2014 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen- The Diesels of Our Lives

What we have here are the makings of a television soap opera. Or for the Mexican-built Jetta Sportwagen, a “telenovela”. The little humble, red wagon that you see in the picture above was the subject of lust, desire, betrayal, and scandal. There were a few plot twists that emerged during the Sportwagen’s tenure in the VW lineup until it was discontinued in 2014. Those bombshells lead to obtaining the keys for this five-year-old grocery-getter from a rental lot in 2019. That’s right, this is not an old review that was stashed away in the Disney Vault. It’s a fresh writeup about a model that has not been manufactured for half a decade. But it has an interesting story that forever influenced the automotive landscape and should be shared. This blog rarely dips its toes into politics and chemistry, and as much as I’d love to just dwell on the Jetta’s qualities, it’s unavoidable in this juicy tale.

Car enthusiasts are a misunderstood crowd. We’re not always about supercars or the ultimate luxury. There’s a practical side, as well. We love station wagons. They offer the driving dynamics of a car without the tipsiness or dorkiness of a cross-over or minivan. Their hauling capabilities can match that of many compact CUV’s. We also love diesels. Not just for their obscurity, but they deliver more torque at lower speeds than traditional gasoline engines. And we love turbos. For years and years, we’ve watched with envy from across the pond to Europe, where vehicles like this have been a mainstay for generations. That’s why the Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen was so mystical. Here, we had a compact wagon Stateside, with a turbo-diesel that could even be ordered with a manual transmission. We aren’t meant to have such nice things in America! This is the part of the storyline where the lust comes in.

This generation Jetta Sportwagen debuted in 2007 to compliment the fifth generation Jetta sedan that had already been on sale for two years. The Jetta, itself a truncated version of the Golf, was christened as the Golf Wagen in other markets. There was a mild refresh in 2010 to match the Golf’s styling and interior updates, but otherwise, this is the same car that has been on our roads for a dozen years. But the big news at the time was the introduction of Volkswagen’s improved turbo-direct injection (TDI) clean diesel engine. Like the return of a deceased storyline character from years earlier, it promised what was once thought impossible; being cleaner than California’s strict emission’s standards while still being powerful and fun to drive. Volkswagen stated that electronically controlled fuel injectors and higher injection pressure lead to better fuel atomisation, better fuel/air mixture, and ultimately, less Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) being released into the air. In a rare moment, critics, car enthusiasts, and environmentalists all rejoiced together and sang “Kumbaya”.

But as with every good soap opera, now comes the revelation followed by scandal. All of this was a lie. A farce. Later to be known as “Dieselgate”, the diesel Jettas and Golfs were not at all clean. In fact, there were cases that they were releasing 40 times more NOx into our air than the regulated U.S. federal allowance. It wasn’t just a few cars either. There were 500,000 vehicles alone in the United States, and over 11 million worldwide. To add diesel fuel to the fire, it wasn’t an engineering oversight or accident. Oh no, it was intentional. To ensure that driving performance would remain enhanced, software was developed to allow the system to pollute at high levels while the car was driven. A defeat device would curb NOx emissions to regulatory levels when the car was stationary and potentially being tested.

In May of 2014, five scientists from West Virginia University noticed the discrepancies when testing three VW’s with mobile devices involving road driving scenarios. The cars had all previously passed California’s inspections, but the university’s test results consistently showed much higher emissions once the cars were being driven. The results were presented to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the rest became history. Volkswagen’s CEO, Martin Winterkorn, resigned, and the company faced numerous lawsuits. Resale values for all Volkswagens, even the non-diesels, plummeted as the entire company faced potential collapse and their vehicle’s once haloed image was tarnished. Volkswagen did find a software fix in 2016 that would meet the required standards, but not before it would cost them $18 Billion to rectify and release a refit. Ultimately, owners of Volkswagen diesels were offered a free software update and cash incentive that was valid until December, 2018, or to have the car purchased back at pre-scandal value. Over 300,000 Jettas, Golfs, and Passats were buybacks, and most have been languishing across the United States in 37 massive lots waiting for either the repair, to be crushed, or shipped to another country. The scandal was so damning to Volkswagen that it no longer sells diesels in the United States.

That’s when today’s hero, our Jetta Sportswagen affectionally named “Hans”, steps onto the scene. Rental lots are usually choked with cars that are less than two years old and quickly accrue 40k miles within that time. If you look at my prior reviews, most are inoffensive colours; white, silver, and grey, and are the most basic trim. But this time, I signed a rental agreement for a turbocharged diesel, red wagon built in January, 2014 with a very modest 39,000 miles. It was well-equipped with the optional panoramic sunroof, some dealer accessories like rubber floormats and cargo protector, and the remnants of a “Girls on the Run” decal on the back window.

Theories run wild behind this car’s checkered past, and if Hans could speak in a thick German dialect, there’d be a story to tell. My theory is that this was once someone’s beloved pride and joy. However, after the scandal, the anguished owner couldn’t resist VW’s buyback offer and turned the car in. And there, Hans sat on a lot with hundreds of thousands of other polluters for several years until the necessary software update was completed in November, 2018. A certificate of proof of the upgrade under the hood, required by the U.S. Government, shows the repair being fulfilled. From there, Hans was likely released back into the marketplace and the rental agency couldn’t resist the opportunity to snatch up a low mileage, tidy, and cheap car for its fleet. This is all speculation, and my best educated guess. Regardless of the backstory or how he ended up in my possession, I was thrilled to have Hans, an automotive unicorn, as my tester.

The heart of the Sportwagen, and the scandal, is a 2.0 litre four-cylinder. It’s an advanced unit with a “common rail injection” system that delivers more precise fuel delivery and includes a diesel particulate filter and NOx storage catalyst in order to reduce particulates. With the turbo added on, output is rated at a tame 138 horsepower (140 before the update), but what matters here is torque. As with most turbo-diesels, peak output is at the lower range and there’s a very healthy 238ft.-lbs of thrust being delivered at 1,750 rpm. What does all this translate to on the road? The turbo does suffer from the typical “turbo-lag” and there is a slight delay when accelerating from a standstill. It takes a moment for it to catch its breath under heavy acceleration. But once it does, power is quick and instantaneous. The 2.0 gets an extra burst of energy under full throttle accelerations once it hits second gear, and shows no sign of running out of steam. Power needed for passing or mountain grades is handily on supply and the Sportwagen always feels willing and eager on the highway. Volkswagen claims that performance may be hampered by the software update, and that the car could be noisier. But several third-party professional tests show no drop in acceleration times between a revised engine versus an original. Engine noise was well subdued in our test car, and all we could hear was a distant, but pleasing, diesel rumble coming from under the hood at idle.

Teamed to the 2.0 is an equally avant-garde six-speed direct-shift automatic gearbox (or DSG, in VW terms). It’s a sophisticated unit that is essentially two manual gearboxes contained in one housing and working as one unit. Similar to Ford’s dual clutch transmissions (DCT) on the Fiesta and Focus, the VW setup uses two clutches and avoids having a torque convertor while promising faster shifts. Most of that is true. Under day-to-day driving on the open road or even under hard acceleration, the transmission comes across as refined and intelligent. Downshifts for passing are instantaneous, smooth, and well-timed. Around town, the gears are well-spaced and shifts are non-intrusive. But like Ford’s system, the DSG does have a strong dislike to stop-and-go traffic and the two clutches refuse to communicate. In Los Angeles’ notoriously clogged freeways, the transmission would stubbornly grip onto first gear while crawling, only to jerk into second gear once the revs were high enough, before indecisively switching back to first with a jolt. The turbo lag from the engine didn’t help matters and this combination induced some head bobbing from passengers. It became so irritating that I ended up letting the Sportwagen coast in neutral on a downhill portion of the backup to avoid the fussiness. Also switching to manumatic mode and selecting the gears manually seemed to quall some of the roughness. But once out on the open road where it belongs, the DSG is a delightful unit.

Another delight are the driving dynamics. Handling is absolutely superb. It’s not to BMW standards, but comes close. Steering feedback is fantastic at any speed and the driver feels confident pushing the Sportwagen beyond the limits of what a station wagon should do. The tyres are very grippy, there is no body lean, and the VW eagerly zips into the direction that it’s aimed at. Road imperfections do not falter the car’s trajectory either. This is truly a fun vehicle to carve up a mountain backroad. A tidy turning circle of 35.8 feet makes the Sportwagen easy to pilot in tight parking lots or city streets.

The suspension isn’t anything too advanced; a four-wheel independent setup with stabilizer bars and a multi-link rear arrangement that doesn’t intrude into the wagon’s cargo area. The front is a traditional MacPherson design. But in true Germanic fashion, it’s been tuned for driving on the Autobahn. The ride is comfortable, and although firmer than most Asian and American competitors, does an admirable job of soaking up bumps. In any driving environment, the Sportwagen felt well-planted and composed. Even at speeds over 90mph, the cabin remained subdued and the Jetta’s tracking felt just as confident as it did at half that speed.

Between the satisfying rumble of the diesel, eagerness to hustle down the highway, fervid handling, and beautifully balanced ride, there’s an air of exclusiveness to driving the Sportwagen that is lacking in most compact cars. That gets the endorphins and the desire flowing.

Inside, the German theme continues. The overall look of the dashboard is all-business and has a purposeful, restrained theme. The entire cabin is black with little sprinklings of silver matte trim and glossy piano insets to break up the monotony. Every detail feels like it’s been engineered with a logical purpose. The steering wheel is a nicely molded three spoke unit and the gauges, shared with our other VW’s, are crisp, clear, and could not be any easier to read with the white, concise lettering on a black background.

The attention to detail is where Volkswagen really shines. Smart ideas like the auto-up down windows on all four doors, cloth lined storage bins, air vents and a 115 volt plug-in for rear seat passengers, air conditioned glove box, adjustable driver’s centre armrest, and lit-up door locks add to a feeling of tact. There’s also a lot of personalization options including the brightness of the footwell lighting and the Sportwagen offers no less then 21 languages to choose from for voice recognition and menu displays. Much of the interior trim is soft-touch, high quality, and feels solidly constructed.

But there were a few small ergonomic snafu’s that Volkswagen had overlooked which other carmakers have mastered. The stalk-mounted cruise control buttons are not lit up at night and require solely touch to operate. The temperate setting dial on the dash is not back-lit at night either, resulting in climate adjustments that were a guessing game. The ventilation control’s graphics are small and low on the dash, making it difficult to decipher at a glance. These are minor quibbles and Sportwagen owners will likely adjust to these oversights after a few drives.

Asymmetrically, the driver gets an extending sunvisor while the passenger is relegated to the standard length. Lastly, setting up Bluetooth connectivity requires going through the steering wheel controls and centre info display between the gauges, usually reserved for driving data, instead of the logical route on the radio which even has buttons for “phone” and “settings”. Once again, Sportwagen owners will likely only deal with this issue once and will move on in life.

The radio itself uses an interface that’s been around since 2010. It does look dated by today’s standards, but was contemporary when this car was new. The rear camera view works effectively, but the graininess of the image also gives away the age of this car. The touchscreen itself is easy to navigate and has a clean arrangement. Once adjusted to Volkswagen’s unique control layout, operating the system was effortless and logical.

Front seats were perfectly shaped and bolstered. They proved to be comfortable for trips lasting several hours and the black leatherette was convincingly opulent. Given that the seat covers were five years old, there were minimal signs of wear and tear. Leg room was generous with plenty of space for long legs, and the height adjustable driver’s seat ensured enough space to clear the headliner. Visibility from the driver’s seat was excellent with generous glass area and thin roof pillars that confirm the Sportswagen is from a simpler era. There was a blind spot directly to the sides that wasn’t covered by the small side mirrors and required a double-check with each lane change.

Given the Sportwagen’s large-for-this-class 179.4 inch length, the back seat was surprisingly snug. Shorter passengers didn’t complain. But taller passengers would find their knees digging into the seatbacks and their heads forced against the headliner. Footroom under the front seats was scarce, and entry and exit through the rear doors also posed a challenge thanks to narrow openings towards the bottom. The Sportwagen is great for road trips with kids, but rear-seat adults will likely want to ride on shorter outings.

Where the Sportwagen shines is cargo flexibility. With the rear seats up, the trunk is capable of carrying 32.8 cubic feet of anything you wish to throw in there. The rear seats fold down easily to convert into a flat floor; more than doubling the volume to 66.9 cu. ft. Although the Sportwagen has no direct competitors, those numbers trump many taller, larger crossovers including the Hyundai Tucson, Nissan Murano, and Chevrolet Equinox. Because it’s a wagon, the liftover is closer to the ground and getting larger objects through the wide opening is easy. There’s a reason why practical car enthusiasts love these! Under the cargo floor is a hidden cargo compartment and below that is a true, full-sized spare tyre. If only everyone would follow Volkswagen’s lead on this. If more space is required, the roof rack rails are standard and the Sportwagen is capable of towing 2,000 lbs.

The Sportwagen’s styling is unashamedly European. Like almost every Volkswagen, it doesn’t push the boundaries and could be considered dull. But it takes a few moments to truly appreciate the elegance of the design. The simple lines are purposeful and there’s nothing gimmicky or tacked on. It’s refreshingly restrained compared to newer designs and is particularly handsome in Hans’ red tornado paint. The tidier, Golf-inspired front end is more appealing than the original oversized headlights and chrome-lipped grille from before the 2010 refresh. The overall design doesn’t look out of date, despite being over a decade old, and I predict that it will continue to age gracefully like many other drama series stars.

When it debuted in 2007, the Sportwagen’s optional panoramic sunroof was impressive and still is. The 12.7 square foot dual glass canopy is massive and an impressive piece of engineering. It is capable of opening fully over both rows of seats and is quick in its operation. The expansive sunshade is brilliant in its function. It can remain in place with the sunroof open and acts as a vent while keeping pale, sun-challenged drivers, such as myself, protected from the rays.

The EPA currently rates the Sportwagen with the diesel at 29mpg city and 39mpg highway. As usual, we surpassed those numbers. On a 200 mile freeway run, we accomplished 48mpg. After some traffic and driving around the city for a day, that number receded to a still admirable average of 42mpg. Volkswagen did claim that the cars were getting, on average 2mpg more before the repairs (original EPA ratings were 30mpg city and 42mpg highway), and the same third party tests confirm that. With a 14-gallon fuel tank, it would not be uncommon to get at least 500 miles between fill-ups.

Despite being the grandfather of the rental lot with five years and 39,000 miles of experience, Hans did not have any serious issues. Even with Volkswagen’s reputation for electrical gremlins, everything worked perfectly. Mechanically, the car was sound, no trim had broken off, and even the immense sunroof operated flawlessly. The only issues were two small rattles; coming from near the sunroof above the front passenger seat that was noticeable at moderate speeds, and an occasional one from the rear seats. The car still felt as solid as a bank vault and could easily be confused as a new car; which I’m sure many oblivious renters do.

Back in 2014, the starting price for a Sportwagen in S trim was $20,795 and that came standard with a 2.5 litre gasoline powered engine, 16-inch steel wheels, roof rails, remote keyless entry, heated mirrors, heated windshield-washer nozzles, full power accessories, cruise control, air-conditioning, cloth upholstery, heated front seats with a power-adjustable backrest, a tilt-and-telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel, an adjustable front armrest, a 60/40-split-folding rear seat with center pass-through, a trip computer, Bluetooth hands-free phone and audio streaming, and an eight-speaker sound system with a CD player and an auxiliary audio jack. Moving up to the TDI immediately soars the price to $26,565. That not only includes the 2.0 litre diesel, but also adds 16-inch alloy wheels, leatherette premium vinyl upholstery, upgraded gauges, the 10-speaker audio system with a touchscreen interface, satellite radio, HD radio and an iPod interface, a rearview camera and the 115-volt power outlet. Our Sportwagen also included the $1,800 Panoramic Sunroof and 17” Alloy Wheel package which adds, you guessed it, the panoramic sunroof and 17” alloy wheels. Also optional were the $1,100 automatic transmission, and the rubber floor mat kit. The total for Hans in 2014 was a lofty $29,700. Certainly not cheap for a compact wagon compared to many crossovers, and a poor new car value. However, as a used car purchase, Kelly Blue Book estimates that a fair price for this 2014 Sportwagen with 39,000 miles is $12,100. As a used car purchase post-scandal, this is not a bad proposition.

There are no new Jetta Sportwagens in 2019, although the Golf Sportwagen is essentially the redesigned version and spiritual successor. Prices for that start at a modest $21,895, but no diesel is available.

Reviewing the car itself and without getting into the drama, this is an amazing vehicle. It begs the question; why get a crossover? It can carry just as much, is a lot more enjoyable to drive, more fuel-efficient, and proves to be an excellent value as a used car. Station wagons are becoming rarer in today’s market and it was exciting to reignite the desire for them. If you’re looking for something that truly bucks the trend and is unique, this is it. Like in every soap opera, there is also forgiveness. I excuse Hans for his lies and cheating. Aside from the tight back seat, there is little to fault here. I do ask myself with every review “would I buy this car?” and the answer for Hans, the Sportwagen, is a resounding: “absolutely, yes!” This would be a car to start a long-term romance with. As a used car; a very solid 4.5/5.0 boomerangs.

Slightly mismatched driver’s door aside, the Sportwagen is a handsome specimen
Nothing over-the-top in the rear design
Clean proportions look good in any environment
A turbo diesel station wagon? Now that’s eye opening!
The increase in size over a 1999 Suzuki Esteem wagon is apparent
With uncluttered style, this scene could be in Berlin
Short enough in height to easily fit in any garage
The extended length over a Golf promises, and delivers, more carrying capabilty
The panoramic sunroof is incredibly intricate but flawless in its operation
Gauges are as simple and legible as it gets
The Sportwagen speaks no fewer than 21 languages
The pass-thru for skis is a unique feature in a wagon
Thanks to extensive glass, rear visibility is unobstructed
With the rear seats up, cargo volume is a generous 32.8 cubic feet
The smaller side view mirrors had a habit of hiding adjacent vehicles
Rear air vents and a 115 volt outlet are nice touches
Be still my beating heart! A full-size spare tyre!
The interior is presented in a straightforward but logical manner
A rear camera was optional in 2014, and doesn’t match the clarity of newer units

One Response

  1. […] 2014 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen- The Diesels of Our Lives […]

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