2010 Volkswagen Jetta TDI SportWagen: Bred To Save?

December 29, 2009

When VW offers a "sano" Candy-White Jetta SportWagen TDI for a week-long test, should you sign up? Yes!

The TDI badge means there's a 2.0-liter, 140-hp, turbocharged diesel engine under the hood. Mate that mill to a slick six-speed manual transmission, send it down the road on wide 17-inch Michelin Pilot donuts and you'll discover that this eco Wagen isn't a rolling oxymoron. It delivers so much gusto that I believe VW spokesman Sean Maynard, who claims 50% of Jetta wagon buyers fly TDI.

Here's the evidence: My first day's commute bumped the trip computers readout to 45 mpg. My second day netted 42. Then the weather turned chilly. Fuel economy dropped to 37-39. After a week of back-road romps, flat-out hill climbs, and cloverleaf charges, the cars computer indicated 41 mpg overall, I measured 40. That's about 11 mpg more than the five-cylinder, five-speed manual, gas-fired SportWagen I drove last year. And diesel fuel, at press time, was nearly 15% cheaper than regular, so my tab for more than 340 miles came to $19. Tank range: nearly 600 miles.

But there's more to this economy-champ story than mpg. What makes it compelling is its performance. Start the engine and you'll hear some low-pitch grunts. After mastering clutch engagement (it's easy to stall), you're off. Under most driving conditions, this engine is actually quieter than the gas Jetta. Gear ratios keep the engine RPM up where it's responsive--1,800. You can lug it if you want truck-like growl; there's 236 lb-ft of lusty torque! If you rev the engine to redline, there's an interesting rat-tat-tat bark. Diesel exhaust odor and soot are conspicuously absent.

In motion, the SportWagen earns its pedigree. Its steering is accurate, well weighted and easily holds one's path. Body roll is modest and the Michelin tires grip--fun! Unlike most hybrids, which must gingerly traverse flawed roads, the TDI is unfazed. Unfortunately, the low-profile tires thump excessively on choppy expressway expansion joins--emitting sounds only those who bowl Brunswick think entertaining.

Inside each Jetta, there's a nicely finished interior. Door panels and the B-pillar are scalloped, increasing elbowroom. Lots of unseen extras add up to an accomplished compact--for instance, there are wide rear floor heater outlets, rear face-level vents and a nearby 120-volt AC outlet, too. The flexible cargo floor is practical.

Radio and navigation controls were simple. The optional panoramic sunroof offers an expansive overhead skylight but its retractable shade reduces rear headroom.

Sportwagens are well equipped. Base price is about $24,500. With fancy roof, fat wheels and navigation price climbs to more than $28,000. There's a $1,300 green-car federal tax credit.

Not cheap, but you'll save each time you fill up.

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