On the Road Review: Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen

Small car sales in America have declined; no surprise news there as crossovers are finding more new homes than any other type of vehicle sold here. Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas that used to be perennial top-10 sellers don’t even rate honorable mention status anymore. Indeed, Civic, Corolla, Cruze, Focus, Forte, Sentra, Impreza and Mazda3 sales have all dropped this year. Only Hyundai’s new Elantra has seen an increase in volume.

Into this market, Volkswagen is battling headwinds with its eighth-generation Golf, one of the most popular cars sold around the world. Despite a lineup that includes Golf, sporty GTI, sportier R-model with AWD, plus efficient E-Golf electric model as well as this week’s Sportwagen, Golf sales have also slid backward. Incredibly, VW’s car sales have dropped almost a third this year, as even VW buyers gravitate to crossovers, which have buoyed the brand to a slight uptick in total sales.

Interestingly, VW attacks a niche that other automakers have long abandoned — small car station wagons. In fact, VW sells two models, our Tornado Red Sportwagen shown, plus an AWD-equipped Golf AllTrack.

The Golf Sportwagen’s arrival marked a departure from what we generally see supplied from the automakers; fully optioned, high-line trims, with all of the fixins meant to completely display the respective automakers’ countless virtues. At least that’s what they hope.

Our look-at-me red Golf came with cloth seats (vastly preferred in this corner), a sinewy five-speed shifter (an absolute rarity today), as well as an almost total absence of the electronic driving aids and controls that the automakers have deemed necessary or essential to attract buyers in a volatile marketplace. We can disagree on the relative merits of many of these driving aids, and how they actually dumb down the driver, especially when the systems don’t work, but for the sake of argument we can look at this Golf and think greater mass appeal because of one primary reason — the sticker price of $21,685.

Included are cloth seats, manual transmission, an actual key for the ignition, eight-speaker audio, cruise control, power windows and locks, heated power mirrors, tilt and telescoping wheel, rain-sensing wiper controls, Bluetooth, folding rear seats — all of the basics plus safety aids such as traction and stability control, anti-lock brakes and side curtain airbags. There is an independent suspension, quite supple and sure-footed too, plus a hidden rear camera that pops out of the rear emblem so it always affords a clear, clean rearward view.

Price is not the VW’s sole virtue. Yet the absence of many of today’s added electronic aids and systems are in direct contrast to the simplicity with which controls operate here and define how driving should be — undisturbed or distracting by devices that interrupt the driver’s main focus.

The large climate knobs with their knurled outer surface for grip and detents for precise engagement are far superior to touchscreens that you often miss while bouncing along your drive. Same for the simple tuning knobs on the stereo, or the intuitive placement of the stalks on the steering column that are reachable by fingertips. And who among us hasn’t spent a lifetime as a video gamer, with the thumb control to match, who wouldn’t appreciate the precision and ease with which the Golf’s steering wheel controls render their chosen selections without having to look down at said controls before making a selection.

Yes, these might be novel approaches to a swiftly changing auto world as predictions swirl about for driver-less flying cars that make the satisfying driving dynamics and controls of the Golf seem quaint. But, not every driver can drop $60,000 on the latest Tesla, as good as it might be. With average new vehicle transaction prices eclipsing $35,400 this year, and average new car payments now above $525 a month, the VW’s frugality seems not only sensible, but financially smart.

This is even more true if you are among the cadre of drivers that enjoy driving and haven’t yet fallen into the steering wheel operator trap. The Golf’s hill-holder clutch action makes take-off engagement smooth and easy, while the shifting action of the five-speed is as slick as soft butter. With fourth and fifth gears acting as overdrive gears, third gear handles the majority of driving superbly, the 1.8-liter turbo-motor huffing along with good torque and low-end power. EPA estimates are 25/34/29 mpg. Two fill-ups returned a low of 29 mpg in the rain on the superslab, while our best rural road travel rendered 36.1 mpg even while exploring the Golf’s passing abilities.

The Golf Sportwagen produces all of the driving verve of the original Golf, with the cargo space of a wagon. The upscale interior and refined performance of the chassis and powertrain separate the Golf from the compact car pack. It remains worthy of consideration for all drivers.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.

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