With SportWagen, Volkswagen stretches its Golf game

Volkswagen of America began its New York auto show press conference with some unexpected comedy from president and chief executive Michael Horn, who noted the tepid response to his introduction. "Thank you very much for the small applause," he said. "Maybe you will have big applause when you see the new vehicles.” He will be here all week, folks. Don't forget to tip your waitress.

Horn was in a relaxed mood largely because he had compelling product to introduce to the brand’s most fervent fans.

One is the Golf SportWagen concept, first seen at the Geneva motor show. A century ago, immigrants arriving at Ellis Island routinely had their paperwork confused, leading to incorrect surnames being affixed to them and their families. Volkswagen has kept the paperwork straight, though the faithful may be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

That's because the Golf SportWagen will replace the Jetta SportWagen. The car is a nominal concept because it won't arrive in the US until the first quarter of 2015, continuing the seventh-generation Golf’s glacial rollout across the world.

The SportWagen will use the same 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine that is currently available in US-market VWs, which the brand claims will deliver 17% better fuel economy over the outgoing Jetta model. It will also be available with the new EA888 2-litre turbodiesel four-cylinder. With 150 horsepower, this unit pumps up the Jetta TDI’s power by 10hp. The gasoline engine will be paired with either a five-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic, while the diesel will have either a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.

The SportWagen’s passenger cabin has been moved rearward by 1.7in, giving the car the long-nosed, "cab-rearward" proportions typical of premium cars. At the rear, the hatch stretches down lower, facilitating easier cargo loading and unloading.

A beneficial if slightly macabre feature of the new car is something VW calls post-collision braking. When the car is in a crash sufficient to deploy the airbags, it will automatically apply the brakes after the initial impact to reduce the force of subsequent secondary impacts. With the airbags already deployed, anything that can minimise the force of additional collisions is important.

Horn also unveiled the 2015 Jetta, which made its global debut. Despite its "starter car" image, VW has loaded the next-generation Jetta with a raft of assistance systems, such as blind spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, forward collision warning and park distance control. Drivers will also benefit from optional new high-intensity discharge Xenon headlights that turn as much as 15% toward the direction of travel in turns.

The Jetta needed this infusion after being mercilessly stripped of content to achieve a sub-$16,000 price point in 2010, when the car was reimagined as a competitor to the hot-selling Toyota Corolla. Now, it seems the company has retrained its sights back up market.

Tweaks to the car's styling nominally reduce the blandness that has plagued the current car. And inside, there is a colour multi-function display on the instrument panel between the chrome-ringed tach and speedometer. Ambient lighting and new fabrics also help set a richer tone.

VW wiselly dropped the unloved 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine that was the outgoing model's original base engine, leaving a naturally aspirated 2-litre four-cylinder, and turbo gasoline engines of 1.8- and 2-litre displacements. The Jetta Hybrid also continues with a turbocharged 1.4-litre gas engine.

The all-new EA888 2-litre diesel engine enjoys an improved emissions control system that uses AdBlue urea injection to help scrub the exhaust of pollution. This system is more efficient than the current car's method of periodically wasting fuel to heat the catalytic converter to burn out the pollution collected there, so projected fuel efficiency for the new car is 32mpg city and 45mpg highway, with a combined figure that VW estimates to be "around 37" mpg.

VW says the car will reach US dealers in the third quarter of 2014.