For American enthusiasts, no style of car is as coveted and sought-after as the diesel wagon with a manual gearbox. Why can't we have torque, efficiency and room to carry all of our stuff for relatively cheap like the rest of the world? Luckily, we're on the eve of the launch of the new 2015 Golf SportWagen, and it's definitely the best diesel manual wagon Americans can buy.
It's also the only new diesel manual wagon Americans can buy, so... yeah.
(Full disclosure: Volkswagen needed me to drive the new Golf SportWagen so badly they offered to fly me out to Austin and put me up in a fancy hotel. But since I already live in Austin, I just met up with them here instead. I did let them buy me lunch at Qui and it was really, really tasty.)
Our European readers will no doubt wonder what I'm so excited about. "A diesel Golf wagon? My mom has one of those, and so does LITERALLY EVERYONE ELSE I'VE EVER MET," they're screaming at their monitors right now.
True, but diesel vehicles — even the modern and super clean ones — still struggle to catch on here outside of the heavy duty pickup market thanks to higher prices, long-standing misconceptions, fewer filling stations and a general preference for gasoline. That's a shame, because if there was ever a diesel that Americans could learn to love, this new Golf is it.
Here's the lowdown on the new Golf SportWagen: it's a longer and more practical version of the all-new Golf hatchback that launched last year, one that also sits on the new modular MQB platform. The case could easily be made that the MQB vehicles are the best small cars in the world right now in terms of refinement, overall driving dynamics and flexibility.
The new Golf SportWagen replaces a car that used to be named the Jetta SportWagen, even though that car was really a Golf all along. (The Golf was also a Rabbit for a while here, but VW doesn't like talking about that). It's bigger and roomier inside, but also lighter and more fuel efficient.
Engines come in two flavors: a 1.8-liter TSI gas engine, or the 2.0-liter TDI diesel. The gas engine puts out 170 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque, while the TDI makes 150 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque.
As for gearboxes, the TSI can be had with a five-speed manual or a six-speed conventional automatic, while the TDI gets a six-speed manual or a six-speed DSG. They're all front-wheel drive for now, but VW has said an all-wheel drive Alltrack version is coming in 2016.
I drove both the gas and diesel SportWagens during this Austin test, but naturally I spent most of my time in the manual TDI. It's a longtime reader favorite, as well as the version I was most curious about and the one I'd be more likely to buy for myself.
Let's get one important thing out of the way first: The main selling point of the diesel engine. It's rated at 31 MPG in the city and 43 MPG on the highway, 42 MPG if you opt for the DSG. Hard to argue with those numbers.
On the outside it's sharper and cleaner than the lumpy old "Jetta" SportWagen, but other than that, it's not radically different. It's conservative but attractive and instantly recognizable as a VW wagon.
The real star of the show is the car's interior. Volkswagens have been pretty strong in this department for a while now, but the latest Golf really puts most other small cars to shame. Hell, it puts some luxury cars I've driven to shame.
Fit and finish is impeccable everywhere, and the brushed aluminum panels and piano black trim give the whole package a really high-quality feel. It's delightfully uncluttered by buttons, too. The layout is straightforward and instantly easy to figure out. It's just a nice place to spend time, easily the best interior in this class.
Odds are if you buy a SportWagen, you're gonna put stuff in it, like people or dogs or lumber or Spec Cavalier parts (It's a new racing series I'm putting together) or whatever you're into. You get some SUV-shaming space here: 30.4 cubic feet of space with the rear seats up, 66.5 cubic feet with them down. That easily trumps the Jeep Cherokee, the Mazda CX-5 and a lot of other crossovers.
The seats are comfortable and supple yet supportive, and the rear seats are too, with a decent amount of leg room and headroom. Why do you want a crossover, again?
Okay, so it's roomy and nice inside. Great. How does it actually drive, you ask? The answer to that is great. The EA288 Clean Diesel TDI engine is a brand-new motor, one that will make its home in a bunch of new VWs and Audis. It's dripping with midrange torque and thoroughly fun to wring out on the highway or on a good b-road, especially with the manual gearbox.
No, it can't race to a screamingly high sports car RPM level, nor is it as fun as a GTI, but it can pull. It still makes the car feel quick and fun. It's incredibly responsive and smooth.
Frankly, this motor feels a lot like a gasoline engine in terms of its response and refinement, or at least a diesel engine that's trying awfully hard to win over nonbelievers. Besides that lower redline, you'd be hard-pressed to tell you're driving a diesel car at all. I'm pretty sure that was done on purpose.
You can hear the distinct diesel rattle outside the car, but inside, it's quiet and well-mannered until it gives you a nice growl under hard acceleration. Open wide and suck on that delicious toooooorrrrrqquuuue.
The six-speed manual is good, though the clutch is a bit long and with kind of a vague friction point. Throws are easy and light, but engagement didn't feel as crisp as the box on the 2015 Golf R I drove last month. Overall, it's stupid easy to use in any setting, and a willing partner for a solid engine.
The Golf SportWagen is a solid handler, too, even if it's not on the level of its more sport-focused MQB brothers. The steering is tight and direct but on the numb side. There's a bit of body roll in the corners, but it's more athletic than most compact cars. You can have fun in this thing on the back roads without having to try so hard you risk putting its teutonic nose into a wall.
The ride quality was another high mark — it's remarkably smooth and comfortable without making the handling too soft. I found few deficiencies on my drive, save for the small-ish 5.8-inch touch screen and its adequate but not terrific infotainment system. Thankfully Apple CarPlay is coming to Volkswagens later.
As for the TSI SportWagen, it's good, but it didn't blow me away. Think of its 1.8-liter turbo engine as the GTI Lite; it's got plenty of torque, and it's quick as far as economy cars go, but it stops short of being truly fun to drive.
It gets the job done, but it lacks the diesel's character. It's just an engine. Fuel economy there is rated at 25 MPG in the city and 35 MPG on the highway with the automatic.
The TSI's six-speed automatic gearbox is decent, but not outstanding. It isn't as sophisticated or as impressive as the DSG you can get with the diesel Golf, or the GTI. Its sport mode doesn't do anything notable to the car's character the way the DSG does. Shifts are still fast and smooth, though. (I didn't get to test the diesel with the DSG, because manual wagon, but I assume it's great like most DSG-equipped VWs.)
Overall, your SportWagen choice is between a good car, the TSI, and a great car, the TDI. I've always thought that if you're buying Volkswagen and it isn't a GTI or a Golf R, you really should get one of their diesels. That's not to say their gas engines are deficient in any way; it's just that if you pass on the diesel you're missing out on something truly special.
Either way you're getting a good deal. The SportWagen starts at $21,395 for the TSI with a manual. The diesel starts at $24,595, which thanks to a new base trim is about $2,000 cheaper than the old Jetta TDI SportWagen's starting price.
The blue TDI tester you see in these photos, equipped with heated leatherette seats, a gigantic panoramic sunroof, the GTI's XDS electronic pseudo differential system, premium audio system, backup camera, Bluetooth and other options came in at $28,815. A similarly-equipped TSI wagon I drove with the automatic was priced at $29,505 because it included the lighting package.
That strikes me as a solid package, honestly. I drive so many ludicrously overpriced new cars that it feels like $30,000 doesn't get you nearly as much as it used to, especially on German cars. But you do get a lot on the SportWagen. From a practical standpoint, it's hard to want more car than this.
So do you, the enthusiast, go for the diesel manual wagon or do you spring for the GTI instead? That is the question of the day. The wagon practicality is hard to beat, but as fun as the TDI is — and it's a lot of fun — it's not a GTI. Maybe it could be close with a better set of sway bars and a visit to your friendly neighborhood APR tune shop for even more ludicrous torque.
It's nice to have your cake and eat it too.
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