Pickup trucks dominate the arid desert expanses of New Mexico. From gleaming Chevy Silverado High Countrys on 22-inch chrome wheels to weathered old Ford F-100s, the truck is the vehicle of choice. In the untamed wilderness, the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI stands out, its compact proportions dwarfed by the hordes of high-riding trucks and SUVs. But while the Sportwagen may not fit the bill for the rough-and-tumble region, it proved to be a usable, dependable family hauler.
You may have noticed the ominous acronym affixed to the Jetta’s hatchback: TDI. Yes, the powerplant in this Sportwagen was one of VW’s “turbocharged direct injection” diesel engines, made infamous in the 2015 Dieselgate scandal. While VW had originally programmed the engines to activate nitrous-oxide emissions controls only when undergoing testing and not in everyday driving, the engines were fixed after the cheat was exposed with little effect on performance and efficiency, according to Cars.com.
The Sportwagen’s TDI is a 2.0-liter inline-four, and as in most diesels, the torque rating, a solid 236 lb-ft at just 1750 rpm, overshadows the power output, a mere 140 hp. Despite the easily accessible torque, the Sportwagen feels sluggish around town, with delayed throttle tip-in making it hard to pull away smoothly from stoplights—the car wouldn’t respond when the accelerator was initially pushed down, lurching forward as the pressure on the pedal increased. Compounding the in-town driving issues are touchy brakes, and although I was able to adjust over several days, they still made the start-stop nature of urban driving a jittery affair.
Once you get going though, the low-range torque allows the Jetta to accelerate briskly between 10 and 35 mph. The Sportwagen also holds its own on the highway, crucial in a region where everything is separated by miles and miles of open road. The steering has a light on-center feel, but as you turn the steering wheel the weight builds progressively and predictably. Combined with the Jetta’s small dimensions, the gradual build of the steering feel inspires confidence and a sense of nimbleness.
Overall, the Jetta’s cabin is a pleasant place to be—the double sunroof (which I avoided using due to the blaring New Mexico sun) and the light-colored leather create an airy feel. The leather seats are comfortable and the simplistic center console is easy to navigate. With the over-proliferation of laggy touchscreens and capacitive touch sensors in modern cars, the presence of volume dials and climate control buttons, which are easier to use while driving, is a nice bonus. A backup camera makes parking a breeze, the screen displaying the world behind me clearly, even at night.
However, spending several days in the Sportwagen reveals some cost-cutting measures. At highway speeds, a fair amount of tire and wind noise seeps into the cabin and the ride is rough—even the smallest distortions in the road vibrated the car enough to make the leather seat backs quiver and shake. Additionally, some interior materials are not up to snuff, with plastic grab handles on the doors providing a strange juxtaposition to the upscale leather armrests they connect to.
An outlet in the rear seats for charging your phone is a nice touch, but the lack of USB ports throughout the car is frustrating, especially since the Bluetooth connection is finicky at times. While there is an aux port and a media port, these both require buying other cords besides my phone charger. The Sportwagen’s relatively advanced age might explain the absence of USB ports (the auto industry moves fast), but at least one USB port would still have been a reasonable expectation in 2014. Another rear seat amenity was a mixed-bag: while backseat air-conditioning vents were a blessing in the 90 degree New Mexico heat, they never blew cold air with much gusto, even with the system cranked to the highest level.
Despite these flaws, the Sportwagen is a solid road-trip companion—the station wagon body style helped the Jetta’s diesel engine achieve excellent fuel economy and the spacious trunk swallowed cargo like the Hungry, Hungry Hippos devour marbles. Sadly, the U.S. will probably miss out on the next generation Sportwagen, since the Golf hatchback that it’s based on has been cancelled in the U.S. market. While those seeking a new vehicle will likely purchase a trendy crossover, consumers looking for a used set of wheels would be foolish to not consider this efficient, spacious, and nimble wagon.