Volkswagen's new plan of attack in the compact class has changed the Jetta sedan in some important ways--it's less costly to build, and has a much larger back seat. As a result, the sedan is selling better than it has in a decade.
While the Jetta four-door is changed, the SportWagen hasn't. It's still derived from the last-generation platform, and retains some important features like an independent rear suspension, a smaller back seat, and a higher-grade interior.
Tying the two models together, then is the single model we're most interested in here at GreenCarReports--the turbodiesel, available either as a Jetta TDI sedan or as the Jetta SportWagen TDI. Some 25 percent of Volkswagen sales in the U.S. are diesels these days, and driving the TDI reveals why they're so popular.
It starts with fuel economy. The 2.0-liter turbodiesel combines with either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed, dual-clutch gearbox which VW calls the DSG. In nearly all drivetrain combinations, the Jetta is rated at 30/42 mpg, a hybrid-like rating that drops only to 29/39 mpg in the DSG wagon. And unlike some hybrids we've experienced, it's exceptionally easy to approach the Jetta's highway-cycle numbers. All told, the Jetta can deliver up to 600 miles of range on a single tank of diesel, a trait so remarkable it's part of the car's marketing campaign. We prefer the DSG for its smooth shifting, but it doesn't come with the paddle controls found with other DSG-equipped Volkswagens.
Other models in the lineup are reasonably economical, but far from the best in their respective classes. A 115-horsepower, 2.0-liter four with a five-speed manual transmission turns in 24/34 mpg ratings, while the most common pairing of a 2.5-liter five-cylinder and six-speed automatic drops numbers to 24/31 mpg. In the compact class, new entries like the 40-mpg Hyundai Elantra, Chevy Cruze and Ford Focus blow the Jetta away, as do bigger mid-sizers like the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima.
Despite the differences between the four-door and wagon, both share an instantly identifiable German driving feel, with a well-damped ride and steering that's actually better on the sedans, as it's hydraulically activated, not electrified. The torsion-beam rear axle on sedans doesn't hurt handling all that much, and the Jetta can be hustled around with plenty of authority--especially in the turbocharged, 200-horsepower GLI edition, which wears up to 18-inch wheels and a lower suspension.
The Jetta sedan now has a truly large back seat; it's nearly as large as the one in sedans like the Sonata and the Subaru Legacy. The trunk is quite large, too. The most noticeable cost-cutting is inside, where the tasteful design is compromised by lower-grade hard plastics everywhere, with lackluster finishes that don't meet the standards set by the latest generation of American and Korean compact cars. Volkswagen's also trimmed down on the numbers of models and options it builds: leather seats aren't available on any Jetta, and the navigation system is limited to a few models. The GPS isn't as intuitive as some other systems, and it's an expensive option.
With a base price of about $23,000, a fully-equipped Jetta TDI can cost almost $30,000. It's a few thousand more than some of the high-mileage compacts in its class, but with its six-footer space and superior ride and handling, the TDI is well worth a place on any green-car shopping list.
For more details, see the full review of the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta range on our sister site, TheCarConnection.