VW's Jetta has much the same personality as the Golf, no surprise since it's built on an identical platform. Compact, attractive, family-oriented, somewhat of a driver's car, the Jetta TDI Wagon offers a spacious, practical cargo area. Adding a 4-cylinder turbo-diesel and 5-speed automatic provides the final touch: exceptional economy. Front and side airbags, side curtain protection included. Price in US starts at $20,460. Warranty: 4-yrs, 50,000 mi total car, 5 yrs, 60,000 mi powertrain.
The bottom level of three huge car decks in the giant BC "Spirit" ferries is dimly lit and mostly occupied by diesel-powered tractor-trailers and intercity buses. Jammed in any remaining spaces are a few passenger cars. Waiting for the ship to dock, feeling slightly intimidated by the huge trucks on either side, I suddenly decided I was "one of the boys" for I, too, was driving a diesel! Turning on the engine, I amused myself with the thought that "the boys" must have been impressed with how this pretty little car could make such a great clattering noise. Of course the illusion didn't last long; a chorus of monster truck engines drowned out everything but a few hull vibrations as our ship reversed to a halt. In truth, however, the 2004 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Wagon is much quieter than diesels of old, and the clatter on start-up quickly becomes a friendly hum during acceleration and cruise. I began to find comfort in the assurance that it was delivering extraordinary economy and would probably outlast any gasoline engine. Combined with the practical â and very attractive â station wagon body, this new-generation diesel offers a unique transportation solution for an era of high fuel prices.
In the Driver's Seat
Were it not for the fact that I once owned VW Beetles, which were simple but assembled so well they almost felt luxurious, I might have been surprised at the luxury of our test car. The quality of the fittings, especially around the instrument panel, is first-rate. Supple leather seating adds to the effect, even smells rich. Though power remote-locking doors, power windows, mirrors, and an efficient power sunroof, are part of the package, power seats are not. The 2004 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Wagon relies on those old-fashioned knurled knobs to adjust the backrests and although I like them for their nostalgia and the way they can be infinitely set (unlike typical notch-type manual adjusters), most people would, I suspect, prefer little electric motors. The layout of the dashboard is in the Audi mode; functional, driver-oriented, with clearly-presented instruments. No problem with front seat comfort but the rear seat is tight for tall people, better suited to children or folks along for a brief ride. Open the tailgate, however, and the cargo area is capacious and with one or both sides of the rear seat folded, huge. Maybe not 8x10 plywood huge but big enough to cart home an antique hutch. If you're a decorator, here's your ride.
On the Road
You might find it hard to believe the 4-cylinder, 1.9-liter turbo engine is rated at only 100 hp, but it's torque that matters where acceleration is concerned. And the Jetta engine, like most diesels, has a ton of same. Which comes on at very low rpm's, held always in the right rev range by the sweet 5-speed automatic, a perfect match for this car. A quick prompt of the throttle delivers instant acceleration, better, in fact, than the 4-cylinder gasoline-powered Jetta. Yet you'll be hard-pressed to exceed 2500 rpm, while highway cruising is usually done around the 2200 rpm mark. This contributes to quiet running once underway and, of course, amazing fuel economy; in two weeks of driving I spent $21 for a refill. The transmission has a driver-select sequential-change feature but it's totally unnecessary and out of character. Steering turn-in is sharp and once body lean is set, the Jetta settles nicely into the curves. Disc brakes all-round with ABS take care of the stopping. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a sports-wagon, but the 2004 Jetta TDI Wagon handles well enough to be enjoyable on curving roads. Wind noise is subdued, an expansive greenhouse aids vision.
In North America the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Wagon is probably going to be somewhat of a niche car; not for everyone. It will appeal to buyers who prefer compact dimensions for city driving and are willing to give up a little rear seat room, who can use the versatility of a wagon, and who appreciate a level of refinement rarely found in cars of this class. Those buyers probably plan to keep their car for a long time, so they'll reap a bundle of cash in fuel savings while enjoying an engine that just keeps on going and going, to paraphrase a well-known TV commercial. The diesel, in spite of how it echos in the bowels of a ship, is a vast improvement over previous generations and yes, it's clean. But some folks, reared on the sound and feel of gasoline engines, would probably never adjust to the difference. Those who do will be driving a handsome vehicle that adapts to oversize cargo and feels at home in both town and country. If ever I get a chance to tour the classy decorator shops in Montecito, near Santa Barbara, the 2004 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Wagon is the car I'd like to do it in.