The intersection between driving fun and utility is not the SUV — it's the wagon. No better proof of this exists than the 2018 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen.
The Golf SportWagen's competition includes cars as varied as hatchbacks, like the Subaru Crosstrek and Honda Civic hatchback, to compact sedans, like Volkswagen's own Jetta. I'd put the Golf SportWagen's driving experience up against any of those cars, and it outdoes them all on cargo space, as well. But the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen isn't perfect.
The 2018 Golf SportWagen is a refresh. There are a few changes, but nothing moves the needle too far in either direction. (Compare it with last year's model.) The front and back feature slightly different styling, but one would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between this year's model and last year's. LED daytime running lights and LED taillights are now standard across all trims.
The SportWagen is offered in three trim levels: S ($22,535 including destination charges), SE ($28,170) and SEL ($31,095). S models add automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers and a 6.5-inch touchscreen display for 2018.
SE models see a large boost in safety features, adding forward automatic emergency braking and blind spot warning as standard equipment, along with an 8-inch touchscreen. The SEL adds built-in navigation, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, pedestrian detection for the forward emergency braking system and adaptive cruise control.
What We Tested
It's not often that we get to test out the base model of a vehicle, but that's exactly what I drove for a week: a 2018 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen S. The only option checked was a $1,100 six-speed automatic transmission, which brought the car's final price to $23,635.
Beyond the additions for 2018 mentioned above, the S also includes a backup camera, Bluetooth connectivity and an eight-speaker sound system.
How It Drives
There's only one engine for the Golf SportWagen, but it's a good one: a 170-horsepower, turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder TSI that makes 184 lb-ft of torque when tied to a manual transmission and 199 pounds-feet with the automatic. Transmission choices include a five-speed manual (S only) or a six-speed automatic in front-wheel-drive models. An all-wheel-drive version of the Golf SportWagen is offered as well, but only in the S trim level (called the S 4Motion) for an extra $2,250. The S 4Motion shares its AWD system and distinct transmission choices — a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch automatic — with the Golf Alltrack.
The driving experience is generally not a strength for vehicles in this class and price range, but I'm happy to report that the Golf SportWagen is a true member of the Volkswagen Golf family, and its dynamics and powertrain are both very much up to par. The automatic model benefits greatly from all the lb-ft of torque it has on tap: The engine is very responsive, with sharp acceleration when called upon and smooth power delivery in mid-throttle conditions. Handling is also a plus, though the wheel trends toward the lighter side of steering weight. That would be more of a concern if the suspension and chassis weren't as dialed in, but Volkswagen nailed that.
If the powertrain has one shortcoming, it's fuel economy. It doesn't match up with less thirsty competitors like the Honda Civic hatchback, which offers up to 34 mpg combined. The Golf SportWagen returns an EPA-estimated 25/34/29 mpg city/highway/combined with manual FWD models and 24/33/28 mpg with the FWD automatic. AWD models with the automatic transmission are rated 22/29/24 mpg; the 2018 manual with AWD wasn't rated as of publication. The 2017 SportWagen with a manual transmission and AWD was rated 26 mpg combined, but we can't assume that will repeat in 2018 given the other ratings have changed. Of the EPA-rated 2018 SportWagens, the automatic versions are down 1 mpg combined versus 2017 and the manual is up 1 mpg combined.
Interior and Technology
Though the base model's interior is sparse and feature-lean (as the empty switches by the gear selector indicate), it does come with a few important technologies that make the experience more than bearable. Its standard 6.5-inch touchscreen is among the best of the base model screens in this class, it's clear and easy to read without getting too close and, perhaps most important, it comes with standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. So if you have a smartphone with a little data to spare, you'll have your own navigation system without paying for an SEL and its built-in version. SE and SEL models get a gorgeous 8-inch touchscreen.
The Volkswagen Golf SportWagen's shape gives it excellent cargo room, but its passenger room is a bit smaller than that of most compact cars. There's good headroom, but legroom will be an issue for taller passengers. Behind the backseat is 30.4 cubic feet of cargo room, which expands to 66.5 cubic feet with the seats folded.
Another weakness of the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen is the distribution of safety features across trim levels. Standard features include a backup camera and a post-collision braking system that's designed to prevent secondary accidents from happening if the airbags deploy in a crash. The SE and SEL each add more safety equipment, but those features can't be had on the S. So getting advanced safety features means making a significant leap up cost-wise from the base trim. Volkswagen has begun to change this approach on its more affordable models — the redesigned 2019 Jetta, for example, makes automatic emergency braking optional on the base trim. But even with the 2018 Golf SportWagen's updates, there's no such luck here.
Value and Conclusion
VW adds one final perk to the 2018 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen to bolster its value: a six-year/72,000-mile transferable bumper-to-bumper warranty, which is unmatched by other automakers. If you plan on keeping the car beyond a lease term, that's a big deal.
The price gap between the S trim and the SE is significant — nearly $5,000 between automatic versions. The SE does offer significantly more equipment than the S, including an 8-inch touchscreen, panoramic moonroof, imitation leather rather than cloth upholstery, and the aforementioned safety features, but whether or not all that is worth that kind of money is up to you. The jump from $23,635 to $28,170 pushes the Golf SportWagen from the realm of compact cars nearly to the cost of a compact SUV; for all its merits, the Golf SportWagen can't compete with a compact SUV for passenger or cargo room.
Driving the base version of the 2018 Golf SportWagen proved the car's merit and value, and there isn't much at that price that I would choose over it as an everyday car. But once you move up the trim levels, the value part of the equation diminishes quickly as the price rises and the gas mileage stays low. An S model with additional safety features would be my choice, but that's something we probably won't get until the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen gets another round of changes.
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