WASHINGTON – After getting a taste of $4-plus gasoline, it’s easy to understand why Europeans never gave up on the station wagon.

The simple 2-box design is perfect for transporting people and cargo in the most fuel-efficient manner. Indeed, that’s why the station wagon was the ubiquitous family vehicle in the U.S. from the 1940s to the mid-1980s.

Sales are less than 300,000 units annually and consist mostly of European luxury brands, plus a few Asian nameplates. However, Cadillac soon will be introducing a wagon version of the CTS.

Buoyed by the continued popularity of the body style in Europe, Volkswagen AG has been importing station wagons to the U.S. for 50 years and maintains a small but loyal following.

With VW predicting miniscule peak annual U.S. sales of only 14,000 units, the ‘09 Jetta SportWagen won’t bring station wagons back to 15% market share anytime soon.

Nevertheless, it promises to be one of the more interesting niche products to watch in the ‘09 model year, mainly because one of its engine options is a 2.0L 4-cyl. clean diesel that makes 140 hp and a hefty 236 lb.-ft. (320 Nm) of torque. Plus, it is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency at 30/41 mpg city/highway (8-6 L/100 km).

After hitting a peak market share of 15% in 1957, the U.S. station wagon market now is barely a blip on the radar, suffering for years from a staid, white-bread image.

The base engine is a 170-hp 2.5L 5-cyl. that makes 177 lb-ft. (240 Nm) of torque and achieves 21/29 mpg (11-8 L/100 km). Also available is a 200-hp turbocharged 2.0L 4-cyl. that makes 207 lb.-ft. (280 Nm) of torque and gets slightly better fuel economy than the base engine but also burns premium.

Transmission options include 5- and 6-speed manuals and VW’s superb 6-speed Direct Shift Gearbox.

Starting at $19,000 and rolling up to more than $27,000 (not including a $650 destination charge), the SportWagen competes with a wide array of compact wagon-esque vehicles, including the Subaru Outback, Mazda3, Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Matrix, Dodge Caliber and Chevrolet HHR.

’09 Jetta SportWagen
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger station wagon
Engine 2.5L 5-cyl., I-5; iron block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 170 hp @ 5,700 rpm
Torque 177 lb.-ft. (240 Nm) @ 4,250 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual/6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 101.5 ins. (258 cm)
Overall length 179.4 ins. (457 cm)
Curb weight 3,228 lbs. (1,464 kg)
Base price $18,999
Fuel economy 21/29 mpg (11-8 L/100 km)
Competition Subaru Outback, Mazda3, Toyota Matrix, Chevrolet HHR
Pros Cons
Clean diesel option Euro enhanced price
Sport sedan handling Expensive options
Ample cargo room “Boomy” interior

What makes this vehicle somewhat unique is VW proudly proclaims its identity as a station wagon, instead of treating the moniker as if it were a disease.

After spending some quality time earlier this year driving the car here and in West Virginia’s horse country, it’s clear U.S. consumers need to give the station wagon another shot.

The shape of the SportWagen actually looks fresh, now that CUVs, SUVs and minivans have taken over the world. Plus, it is pleasant to tackle twisty roads with a compact vehicle with lots of cargo space and a low center of gravity.

The SportWagen is not pretending to be anything but a car. Even though it is not light for a vehicle its size, with the 5-speed manual version weighing about 3,228 lbs. (1,464 kg), the car handles like a sport sedan.

Even the base 170-hp engine delivers entertaining performance. The manual gets to 60 mph (97 km) in 8.4 seconds and the automatic in 8.7 seconds.

The 200-hp engine is being introduced in late July, and the diesel is due in August. Neither was available for testing.

There is a bit of “boom” in the passenger compartment that we don’t like, caused by road and exhaust noise amplified by the large open area behind the rear seats. However, this is an affliction of most station wagons, even pricey ones, that seems impossible to eliminate, although it’s usually not a problem with CUVs.

The interior is typical VW, with a simple, tasteful design featuring high-quality textures and low-gloss surfaces. Electronic stability control and six airbags are standard.

Despite the car’s excellent performance and overall high-quality appearance, we quibble with the pricing, clearly influenced by the SportWagen’s significant European content, even though it is built in Puebla, Mexico.

The diesel option starts at $23,590 before destination charge and would easily reach $30,000 with a few extras. The 200-hp version starts at more than $27,000.

That’s tough to swallow, considering the first mass-produced station wagon was a ‘29 Ford Model A that cost $650.

Volkswagen is banking on the SportWagen’s European cache, historically high resale value and diesel aficionados to propel its modest sales projections.

With diesel hitting $5 per gallon and the SportWagen already on the high side of a price-sensitive market, its success or failure may be a harbinger of how much consumer taste really is changing in today’s volatile market.