When it comes to affordable wagons in the United States, the market is annoyingly small. If you discount standard hatchbacks and go searching for true wagons, you are essentially left with only one option in 2017, and that is the Golf Sportwagen from VW. As one of the affected buyers of a TDI from VW, I am forced to go looking for a new car. The Sportwagen is on my shortlist, so I was more than excited to see one show up in the drive for a week of testing.
But does my Golf’s longer, gas-powered sibling have what it takes to woo me away from the TDI life? The short answer; it’s complicated.
Starting with the exterior, the new Golf Sportwagen is everything you would expect. It looks exactly like a stretched version of the Golf, meaning it’s a clean design with sharp lines and classic proportions. It’s not pretty in the common sense, but it does look modern and handsome, and the design should be great for decades to come. Compared to the older cars, this new model is a little more squared off, making it look a touch more aggressive and interesting to my eyes.
Inside it’s all classic Volkswagen. The interior is relatively plain, but it is impeccably assembled. Volkswagen has a long legacy of putting $40k interiors in $20k cars, and the Sportwagen continues that tradition. Despite the lack of color and embelishments, the interior of the Sportwagen is leagues ahead of the competition. You will be hard pressed to find any cheap plastic in the cabin, and the fit is top notch. This is German attention to detail at its finest. On the technology front our tester included VW’s new MIB II touchscreen stereo that features a 6.5-inch touchscreen with navigation. We also got the Fender audio upgrade, a sunroof and leather seats. On the safety front our tester came with the Driver’s Assistance Package, which includes radar cruise, collision prevention and blind-spot monitoring among a few other features.
Under the skin of the Golf Sportwagen there is a lot for me to love. Unlike the last few years of Jetta Sportwagen, the 2017 model is built on the latest MQB platform that is under the Mk. 7 Golf, so it has the bones I already know and love. That helps make it more nimble, stiffer and overall more engaging than the last generation model. Also new for the latest generation machine is Volkswagen’s new 1.8L turbocharged four-cylinder, supplanting the old 2.5L five-cylinder from yesteryear.
That new motor produces 170 horsepower and a meaty 199 lb-ft of torque, making it a willing dance partner for a car that only weighs 3100 pounds. Sadly, Volkswagen has revamped its transmission offerings with the move to a new model. The slick six-speed manual has been dumped in favor of an older five-speed unit, and it’s only available on the base model car. Other Sportwagen models get Volkswagen’s six-speed automatic. (There is a new AWD model that features the DSG transmission exclusively.)
This is where things start to go downhill for me and my impressions of the Golf Sportwagen. I love the immediate response and surge of the TDI engine in my Golf. When this 1.8T gasser is mated to that auto, it just feels slow and unwilling. It’s obvious that the transmission shift patterns have been adjusted for fuel economy, and that detracts from the driving experience. It’s unfortunate because the motor feels like it’s ready to be playful, but the transmission either shifts too early on acceleration or won’t downshift fast enough during braking. I just felt like I was constantly fighting the car, not driving it.
At least things get better on the handling front. The steering feels lighter than the old models, but it’s still direct and precise. The suspension is just stiff enough to have some fun in the twisty stuff without being overbearing or harsh on America’s tattered highways. Because it shares the same 104” wheelbase as the normal Golf, the Sportwagen feels just as nimble and tossable despite its extra overall length. In fact, if you didn’t look in the rearview mirror, it would be hard to tell the Sportwagen and standard Golf apart by handling alone.
During my time with the new Sportwagen I managed a respectable 29.6 mpg overall, with a split of driving that skewed about 70/30 towards highway driving. I knew there was no way this machine could compete with the 45mpg average I get from my TDI, but with a highway rating of 35 mpg, I did expect to see that number sit a little higher.
None of the space and technology in the Sportwagen comes cheap, either. As an SEL model, this is the top of the line, and our as-tested sticker price rang in at more than $32,000. Not outrageous, but certainly not a bargain by any stretch either.
I will have to wait until I can get my hands on a manual-transmission model to make a final decision on the Sportwagen as a replacement for my Golf. Despite being a phenomenal car in its own right, it just doesn’t have that spark that made me fall in love with my current VW.
The 2017 VW Golf Sportwagen would be an ideal car for a massive amount of new-car buyers out there, and there is little to stop me from recommending it. That said, it just doesn’t make me smile like my TDI, so I will have to continue my search for a replacement machine.