Thirty minutes ago I was hustling a car through the rolling, glass-smooth two-lanes of Virginia's horse country, my hands happily clasped to a thick, three-spoke steering wheel as I arced the front tires through kinks and bends and wriggles, my feet playing the three pedals as if I were summoning bass notes on a pipe organ, my right hand jumping to the five-speed manual lever to choose shifts up and down, suspension beneath me deftly deflecting road bumps while keeping all four corners locked down and obedient. I was having fun.

I was not driving a Porsche, though. My grins appeared from the helm of a station wagon.

Once a staple of American idiom, the term "station wagon" has in recent decades all but slipped into disuse, now found way back in the synonyms drawer alongside words like "dull," "archaic," and "I'd rather have a big ol' SUV." But as I wrote in a recent Truck Trend Blog, a lot of us still like station wagons -- and there's about wagons to like. After all, wagons are more nimble than taller crossovers and SUVs, more fun to drive, and often more fuel-efficient.


Volkswagen, which has been making wagons for 50 years (think Squareback, Dasher, Quantum, Fox, etc.), wholeheartedly agrees. Not only has the company proudly dubbed its sleek new five-door model the Jetta SportWagen, but the ad campaign that accompanies the car's launch will intentionally hark back to the good old wagon days of yore (stay tuned for lots of faded footage of Mom in a sundress and Dad preparing to drive the family wagon to the hardware store). Indeed, Volkswagen COO Mark Barnes gleefully points out that the SportWagen's new, optional panoramic glass sunroof has four times the sky view of the bubble-topped Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser wagon from "That '70s Show."

When VW begins selling the SportWagen early this summer, three engines will be offered: the 2.5-liter five-cylinder (now making 170 horsepower); the 200-horse, turbo 2.0-liter four also seen in the GTI; and, by August, a new clean-burning, 50-state 2.0-liter TDI diesel. Transmission options will include five- and six-speed manuals, a six-speed automatic with Tiptronic, and the sweet six-speed DSG paddle-shift box (and, yes, VW will offer the diesel/DSG combo).

VW says the long-awaited diesel, which makes 140 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, should quickly account for 50 percent of the 14,000 or so SportWagens the maker intends to sell in the States annually. Customers will have a chance to try the diesel SportWagens by early summer: VW intends to ship 1000 cars to U.S. dealers to serve as diesel driving demos; actual deliveries will follow several months later. Asked why buyers would want to buy a diesel engine when the fuel savings is small but the additional cost of diesel fuel versus gas is currently considerable, Mark Barnes replies with a single word: "resale." He then whips out a slide that shows a recent 2004 TDI Jetta GLS offered on eBay for 110 percent of its original sales price. "We'll sell 'em all," he says confidently.

Key features on the SportWagen include standard heated seats and electronic stability control, an optional touchscreen navigation system with data stored on hard drive (you can also upload MP3s to the drive), and the aforementioned, gigantic moonroof. Six airbags (including front/rear curtains) are also standard, with rear side-impact bags optional.

VW hasn't yet announced final pricing, but expect a base, five-cylinder SportWagen S with manual trans to go for about $19,000. The high-volume, higher-contented SE with the same engine will sticker at about $21,500. Add every option, including the turbo gas four, DSG, sunroof, and nav, and you're looking at about $26,500 for a loaded SEL. Diesel pricing estimates aren't yet available.

My day behind the wheel of two 2.5-liter SportWagens, one with five-speed manual, one with six-speed Tiptronic, was pleasant indeed. The engine revs with a typical five-cylinder thrum -- not the sexiest exhaust note on the planet -- but it pulls smartly (the extra 20 hp over the 2007 Jetta is most appreciated). Chassis poise is excellent, and steering feel would embarrass a few far pricier sports sedans. Add firm, supportive seats, good front-seat headroom (even with the added bulk of the sunroof), a tilt-telescoping wheel, and a perfectly placed dead pedal, and the SportWagen delivers all the driver's-car essentials. What's more, I detected not a squeak or shimmy from the rear quarters; there the Jetta has it all over its station wagon forebears.

This is a sleek, nicely sized package. Given that the Passat Wagon offers only a few extra cubic feet of cargo room, one has to wonder whether the SportWagen will cannibalize some of it's larger sibling's sales. For sure, this new Jetta should cannibalize some of its crossover competition. Why roll from up high when you can swing low?


2009 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen 2.5L SE
Base Price $21,500 (est)
Vehicle layout Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 5-door wagon
Engine 2.5L/170-hp/177-lb-ft inline 5-cylinder
Transmission 5-speed manual, 6-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 3250-3300 lb (mfr)
Wheelbase 105.1 in
Length x width x height 179.4 x 70.1 x 59.2 in
0-60 mph 8.4 sec (manual, mfr)
EPA city/hwy econ 21/29 mpg
CO2 emmisions 0.81 lb/mile
On sale in U.S. June 2008

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