As an automotive journalist, I’m required to do but a few things: 1) Dress poorly; 2) accept a barely livable wage; and 3) like station wagons. Although assimilating all of that took a little while (but then, I’ve always dressed poorly…and for a long time have liked station wagons), that ‘barely livable wage’ still grates. But we’re not here to talk about subsistence living – we’re here to discuss new, affordable transportation, in the form of VW’s Golf SportWagen. Or, as Herr Doktor Porsche might have suggested, the People’s Wagen.
You know, of course, the Golf, preceded in the U.S. market by a compact hatch called the Rabbit. And while out of the box the Golf/Rabbit was entirely too intelligent for much of Middle America, it – and its Golf-with-a-trunk derivative, the Jetta sedan – caught on to the point that, some 45 years later, VW is still selling ‘em!
The downside with a small, 4-door hatchback? It really doesn’t accommodate four average Americans, their fast food diets and, of course, their stuff. For the ‘stuff’ you typically need a minivan or, as is often the case, a crossover/SUV. And that crossover/SUV invariably entails both a higher initial cost relative to the typical hatch or sedan, and a higher cost of operation. The SUV/crossover is more often heavier and less aerodynamic, and that combo ends up thirstier.
VW, as a Eurocentric OEM with its fingers in most markets, knows a thing or two (to channel Farmers) because it’s built a thing or two. Beyond inventing the minivan (regardless of what Chrysler tells you) with its Kombi/Bus, VW also devised the Squareback on its 1600 platform, several years before the conversion to front-wheel drive across most of the Volkswagen lineup. Later there was the Passat wagon and, in other markets, who knows what else. So, sensing that Americans were well fed and liked their stuff, VW commissioned the Golf SportWagen.
Our test vehicle, a 2019 SportWagen 1.4T S, was about as a basic as a German nameplate might be, if – of course – you’re willing to exclude BMW’s motorcycle lineup. In the walk-up you’re struck by its relatively low height, accommodating length (180 inches), generous glass area and modest 15-inch alloy wheels. In its Platinum Gray Metallic (we’d simply call it ‘gray’) exterior, you won’t think ‘stripper’, but you might think ‘base’. In its defense, ‘base’ typically wears well.
Inside, your first surprise (if living on a diet of crossovers and SUVs) is the step DOWN into the driver or passenger seat. Once there, you’ll find the front seats supportive and, with a manual height adjustment on both sides, supply a surprisingly high hip point if – of course – you want it. My 89-year old mom, with arthritic knees, found it more of a challenge than she would have liked, but for her VW builds the all-wheel drive Alltrack, a lifted variant of the SportWagen with VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive as standard.
With standard front-wheel drive the SportWagen is equipped with VW’s 1.4 liter turbocharged four, the same powertrain fitted to its new Jetta. The 1.4 turbocharged four delivers 147 horsepower and, more importantly, 184 lb-ft of torque. It is, in a few words, more relaxed and refined than the boxer four supplied to the Subaru Crosstrek. And while our test vehicle was equipped with a 6-speed manual (which we liked), I’ll guess the engine matches well with VW’s available automatic, as it works well in the Jetta. You pay your money and you make your choice, but in most climates front-wheel drive will supply all the all-season traction you need, without the weight or cost penalty the all-wheel drive mandates.
On the road, the SportWagen brings to the mix just enough ‘sport’ to keep you entertained, while the ‘wagen’ supplies a surprising amount of utility. With its cargo capacity supplemented by a roof rack, this constitutes a true do anything/do everything platform, at a window of $23,240 with transportation and VW’s Driver Assistance Collision Warning.
Like an almost perfect round of golf, the SportWagen drives well, and with a highway estimate of 37 miles per gallon, can hit most ‘greens’. We wish VW would throw a little extra money into the ‘S’ spec interior, but then, if they did it probably wouldn’t be $23K. Another round, then?