Practicality for Driving Enthusiasts

The Volkswagen Sportwagen Is a Longer, Better Golf – the Ultimate Automotive Achievement


October 13, 2018 Cars By Photo by Volkswagen
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The Volkswagen Golf SportWagen is the full station wagon version of VW’s iconic Golf hatchback. It offers the hatchback’s trademark quickness and handling with more cargo space provided by an extra foot in length. It’s the cheaper of Volkswagen’s two Golf wagon variants. It does not come with the AllTrack’s raised suspension, off-road body cladding and standard all-wheel drive.

The Good: Quick acceleration. Precise steering and cornering. SUV-level cargo space. Premium-feeling interior. Available six-speed manual.

Who It’s For: Discerning and enthusiastic drivers on a budget who need cargo space and hold their noses up at buying a crossover. Manual transmission diehards.

Watch Out For: 4Motion fuel economy underwhelms. Low ride height. Beige cloth interior shows dirt.

Alternatives: Other true station wagon options with a starting price under $27,000 include:

• Subaru Outback ($26,345, base)

• Mini Clubman ($24,900, base)

• Volkswagen Golf AllTrack ($25,955, base)

Review: The Volkswagen Golf may be the ultimate automotive achievement. The iconic German hatchback has an unbroken production run spanning nearly 50 years with only modest tweaks. It’s the perfect combination of practicality, affordability and fun. Well, not quite perfect. Kids have a lot of things now. Some buyers need a bit more space in the boot. Volkswagen has them covered with the one foot longer Golf SportWagen.

The Sportwagen had simple goals. Keep the pep and precision handling from the normal length Golf. Add more cargo space. Volkswagen, for the most part, achieved them. Like a proper Volkswagen, the Golf SportWagen provides the premium driving experience for its segment and price point.

I own a Golf SportWagen. My daily driver is a 2016 S with a manual and FWD; I took a hard look at the newest model year Sportwagen with my wife. How did it compare with her old Ford Escape? I had trouble getting the keys back from her.

The Golf SportWagen is a driver’s car. To describe it in a word, it’s smooth. The steering is responsive. It corners deftly. It has substantial relative torque (184lb-ft) and a turbocharger. I’m a manual transmission man, but VW’s automatic felt intuitive and accelerated evenly. The AWD on my tester was almost imperceptible. It felt grippier off the line than my car, though that could have been the brand new Hankook tires. The SportWagen is not fast per se. But, it’s quick – two-ish seconds faster 0-60 than the base Subaru Outback – which is what matters in everyday driving.

Car writers can sound creepy writing about suspensions. I don’t want to refer to a car as “buttery” or “supple.” But, the SportWagen delivers a comfortable ride. My tester handled atrocious Michigan roads for a week without complaint. Ditto for a year spent with my 2016 model. The latter endured rutted dirt roads and cobbles on a trip to Nantucket with notable serenity.

Driving aside, the SportWagen is practical and crossover-SUV practical. The extra foot permits an additional 12.8 cubic feet of cargo space over the standard Golf with the seats folded. That volume places the SportWagen ahead of the GMC Terrain and Mitsubishi Outlander and a hair short of the Ford Escape. Anecdotally, I fit a week’s worth of luggage for three, two dogs, baby gear, miscellaneous household items and some beer cases on a recent road trip with room to spare and without obstructing my visibility. For families, the latch points are easy to access. For whatever reason, VW shoulder straps have a lot more give than others, perfect for installing a car seat that way.

Does the Golf SportWagen look cool? Not exactly. From some angles, it looks like a standard Golf. From other angles, it looks like a sporty, aerodynamic wagon. From a couple of angles, it looks a bit dowdy and wide-assed. The Sportwagen is simple and there’s nothing aggressive going on (headlights excepted). If you need some macho off-road body cladding, the more expensive Golf AllTrack may be your option. Where the SportWagen excels is on the interior. VW makes cheap look expensive. It’s well-designed. It feels like you entered an Audi. It draws unsolicited compliments.

The Golf SportWagen is good value. It undercuts most wagons and crossover SUV competitors on the front end. My SportWagen S with 4Motion tester totaled to $25,930 – lower than a base Subaru Outback. Opting for the manual or FWD can bring that sticker price below $25,000. You won’t get the Subaru resale and residual value on the back end. VW crazies are after those sweet refurbished diesel wagons. But, that can also be a positive, if you’re looking to score a lightly used model.

Fuel economy is a mixed bag. Dieselgate left the SportWagen with one engine option, the trusty 1.8L four-cylinder. FWD versions (25/34 mpg) are on par with wagon and crossover competitors. The 4Motion hurts the efficiency. EPA rated my tester at 22/29 mpg and 24 mpg combined. I exceeded that in the wild, according to the car. My tester got about 27-28 mpg combined over a week of moderate, mostly city driving. My 2016 FWD manual gets about 30 under normal conditions and 40-plus on extended freeway trips.

Not all is perfect. The SportWagen can feel strained under a full passenger load (or with one relatively heavy passenger). You are low to the ground. Visibility out from the car is fine; it’s seeing around the “commanding” crossovers and trucks around you that can be an issue. The seat height can also be more trouble than a crossover for the older and less nimble. Choose the darker interior. I have the lighter one. Dogs, children, beverages, and other miscellaneous fluids will leave their mark.

VW did announce some changes for 2019. I disqualified the Golf SportWagen from our best value family car conversation because you could not get both 4Motion and driver assistance features on the S trim. That conundrum has been resolved. AWD SportWagens will keep the 1.8L, but FWD versions will get the more efficient 1.4L engine from the Jetta, with only 147hp. Softening that blow, however, will be the torque. The 1.4L will produce the same 184lb-ft of torque and the 1.8L will get a bump to 199 lb-ft.

Verdict: Not everyone can afford a Volvo V90CC. For the rest of us wagon-loving drivers out there, there’s the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen. There may be valid reasons to opt for the competition in this price range. The driving experience won’t be one of them.

What Others Are Saying:

• “True, wagons have fallen out of fashion, and it’s unlikely that the SportWagen’s looks alone will inspire the envy of onlookers. But anyone who watches the SportWagen swallow a Home Depot haul will have no choice but to be impressed.” – Annie White, Car and Driver https://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/2018-volkswagen-golf-sportwagen-in-depth-model-review

• “With predictable styling and a classic demeanor, the 2018 Golf SportWagen isn’t going to make people stop and stare. Yet to those who understand what this little wagon was meant to do, to those folks, it will be one of the most beautiful vehicles on the road today.” – Mike Musto, Auto Nation http://autonationdrive.com/2018-volkswagen-golf-sportwagen-review/

• “Its dynamics remain a step ahead of competitors, but the Golf SportWagen lags behind the field when it comes to fuel economy and safety features, which may turn off some buyers.” – Brian Wong, Cars.com https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/cars/2018/04/21/review-volkswagens-golf-sportwagen-puts-sport-into-wagon/536756002/

2018 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen S w/4Motion Key Specs

Engine: 1.8L I4 Turbo
Transmission: six-Speed Automatic
Horsepower: 170
Torque: 184 lb-ft
Weight: 3,325lbs
0-60: 7.0 Seconds

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