Are you that shopper who wants a stick shift station wagon, but doesn’t want any newfangled driver aids? VW to the rescue.
What is it?
The 2018 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen is a compact/midsized station wagon. In person, it appears larger than its specifications might suggest. You might remember this vehicle fondly as the Jetta wagon. VW can’t decide what to do with names, so its smaller wagon is now a Golf. If you are looking for a compact vehicle with good cargo capacity and you are dead set against a crossover, Volkswagen may be your brand.
Pricing and trims
The Golf is a pretty broad family of vehicles these days. It consists of four 4-door hatchbacks and two wagons. There is the Golf SportWagen and also the Golf Alltrack AWD, which is a bit different and made to be more of an “all-road” type of raised up wagon along the lines of the Subaru Crosstrek. Confusing the whole line up is the SportWagen S with 4Motion AWD. The base SportWagen starts at exactly $22,580. We know because that’s the one we tested. A fully-loaded Golf Alltrack SEL will cost you $37K. In between, there is quite a mix of trims with various features.
If you are of the opinion that modern driver aids like automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane-keep assist are unnecessary evils that are forced upon consumers against their will by a government-big-auto conspiracy, rejoice! The VW Golf SportWagen has none of these in its base S trim. There is a rearview camera system (it’s a law) and all the airbags you will expect, but nothing will flash warning lights at you or stop the car against your will if you want to crash. If you don’t want all those safety nannies you keep hearing about, run to your VW dealer because this is likely the last car you will ever find new without them. We’re not kidding.
Do like to “row your own” gears? You will love the Golf SportWagen then. The base S trim comes with a five (yes five, not six) speed manual transmission. The engine is a gem of a small turbo which takes regular gas and develops 170 hp with that cheap gas. More than enough for spirited driving, particularly since you can drive it around at 5,000 RPMs all day long if you like. Not to spoil the fun, but if you have always known in your heart that wagons are more fuel efficient than those big, high-up crossover monstrosities, you may want to skip our informative fuel economy comparison below. On the other hand, if you truly wanted a diesel, take some solace in knowing that the last diesel wagon sold in America by VW would only have saved you $100 per year in fuel (despite that impressive fuel efficiency rating). That is the magic of lower-priced regular unleaded gasoline vs. pricey diesel at work more than it is thermodynamics.
Speaking of diesels, with its great low-end torque this turbocharged VW feels a lot like a diesel. It has enough torque to overpower its front tires, so what good would more be? Also, back when diesel Golfs were still a thing, VW wanted a hefty premium for them compared to the gas cars. The 2015 base Golf SportWagen TDI had an MSRP of $24,595. That was $3,200 more than the same car with the gas engine.
The five-speed in this Golf Sportwagen S is as easy to drive as any stick shift ever made. It has a very nice shifter and knowing where the gears are, and if you’re in one, is easy. There is also a hill-holder type clutch so you don’t roll back when you are on an uphill stop and then need to get going in first. We found the gearing rather “tall.” Meaning that each gear will take you to a higher speed than in a six-speed. For example, at 35 MPH, third is your gear rather than fourth. Fifth works great on the highway. No engine noise due to high revving at 70 MPH. We don’t know why VW opted not to use a sixth gear, but we can’t find any reason for one either.
Ride and handling
Like every Golf (ever), the Sportwagen S handles nicely and is fun to drive. The normal tires, as opposed to super-low profile show-off tires, do a great job over bumps too. This is an honest car with great overall comfort.
VW does a great job of packaging with the Golf SportWagen. There are 94 cubic feet of passenger volume and 30 cubic feet behind the back row of seats. By comparison, a Honda CR-V has 104 cu ft of passenger space and 31 cubic feet of cargo volume behind its back seat.
Our base S had a comfy driver’s seat despite basic controls. In the S trim, there is no heat for the seats. Keep that sub-$23K pricepoint in mind and you won’t miss them. Much.
Seating is tight in back. You will need to pull the front seats forward a bit to make room for rear passengers. If you have kids that are still in car seats you will be bending and twisting to secure them. Crossovers are better in this regard.
The cargo area of the VW Golf SportWagen is very practical. It is long, rather than tall like a crossover’s. Under the cargo floor is a compact spare tire. That’s a bonus that more and more automakers are stealing from you. Our base trim also had a full retractable cargo cover, another item deleted from most vehicles we test.
Infotainment and controls
One of the most important aspects of shopping a base model vehicle these days is compatibility with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The very least expensive Golf SportWagen has both, and we found the infotainment system overall to be outstanding. Consider this; We recently tested a premium crossover costing $40K that didn’t offer Android Auto. We recently tested a $70K luxury crossover that supposedly had the feature, but it didn’t work. Why does this technology matter? A few reasons. First, it allows you to have the most highly rated navigation systems in the world (Waze, Google Maps, Apple Maps – it’s your choice) at no added cost to you. And it is fully integrated. It shows up on the car’s info screen and you can interact with it there. Another important reason is the ability to not just stream music from your favorite app (say Pandora), but to have full functionality including station listings, and other features you can’t get by just streaming via BlueTooth. Finally, safety. A recent AAA study found these systems to be less distracting than automakers’ native systems.
Automotive publications, including BestRide, have some writers who are passionate about two things; Manual transmissions and station wagons. There are scores of stories bemoaning the death of both. However, here is a station wagon with not just a manual, but with a crazy-low entry price which includes a great infotainment setup. The Golf SportWagen has no faults that we could uncover in our testing. It also comes with one of the longest new car bumper-to-bumper warranties in the industry (6 years / 72K miles). Based on the many comments under our stories about modern driver aids, we know there are many shoppers who don’t want these new safety nannies. At the intersection of those who want an affordable manual station wagon but no modern safety systems awaits the VW Golf SportWagen.