The first car I bought as an adult was a Volkswagen Passat station wagon. It was 2002, I was a relative newlywed, and we had a baby on the way. We didn’t have any interest in an SUV, but we also needed to haul things. The Passat wagon served us perfectly for several years. We managed to trade it in before it started giving us problems. There are no negative memories.
But Volkswagen sent the Passat wagon out the door. They instead decided to spend a lost decade focusing its middle-class family-driving efforts instead on more expensive SUV models like the Tiguan. They offered a Jetta wagon, but it barely made a ripple.
To be fair, the Passat wagon was basically the last of its kind, the final viable vehicle remaining in a dying segment. But it still left a gap in the Volkswagen product line. Until now.
I was pretty shocked when I walked into the courtyard of an Austin hotel to see the 2015 VW Golf Sportwagen. It looked almost interchangeable with my old Passat. This Sportwagen was the exact same size and the exact same shape. But this was more than a decade on, three lifetimes in car years. It may look identical, but it’s better in pretty much every other way.
The Sportwagen contains identical DNA to the regular Golf, which won everyone’s Car Of The Year award for 2015, including Yahoo’s. It’s made with the same Modular Transverse (MQB) architecture, the state-of-the-art in modern car construction. This wagon was always part of VW’s ambitious makeover for the Golf.
It also benefits from improved engine technology. There are two choices. A 1.8-liter, four-cylinder turbo gas engine generates 170 hp and gets 35 mpg combined on the six-speed automatic transmission, or 36 mpg when paired with the five-speed manual transmission, which is five mpg better than the outgoing Jetta model. The VW 2-liter, 150-hp turbo diesel engine, which VW is pushing hard on these shores, gets 42 mpg combined, 43 when paired with a manual. Those are mileage numbers to inspire envy in the competition, which can't beat them without a hybrid system.
I drove both engine variants at the Sportswagen’s launch. Our drive route had plenty of twists, and the MQB chassis, combined with a strut-type suspension, held the road quite well. The engines didn’t do anything amazing — no one’s expecting high-end performance from a 150-hp diesel — but this car wasn’t designed to be amazing. It was designed to an efficient, small-family hauler.
Other than the little screen in the center console and the USB connectors, it was more or less the same VW interior I remembered from the aughts. It had leatherette seats instead of canvas, a GPS, and XM satellite radio. None of those come standard. It also has 66.5 cubic feet of storage when the rear seats are folded down. I wouldn’t exactly refer to that as a “cavernous trunk,” as VW did in their press materials, but it’s certainly big enough to haul a crib from IKEA and some diapers from Costco.
MPGs (automatic transmission)
Cargo (seats folded)
VW Golf Sportswagon
35 mpg gas; 42 mpg diesel
66.5 cu. ft.
67.3 cu. ft.
73.3 cu. ft.
The Sportwagen’s main competitors in this odd young family segment are two Subarus, the XV Crosstrek and Outback, and the Prius V. It doesn’t have the offroad capabilities of either Subaru, but it smashes them in terms of fuel economy. And while nothing can beat the Prius V for gas mileage, the Sportwagen is better in most other categories. Those are popular cars, and VW will be hard-pressed to compete with them, especially given Toyota and Subaru’s reliability. But the Sportwagen is a serious entry from the car-industry’s most progressive non-luxury fuel-burning line.
The basic Sportwagen gas model starts at $21,395, excluding destination, and can get up to almost $30,000 with add-ons. The TDI, which is the superior choice, starts at more than $24,000 and ends at $30,345. Thanks to efficiencies brought about by the MQB architecture, this is actually a $2,000 price drop from VW’s outgoing diesel wagon. Considering I paid about $18,000 for my Passat wagon nearly a decade and a half ago, that seems about right.
My life has changed since I owned my Passat wagon, and so have my car priorities. But driving the Sportwagen brought back pleasant memories. If it had a time-travel function, I’d definitely be in the market for one.