figure is typical for diesel engines in passenger cars, as is the 5,000rpm redline. Also typical for a diesel is the engine's clatter, which sounds louder than comparable gasoline engines.
However, Volkswagen did an excellent job sound engineering the cabin, so that engine noise is largely muffled even at idle.
And unlike the Chevrolet Cruze Diesel I reviewed recently, the Jetta Sportswagen TDI does not require any special exhaust cleanup fluid, lessening maintenance costs. Volkswagen has managed to meet EPA emissions requirements with its passenger-car diesel engines for years.
Even more delightful, the Jetta Sportwagen TDI didn't lag when I hit the accelerator, responding immediately with all that available torque. I would attribute that responsiveness to the car's six-speed manual transmission, but I wouldn't be surprised if the DSG version was equally as good.
However, the lower diesel engine speeds required me to adjust my clutch work, and I actually stalled it a couple of times when creeping along in stop-and-go traffic. Fortunately, Volkswagen gave the car a hill-hold feature, making it easy to take off from a stop midway up one of San Francisco's legendary inclines.
The shifter moved smoothly through the gate, not as tight as a sports car transmission, but suitable for the more-suburban requirements of the Jetta Sportwagen TDI. The car didn't fuss as I shifted through the gears to bring the car up to freeway speeds, and the engine even had enough guts for the occasional passing maneuver, especially given the ability to gear down to third.
Electric power steering boost was evident from how the wheel felt. Somewhat overboosted, it was easy to turn the wheels while stopped, and electric boost means a direct and uninterrupted power flow through the steering rig.
The Jetta Sportwagen TDI also benefits from better rear suspension engineering and brakes over the base Jetta sedan. The Sportwagen gets disc brakes all around and a multilink suspension at the rear wheels. That leads to solid and competent handling, and a firm ride.