Forget about that compact SUV: this one’s a blast to drive.

by Bengt Halvorson

Young new-car buyers are more demanding than ever. Having a lot of 20-something professional friends who work hard during the week and play hard on the weekend, I see that they want something sporty and stylish, and at the same time something that can hold a lot of stuff.

Sport-utes aren’t sporty enough or fun to drive on the road—or practical enough at the gas pump—though their cargo capacity and flexibility is envied. That’s why spacious sporty wagons have really caught on for the younger crowd.

VW’s new Jetta wagon is one of this new generation of style-conscious wagons. Volkswagen has long sold a wagon version of the Jetta/Golf (either known as a Bora or Golf) in Europe, but starting earlier this year Volkswagen of America unveiled the latest Jetta wagon to the U.S. market. For some reason the car has not seen much publicity or promotion since its debut earlier this year, so people still tend to be surprised to see the Jetta wagon.

More space, but still easy to park

The Jetta wagon seems to have exactly the right items for these smart younger buyers: sleek looks, a high-quality interior, a German pedigree, and decent gas mileage compared to compact SUV alternatives.

This new roomy Jetta offers a very usable 34 cubic feet of cargo room for storing stuff in the back, with split-folding rear seats to make the arrangement more versatile. The wagon only adds 1.3 inches of length compared to the Jetta sedan, so it’s not any more difficult to park.

If you haven’t already heard enough raving about Volkswagen interiors, read on. The Jetta wagon has a beautiful sculpted interior that feels out of a luxury car costing twice as much. All the switchgear has a decisive, solid tactility that inspires confidence, and pleasant textures, high-quality plastics, and other soft-touch surfaces make the interior feel more pleasant than that of the competition.

The GLX model comes loaded with luxury and convenience goodies, but at a hefty ($4500) price premium. Over the base GLS models, the GLX adds fog lamps, a rain-sensing wiper system, electronic climate control, real wood trim, power seats, a high-power Monsoon sound system (one of the best around), and an upscale trip computer similar to those installed in Audi models.

VR6 smoothness

At 174 horsepower, the uniquely configured, fifteen-degree narrow-angle VR6 engine makes only four more horsepower than the 1.8T engine that’s offered on other Jetta models. But what distinguishes the VR6 is that it is an incredibly smooth powerplant. It doesn’t make a lot of power for its displacement by modern standards, and it sips more fuel than you might think (expect mpg figures in the low 20s overall and high teens in stop-and-go), but its unmatched smoothness and velvety purr manage to seduce the driver into forgetting about the numbers.

The shift action of the five-speed manual transmission with the VR6 felt smoother and less notchy than in the sedan equipped with the 1.8T engine, although the gear ratios were too tall. Second and third often kept the VR6 turning too slowly for quick maneuvers in city traffic, leaving me wishing for more torque below 2500 rpm. Keep the VR6 revving, and you will be happy.

Overall, the Jetta wagon feels very heavy and grown-up when compared to other compact wagons like the Ford Focus. Due to its curb weight of more than 3300 pounds (the new Jetta wagon now weighs more than the mid-1990s Passat wagon—and it’s nearly as large, too) the Jetta’s reflexes aren’t as sharp and quick as you might think from a ‘small car.’ On the other hand, those who might think of the Jetta as a small car will be especially surprised when they see just how much cargo can fit in the wagon.

Our test vehicle had the optional sport suspension and 17-inch wheels (a $600 option). It rode hard over urban potholes, and you could sometimes feel and hear every expansion strip resonate through the commendably stiff body. Most would probably be happier with the standard suspension, which is just a bit more absorbent but still on the firm side.

Great front seats; space to haul in back

Practically speaking, the Jetta wagon doesn’t offer the best use of space for passengers, but with the rear seats down there would likely be ample space to move a small sofa on the fold-flat cargo floor. The eight-way power adjustable seats in our test car were very comfortable, but rear seat room and comfort is less than stellar, especially with the front seats moved back for tall front-seat occupants.

The wagon is certainly roomy, but it doesn’t offer quite as much space as Ford’s Focus wagon (which offers 37.5 cubic feet of cargo space compared to the Jetta wagon’s 34). The Focus is also lighter, more economical, and in base form is priced about $2000 less (though without an optional high-performance engine like the Jetta’s VR6).

Several other wagons of this size, like the Mazda Protégé5, Subaru Impreza TS, and Daewoo Nubira, are at least slightly more affordable than the Jetta wagon but don’t offer as much cargo space, but for about $2000 less than the GLX, the Subaru WRX Sport Wagon offers all-wheel drive and significantly more power than the VR6 from its 227-hp turbo engine. The Volvo V40 compares in size and features to the GLX, but its uplevel turbocharged four-cylinder engine is less powerful and not as refined as either the 1.8T or the VR6 engines on the VW.

A 24-month or 24,000-mile (whichever comes first) warranty covers 2001 models, with an impressive 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. For 2002 models, VW is changing its warranty coverage to four years/50,000 miles for the whole vehicle and five years/60,000 miles for the powertrain warranty, which is now transferable to second owners.

This fall, for 2002, Volkswagen also plans to begin offering a midrange GLS 1.8T model as an alternative between the base model’s 115-hp, 2.0-liter engine and the VR6, and also a TDI diesel version of the wagon. The 1.8T will be rated up to 180 hp, and the VR6 will get a long-anticipated power boost to 201 hp.

Sure to be a hit with the young-and-active crowd, the Jetta wagon strikes all the right chords. VW is building it, and the buyers will come.

 

2001 Volkswagen Jetta GLX Wagon

Price: $25,400 base, $26,000 as tested
Engine: 2.8-liter V-6, 174 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Wheelbase: 99.0 in
Length: 173.6 in
Width: 68.3 in
Height: 58.5 in
Curb Weight: 3281 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 19/28 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, dual front side airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Automatic climate control, keyless entry, power windows, locks, mirrors, and seats, wood trim, rain sensor wiper system, cruise control, eight-speaker Monsoon sound system
Warranty: Two years/24,000 miles

 

Copyright © 2001 by the Car Connection

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