Volkswagen Jetta Wagon
European model shown. Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson

It seems odd that compact four-door sedans are the most popular type of cars in Canada, yet small wagons are not very popular at all. The fact is, small SUV’s and sporty hatchbacks — and to a lesser extent small minivans – have virtually replaced them, despite the fact that wagons tend to be more practical than hatchbacks and better riding and handling than SUVs.

The only true compact wagons left on the market are the Ford Focus Wagon, Subaru Impreza TS Wagon, the new Suzuki Aerio, the retro-styled Chrysler PT Cruiser, the soon-to-be-history Daewoo Nubira Wagon — and now the new 2003 VW Jetta Wagon.

Volkswagen Canada chose to introduce the 2003 Jetta Wagon in one well-equipped GLS trim level rather than in base and mid-level trims — as a result, its base price is fairly high: $25,345 for the GLS 2.0; $27,545 for the GLS 1.8T; and $27,035 for the GLS 1.9 turbo-diesel. With options, my Jetta Wagon GLS 2.0 Wagon test car came to almost $29,000 – before taxes.

Standard equipment is, as you might expect, above-average: including air conditioning, CD/cassette player, power windows, heated seats, disc brakes with ABS, and 15 inch tires.

Volkswagen Jetta Wagon
European model shown. Click image to enlarge

Three engine choices are offered: Volkswagen’s long-serving 115 horsepower 2.0 litre four cylinder engine; the awesome 180 horsepower turbocharged 1.8 litre four cylinder powerplant; and the fuel-efficient 90 horsepower 1.9 litre turbo-diesel motor. There’s also a rumour that Volkswagen’s 200 horsepower VR6 will make it into the Jetta Wagon next year.

A 5-speed manual transmission is standard equipment on all models, but while the 2.0 litre and 1.9 litre diesel engines offer an optional 4-speed automatic, the 1.8T engine is available with Volkswagen’s sporty 5-speed automatic Tiptronic tranny with manual shifting functions.

Handsome and practical

The Jetta Wagon is probably the nicest looking small wagon on the market, at least in my opinion. It has simple, clean lines with no styling gimmicks and very little chrome, and a solid, stable stance that gives it a powerful, understated presence – a refreshing change from some of the overstyled hot hatches out there.

The Jetta Wagon’s interior is also very handsome, as VW interiors tend to be nowadays. The simple design of the dashboard and instruments and the high quality of interior materials puts it into a higher class than other cars. Still, I found the all-black interior in my GLS 2.0 test car to be too monotonous. And the cloth velour upholstery attracts lint and hairs, which are hard to clean — particularly if the seat cloth is black. Fortunately, lighter colours and two-tone colour schemes are available.

The interior is roomy enough for four adults, but not quite wide enough for three adults across the back seat. The tall flat roof provides plenty of headroom for front and rear passengers, and rear passengers have adequate kneeroom and generous legroom and footroom under the raised front seats. The front and rear seats have a high hip point and are firm but comfortable. My only complaint was that there isn’t a folding centre armrest at the rear.

The driver’s seat is height-adjustable with a push-up/push-down ratchet lever on the left side of the seat cushion, and the steering wheel has a standard tilt and telescoping adjustment. This makes it easy to find a comfortable position for drivers of all sizes. One complaint: the recline function is operated by a large dial on the left side of the seat which is hard to reach. The front seats offer standard seat heaters with five temperature adjustments – great on a cold winter’s morning. Note that heated seats are available with cloth or leather upholstery.

The instrument cluster is typical Jetta/Golf design: two large white on black gauges (including a tachometer) and two smaller flanking round gauges. The steering wheel is small and meaty, and the controls are easy to reach.

The centre dash is nicely designed including a newly designed radio with larger knobs and buttons and a larger LCD screen that makes it easier to see what station you’re listening to. Unfortunately, the pull-out cupholders are just above the radio – when you flip them out, they completely obscure the radio controls.

The heater controls are the traditional three round dial arrangement: fan speed, ventilation, and temperature adjustment – probably the simplest and most functional layout for heating and air conditioning systems.

A small armrest between the front seats includes a shallow storage bin, and can be flipped up out of the way — useful if the car has a manual transmission.

Front passengers have front and side airbags, and optional side curtain airbags are also available – the Jetta is one of the few small cars to offer curtain airbags. Five height-adjustable head restraints and five 3-point seatbelts are standard.

The standard 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks are very useful for carrying various combinations of people and cargo – for example, you can carry two rear passengers and a 6 foot ladder, or one rear passenger and a large TV, for example. To fold the rear seatbacks, the seat cushions flip up against the front seatbacks, and the seatbacks fold down flat, level with the rear cargo floor. However, you have to remove the rear head restraints first.

Volkswagen jetta Wagon
Click image to enlarge

The Jetta Wagon’s cargo area is spacious and nicely finished with carpeting on the floor and walls, a metal trunk lip protector, four chromed tie-down hooks, an auxiliary 12 volt power outlet, and a medical kit. A bonus is a large under-floor storage area which wraps in and around the spare tire.

The cargo area is 157 mm (40 inches) wide, 157 mm (40 inches) long to the rear seatbacks, and 255 mm (65 inches) long with the rear seats folded down.

For privacy, a spring-loaded cover slides in and out, just like a window blind, and neatly covers the entire cargo area.

The rear tailgate lifts easily into a position well above your head, and has two sturdy looking, chromed struts which are designed not to get in the way when you’re loading. However, there isn’t a separate opening glass panel.

The Jetta’s remote key fob, which has a flip up metal key insert, includes lock, unlock, tailgate release, and panic button functions.

Driving impressions

As I mentioned, the Jetta Wagon’s driving position is very comfortable for most body shapes, and its big front, side and rear windows provide excellent visibility. However the centre rear head restraint blocks vision through the rearview mirror, and the right rear head restraint obstructs vision when lane-changing. I’d recommend removing the centre rear head restraint (when there isn’t a passenger), and pushing the right rear head restraint all the way down. As an aside, I noticed that the rear head restraints on European Jetta Wagons have a hole in the middle, providing a clearer view to the rear. Why don’t we have these in North America?

Volkswagen jetta Wagon
European model shown. Click image to enlarge

Though the base 2.0 litre engine has a comparatively low 115 horsepower, it develops its maximum torque at just 2600 rpm, which means that it feels fairly responsive when starting from a standing stop, when accelerating in city traffic, and when merging onto the highway.

Equipped with the 4-speed automatic transmission, 0 to 100 km/h takes a leisurely 12.5 seconds, while the manual transmission shaves about a second of that time. Highway cruising is very pleasant: at a steady 100 km/h, the engine does just 2800 rpm, and at 120 km/h, it turns over 3400 rpm. There’s very little engine or road noise, but some wind noise, and the car tracks very well in a straight line.

I noticed that the 2.0 litre engine was considerably quieter and smoother than earlier versions of this engine — a fact that I attribute to better sound insulation and sound deadening techniques. This engine has been around at least a decade, but is still the workhorse of the Golf/Jetta lineup, and seems to have been improved slightly. Engine noise and vibration was minimal at city and highway speeds, with just a distant ‘rumbling’ sound under hard acceleration.

As well, the four-speed automatic transmission changed so smoothly most of the time, that I could hear it, but barely feel it. However, I did notice a slight transmission whine during light acceleration which disappears as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator.

The Jetta’s body feels solid and the suspension (front independent MacPherson struts, rear semi-independent torsion beam axle), offers an excellent ride and nimble, lively handling that’s forgiving at its limits. Admittedly, the wagon feels a little more cumbersome than the sedan, but it’s still an easy, fun-to-drive vehicle.

Four wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard on base models, and brake pedal feel is strong and responsive. ESP (electronic stabilization program), an anti-skid program that automatically corrects oversteer and understeer, is optional on all Jetta Wagons — one of the few compact cars to offer this feature. As well, the ESP includes Brake Assist, an automatic panic braking system that increases braking force during emergency braking.

GLS 1.8T

I also had a chance to drive the GLS 1.8T turbocharged Jetta Wagon briefly. Acceleration is awesome — with 180 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 173 lb-ft of torque @ 1950 rpm, the Jetta Wagon 1.8T does 0 to 100 km/h in under 8 seconds equipped with the 5-speed manual transmission, and about a second more with the 5-speed Tiptronic automatic.

If you floor the accelerator, the engine produces wheel-spinning torque off the line, which is counteracted by the car’s standard ASR traction control system. There is some steering kickback (torque steer) under hard acceleration, and on wet or snowy roads, this could be a problem without care if the ASR is turned off. The 1.8T Wagon also includes a limited slip differential.

For improved handling, 1.8T models also have standard 225/45HR-17 inch all-season tires.

The 5-speed manual transmission shifter has a loose, easy feel when shifting, but it doesn’t sound clunky or unrefined. It’s also well positioned for reach. The clutch pedal requires very little effort.

Price and features

Standard features on the Jetta Wagon GLS 2.0 include a 5-speed manual transmission, velour cloth seats, 60/40 folding rear seatbacks, air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette/CD player with 8 speakers, height-adjustable front seats with seat heaters, tachometer, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, power windows with ‘pinch’ protection and ‘one-touch down’ feature for driver’s window, anti-theft alarm, variable intermittent wipers, pollen and dust filters, folding key fob with remote locking/unlocking, rear defogger, rear wiper/washer with intermittent feature, cruise control. The Jetta GLS 2.0 Wagon also includes standard 15 inch tires, four wheel disc brakes with anti-lock brakes, power-assisted rack and pinion steering, body-coloured bumpers, and roof rails.

Available options include a Luxury Package (n/a on 1.9L TDI automatic) which includes a power sunroof and 15″ alloy wheels ($1,440); a Leather Package which includes leather seating surfaces, multi-function steering wheel, shift knob, hand brake, and lumbar support ($1,195); Side Curtain Protection ($220); and Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP) ($430).

GLS 1.8T models are available with a Sport Luxury Package which includes 17″ alloy wheels, all season tires, and sport suspension ($2,640); a Premium Package which includes Leather Package, wood trim, power seats with memory function, rain sensor, Monsoon stereo and Climatronic ($4,145)

1.9 litre turbo-diesel models offer an optional Power Sunroof for $1,015.


A handsome, practical wagon that’s well-finished and easy to drive and offers a good warranty — but the price is comparatively high.

For more info, see Volkswagen Canada’s web-site,

Technical Data: 2003 VW Jetta Wagon GLS 2.0

Base price $25,345
Freight $555
A/C Tax $100
Options $2,850
Price as tested $28,850
Type 5-passenger compact wagon
Layout Transverse engine, front wheel drive
Engine 2.0 litre 4 cylinder, SOHC, 8 valves
Horsepower 115 @ 5200 rpm
Torque 122 lb-ft @ 2600 rpm
Fuel Regular unleaded
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Tires 195/65R-15
Curb weight 1401 kg (3081 lb.)
Wheelbase 2515 mm (99.0 in.)
Length 4409 mm (173.6 in.)
Width 1735 mm (68.3 in.)
Height 1485 mm (58.5 in.)
Cargo capacity 1000 litres (35.3 cu. ft.) seats up
  1470 litres (51.9 cu. ft.) seats down
Fuel consumption City 10.6 L/100 km
  Hwy 7.5 L/100 km
Warranty 4 yr/80,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yr/100,000 km

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