Few new cars make much sense right now. The diesel powered Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen is one that does.


A diesel-powered version of VW's mid-compact sized Jetta station wagon. It starts at $23,879 and delivers 41 mpg on the highway, 30 in city driving -superior to even the most economical subcompacts on the market right now and very close to the real-world efficiency of a gas-electric hybrid, but without the hybrid's complex (and expensive) technology.

Since there are currently no other diesel powered vehicles available in this class, the Jetta Sportwagen has no direct competition. It's truly is in a class by itself.


The Sportwagen TDI is a new addition to the Jetta lineup for '09.


"TDI" is short for turbocharged and direct-injected. The first is pretty straightforward - the 2 liter diesel engine is equipped with a turbocharger to boost power on demand by compressing the incoming air and stuffing more of it into the engine's cylinders than would come in naturally, as drawn in by engine suction alone. The denser air (and fuel) charge contains more potential energy - which results in higher power output. Turbocharging also improves efficiency by enabling a smaller engine to perform like a larger engine when the driver needs extra power while delivering the fuel economy of a smaller engine the rest of the time.

Direct injection means the fuel is sprayed directly into each cylinder rather than mixed with the air in an intake manifold first. Direct injection allows for extremely precise fuel metering, which is a boon to both power and efficiency.

The Sportwagen's 2.0 liter TDI engine is rated at 140 hp and a very stout 236 ft.-lbs. of torque at just 1,750 RPM (more on this below). It can be harnessed to either a regular six-speed manual transmission or VW's Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) an advanced type of automatic that mimics the performance of a conventional manual transmission but does it fully automatically, with no clutch or need for the driver to fiddle with gear changes (unless he wants to; there is a manual/Sport mode that allows for manual control of up and downshifts).

Fuel efficiency is outstanding. The TDI's 30 city, 41 highway (with the six-speed manual; DSG versions are rated at 29 city/40) is a solid 10 mpg better on both counts than either of the Jetta's two available gasoline engines (a 2.5 liter four and a 2.0 liter turbocharged four) can manage. The only vehicle that can challenge the Sportwagen's mileage stats are hybrids like the Toyota Prius and the new Honda Insight hybrid - both of which are completely different kinds of vehicles, so a direct comparison isn't especially meaningful. (More on this below, too.)

Performance is equally impressive: 0-60 in about 8.3 seconds with the six-speed manual.


People buy VWs for two main reasons - economy with European ride and handling feel. The economy part has already been discussed. As for the ride and handling - it's just what you'd expect from a German car: firm and controlled, eager for the curves and responsive to the driver's inputs. It is a fun car to drive and the diesel has impressive off-the-line thrust and mid-range passing power.

Speaking of which: The TDI's 140 hp rating may seem a little on the weak side when compared with the 170 hp rating of the regular Jetta's standard 2.5 liter gasoline engine - but its torque output of 236 ft.-lbs. at just 1,750 RPM is much higher (and comes on much sooner) than the gas four's paltry 177 ft.-lbs. at 4,250 RPM. The TDI even makes more peak torque than the Jetta's optional "high-performance" gas engine - a 2.0 liter turbocharged four rated at 200 hp and 207 ft.-lbs. of torque at 1,800 RPM.

While people love to talk about horsepower, it's torque that makes a car feel peppy off the line. Even more so when high torque output happens at very low engine speed - in the TDI's case, just above idle speed. What it means in everyday language is that when you touch the TDI's gas pedal, it goes. There is in immediate rush of power - enough to push you back in the seat and spin the tires, if you like that kind of stuff. To get similar performance from a gas engine, you have to rev the thing to much higher speeds - which makes a lot of noise and, of course, wastes a lot of fuel, too.

And speaking of that (noise), rest assured the TDI is not like the diesels you may remember from the '70s - or even the '90s. Sure, you can tell it's a diesel by the sound it makes - just as you can tell the difference between a V-8 and a V-6 based on the different exhaust notes. But the TDI's sound is neither intrusive nor unpleasant; just a low burble at idle that you cannot hear at all with the windows up and which is barely noticeable with them down - and which is never obnoxious, as diesel engines often were in the past.

No clouds of sooty black exhaust follow you around, either.

The only "diesel downside" has nothing to do with the car. It's the refueling pumps - which are sometimes grimy and surrounded by puddles of oily goop sprinkled with kitty litter. Many stations will have disposable plastic gloves available, but it's a good idea to keep a pair of old gloves in the trunk just in case they're not.


The Sportwagen is a nicely proportioned, modern-looking car with the extra versatility of a large cargo area behind the rear seats. Where the Jetta sedan has a 16 cubic foot trunk, the Jetta Sportwagen has 67 cubic feet of cargo space with the second row folded down - and 32.8 with them upright. That's about twice the "trunk" space - even with the second row seats in place.

Like other German cars, the Jetta Sportwagen's interior is designed to accommodate very tall people. The driver's seat, for example, can be ratcheted up and down by several inches so that even a person well over six feet tall like me still has plenty of headroom even when the car is ordered with the optional Panorama sunroof - which runs almost the entire length of the roof. In many Japanese and American small and medium-sized cars, headroom is already tight for six-footers, even without the sunroof (which typically eats up about half an inch to an inch of headroom). With the sunroof, many of these cars can't be used by taller drivers - unless they don't mind having their heads constantly rubbing up against the ceiling.

Other nice things about the Jetta Sportwagen include an available 30 gigabyte music hard drive storage system (bundled with the optional GPS), standard heated driver and front seat passenger seats with nice-looking Leatherette trim and heated windshield washer nozzles. AC, power windows and locks, cruise control and 16-inch rims are all standard.

Major extras include the DSG six-speed automatic ($1,100) the Panorama roof ($$1,300) and the GPS rig with music hard drive and iPod hook-up ($1,990).


VW, the brand, may not have the prestige cachet of Audi or BMW - but VW's cars come across as having been put together with similarly Germanic fastidiousness. Beautiful paint (even the door jambs), tight fitment of panels and interior materials that (mostly) have a high quality look, feel and touch to them.

VW has a long history of doing good work with diesels, too. With regular maintenance, you should be able to count on the Jetta's TDI engine for several hundred thousand miles of 40-plus MPG service - and that's something no hybrid can promise. Remember: Current gas-electric hybrids use gasoline-burning engines and gas-burning engines rarely last as long as diesels - without even getting into the question of the hybrid's electric batteries.

For 2009, VW has made electronic stability control standard on all Jettas, TDIs included - along with traction control, ABS, front seat side impact and head/curtain air bags. Optional rear seat side-impact air bags are the only safety device that's not already included in the car's base sticker price.

One small complaint - more like an annoyance - is that when you turn off the ESP/traction control, a bright yellow warning light flickers constantly in the gauge cluster like an overbearing nanny - which of course is just exactly what it is.

A buzzer is probably on deck for 2010.


Hybrids like the Prius get all the fuel economy uber alles limelight, but the TDI Sportwagen can be a better choice if you want long-lived great gas mileage using completely proven technology - in a more useful body configuration - for about the same money.