Diesel Wagon: What'll They Think of Next?

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TESTED Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen 2.0L TDI

WHAT IS IT? One of only two diesel station wagons sold in the United States.

HOW MUCH? $30,290 for 2013 model as tested with sunroof, navigation system and 17-inch wheels. Base price of 2014 TDI wagon is $27,070.

WHAT'S UNDER THE HOOD? 2-liter 4-cylinder diesel (140 horsepower, 236 pound-feet of torque) with a 6-speed automated direct-shift gearbox.

IS IT THIRSTY?  No, and that's the whole point: the E.P.A. rating is 29 m.p.g. in the city, 39 m.p.g. on the highway (or 30/42 with the standard 6-speed manual transmission).

ALTERNATIVE BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon ($43,875).

If you need proof that the press is not all-powerful in shaping public opinion, check out the car market. Auto writers have long tooted the horn about the benefits of diesel engines, and a bunch of them have also argued that the old-school station wagon is a far more efficient way to haul things around than a bloated high-set S.U.V.

Nonetheless, two things that American car buyers have spurned are diesels and wagons.  

Yet maybe because Volkswagen officials fell for the car talk, or because they believe the times are changing -- or indeed because the times are changing -- the company is now selling a diesel station wagon in the United States.

So when it was time to pop up for my 50th high-school reunion (gulp!) in Connecticut, I thought a Jetta SportWagen TDI would be just the conveyance for a plunge back into the future.

I envisioned rattling up Route 7 trailed by a black cloud -- and then running out of fuel at the 10th gas station without a diesel pump -- as a perfect echo of those halcyon days.

Seriously, though, I live in France, where station wagons are quite popular and almost everyone drives diesels -- including me, by choice, whenever I rent a car. I simply do not see the point of burning euros on gasoline, especially when the far higher torque of a turbodiesel can be quite entertaining. (Check out the winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race the last eight years.)

And the black smoke is a thing of the past.  The only reminder that a modern diesel engine is burning oil is a faint rattle under the hood and the smell on your hands when you eventually do have to fill the tank.

Alas, the diesel wagon test car never made it to school; a friendly neighbor backed into the front fender, and VW didn't have another Jetta test car available. I completed the trip in a Passat diesel sedan, which has the same engine and 6-speed DSG automatic transmission, but is a notch grander in accouterments, length (by a foot) and weight (by 211 pounds), and somehow gets slightly better mileage (rated 30/40 with the automatic and 31/43 with the manual).

The Passat was great for eating up highway miles and avoiding gas stations, but the comparison helped to convince me that the Jetta wagon better represents traditional VW values. It seems the wiser substitute for the ubiquitous suburban S.U.V.

I should note here that the Jetta SportWagen has not been subjected to the decontenting of other Jettas for the American market. I've not driven those, but the SportWagen remains pleasantly close in driving feel and quality to its Golf sibling, which has not been downgraded.

My Toffee Brown test wagon with "cornsilk leatherette" interior (marketing-speak for brown with admirably leatherlike tan vinyl) was the top trim level, with sunroof, navigation system, rearview camera and keyless ignition as the big attractions. Beyond that was a rather comprehensive and typically (for VW) convenient array of the power accessories and electronic driving aids you'd expect in a $30,000 car.

I really liked the clean, uncluttered design, and VWs have always had a neat, functional and intuitive interior layout. The seats were supportive and amply adjustable, and the back seat folded in a 60-40 split. In short, it was all nicely finished and laid out. But let's be honest, all this can be said of a lot of cars today.

What would nudge me toward investing in the SportWagen is, first, the TDI engine. I didn't have the Jetta long enough to do my own reckoning of its fuel economy, but the two diesels I drove gave no reason to question the E.P.A. figures on the window sticker, including a combined city-highway rating of 33 m.p.g.

That's hybrid territory, with a single-tank driving range of over 500 miles. That economy also comes with a big surge of power at low engine speeds, conveying a typically diesel sense of a lot more power than the horsepower figures suggest.

On a twisty road, the SportWagen confirmed that it was not a GTI, but it was a lot more fun than the crossover utility wagons I've driven. And the three gas stations I pulled into at random in Connecticut and on the New Jersey Turnpike all had diesel, though admittedly in the price range of premium-grade gasoline.

The second attraction is, yes, the time-tested advantages of the wagon body style. The wagon was banished from suburbia when it became overly associated with runs to Safeway and the soccer field, but of course the reason the wagon was so popular in the day was precisely because it was so convenient for grocery and soccer runs.

Nobody believes any longer that you need a Chevy Equinox in your driveway for combat duty, so why not get a car that offers as much or more space in the back (nearly 33 cubic feet with the rear seats up, and 67 cubic feet with the seats folded), gets far better gas mileage and is a hoot to drive?

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 19, 2013 2:01 PM


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