- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008

There is more to being a success in the automotive business than simply making a great car. Timing, as we are observing now, can be even more important.

Pity those manufacturers who thought the road to financial success would always be filled with heavy, thirsty, family-size vehicles and light trucks. They’re getting smacked upside the head with exploding gas prices.

On the other hand, car companies producing versatile, fuel-efficient, reasonably priced vehicles are finding a very receptive audience among the auto-buying public.

With its new Jetta SportWagen now in U.S. showrooms, German manufacturer Volkswagen may just have the right vehicles in the right place at the right time. Although the SportWagen has yet to make a significant impact, July sales figures seem to bear this out. They show Volkswagen had a 4 percent increase over the same month last year, while many other manufacturers suffered steep sales declines.

Yes, I’m aware of the common wisdom that Americans shy away from station wagons no matter what they are called, but that was before $4-a-gallon gas. This car has the ingredients that could change a lot of minds.

It’s good looking, fun to drive and comfortable for up to five people (depending on their size). Add in the convenient liftgate and flexible cargo space and you’ve got a vehicle that will easily meet most needs of mom, dad and a couple of children. But probably none of those things would ordinarily seal the deal. What may capture buyers’ attention now is the SportWagen’s ability to sip rather than guzzle.

U.S. models are powered by 170-horsepower, in-line, five-cylinder engines that are acceptably peppy and get an EPA-rated 21 to 29 miles per gallon of regular gasoline. Not bad for a car that boasts a generous 32.8 cubic feet of storage space behind the second-row and 66.9 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded forward.

Later this year, the SportWagen will arrive with a much livelier 200-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder powerplant that should not differ greatly from the standard engine in fuel consumption.

But the biggest news is the recently introduced clean, diesel-powered Jetta that is legal in all 50 states and able to extract 40 or more miles per gallon of diesel fuel. The EPA estimates are 29/40 mpg (manual transmission), but a Volkswagen-commissioned private test puts the figures at 38/45.

Diesels are not new to American Volkswagens. They were around for years before being temporarily withdrawn from the American market. They attracted a cult-like following but, in general, Americans have thumbed their noses at diesel power as much, if not more, than they have shunned station wagons. This diesel engine promises to be different. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try one, but those who have assure that it is. Taking advantage of the newest technology, it produces 140 horsepower and 235 pounds-feet of torque and is quiet, smooth and peppy.

The diesel sedans and wagons will carry an expected an expected $1,600 price penalty over gas-powered cars, but that will be mostly negated by a $1,300 federal income tax credit. The additional savings in fuel costs should make the diesel-powered cars less expensive than its gas-powered counterpart over the life of the vehicle.

Through an unplanned, but fortuitous accident of timing, I had the opportunity to spend time recently in a SportWagen and a Jetta sedan, both powered by the 2.5-liter engines. The wagon had a manual transmission, the sedan an automatic.

The sedan, for reasons I can’t knowledgeably explain, returned 31 mpg on the highway, while the wagon never got more than 27. Both cars got about 8 fewer miles per gallon around town. I’m guessing one reason is that the sedan had several thousand miles on the odometer and the wagon was basically brand new.

What I can say for sure is that the Sport in SportWagen is more than just a marketing term. Just like its sedan sibling, the five-door VW has a strong chassis, superb steering, strong brakes and decent acceleration (0-60 mph in less than 9 seconds).I had an opportunity to take both cars on winding two-lanes, traffic-choked freeways and 150-mile cruises along the interstates. Both vehicles were agile and comfortable, with none of the torque steer that often makes its presence known in front-wheel-drive vehicles.

The SportWagen’s easy-shifting, five-speed manual transmission made it simple to keep the engine in the fat part of the power band during those occasional back road blasts.

For those disinclined to allow the left foot a role in the driving experience, the sedan was ample proof that the shiftable six-speed automatic transmission also does a fine job.

Inside, both cars contain quality materials and show careful craftsmanship. While the station wagon’s cargo space is larger and more flexible, the sedan also has a commodious trunk that may suit the needs of those who simply can’t see themselves in a station wagon.

Comparably equipped sedans and SportWagens come with a comprehensive list of safety equipment, including front and side airbags for driver and front-passenger, side curtain airbags, side-protection door beams and anti-lock disc brakes with stability and traction control, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist to maximize stopping power.

Base price of the Jetta SportWagen SE I drove is $21,349, and that includes air conditioning, cruise control, leatherette seating surfaces and a 10-speaker audio system with in-dash 6-cd changer and MP3 capability.

Add the panoramic sunroof, navigation system, 17-inch wheels and a $650 delivery charge, and the price jumps to $25,474, not exactly chump change among small cars, but a reasonable price for a well appointed, nicely equipped family hauler. A similarly equipped Jetta sedan costs about $1,500 less.

Volkswagen’s fortunes in the United States have risen and fallen over the years. But, with gasoline at near record prices and no major relief in sight, the company may continue to experience growth in the sales of its fuel-efficient vehicles.

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