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Uber Commuter: VWs Jetta Sportwagen TDI utility-rich for families, active lifestyles
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The diesel Jetta wagon has fuel-economy ratings of 29 city/39 highway and a cruising range of well over 500 miles. - photo by Photo Contributed

The Jetta Sportwagen diesel is a cult classic, but without the tattoos, piercings and questionable life direction. It’s on the fringe of the “Veggie Underground,” flirting with that band of motorists who brew their own biodiesel from cooking oil to stake their claim for independence.

Volkswagen has brought diesel-powered cars to the mainstream in the United States, selling thousands of quietly clattering Golfs, Beetles and Jettas, with their direct-injection, turbocharged, clean diesel engines. Its adherents respect the grassroots movement of the vegetable-oil underground, but they just don’t have the time or that much interest to make their own fuel.

So they buy the factory product and stage their own diesel rebellion. And this little diesel-wagon-that-could has been a continual sell-out for the company. The Sportwagen TDI accounts for about 80 percent of the 2,000 or so monthly sales of the wagon, which also is sold with a 2.5-liter, five-cylinder gasoline engine.

Its popularity is not sexiness. This utility-rich oil burner has an aura of Euro hardiness. It is simple and determined, with a cruising range of well over 500 miles. Its 140-horsepower, 2.0-liter, direct-injection, four-cylinder engine is rated 29 mpg city and 39 highway for the six-speed automated manual transmission. Opt for the six-speed manual, and the mileage increases to 30/42 city/hwy.

This is uber-commuting. Diesel now costs as much as or more than premium gasoline, but the owner visits the filling station only once or twice a month. The fuel gauge moved so slowly in my week of driving, that I forgot to look at it after a few days.

Starting prices for the TDI — Turbo Direct Injection — range from $26,030 with manual transmission to almost $30,000 for the top-line model with Direct Shift Gearbox (automatic), panoramic sunroof, navigation system and keyless access and push-button start. (Gasoline models range from $20,765 to about $25,000.)

I tested a base TDI model with no options, and it seemed a good value at $26,360.

The current Sportwagen is still based on the previous-generation Jetta, which came from a lengthened Golf. The wagon was updated for 2010, so there are a few years remaining before a complete remodel on the new Jetta platform.

An asset to this generation of Jetta is the fact that some of what are usually extras come as standard equipment: front and rear floor mats; four-wheel disc brakes; and six-way manual adjustment in both front seats. Other standard features include 16-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires; leather-wrapped, multifunction steering wheel; 10-speaker sound system with in-dash CD changer; HD radio capability; MDI with iPod cable; and satellite radio.

Driver controls are simple and easily mastered. Sightlines are open, and the turning circle is dainty at 35.8 feet. There is an upscale appearance to interior materials, including the V-Tex leatherette. No rearview camera is available on any model.

The cabin space is friendly to multi-tasking, with a variety of storage areas; a raised back seat with a fold-down armrest; and a broad, flat cargo space. A clever storage feature is the shallow, cargo-area basement, which is ideal for corralling grocery bags that are propped up by the z-folding floor, which forms a sturdy backstop.

Performance from the four-cylinder can be slow from a start, but the turbo spools up power quickly and will channel 236 foot-pounds torque with a jolt to spin the front tires. A sport mode holds shift points to a higher rpm, which can be handy in town for quicker response. Engine revs drop to around 2,200 rpm on the interstate, with less engine noise than wind noise. Ride quality is athletically fit and not rough.

With its well-done wagon, Volkswagen has debunked two U.S. market myths: Americans don’t like wagons, and they don’t like diesel.

Clearly, they do — in the right package.