Volkswagen Golf SportWagen TDI Review: When Fuel Economy Meets Utility
Back in April, the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen made news for spending an incredibly-brief average of only nine days on dealers’ lots before being sold. Station wagons aren’t known for being very popular in the U.S. market, so that was certainly interesting news. Now the Golf is back in the news, this time being credited with single-handedly lifting Volkswagen’s sales in the U.S.
I was already familiar (and quite impressed) with the high performance Golf R after having a chance to drive it last January, but it’s the more pedestrian models that are making up the majority of the Golf’s sales volume. Getting to the bottom of what was driving all those sales meant only one thing – I would have to spend some time driving another Golf.
Specifically, I would have to drive a 2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen TDI S.
Driving the Golf SportWagen would have been interesting no matter what, but it was those four letters at the end that made this car especially interesting. The “TDI” meant it had a diesel engine, and the “S” meant it was the base model in the range. Diesel has seen a resurgence in popularity lately, especially in Volkswagens, and with the the promise of hybrid-rivaling fuel efficiency without the added complication of motors and batteries, it’s certainly tempting to try it out.
Base models, on the other hand, aren’t usually particularly tempting. In order to keep the price down, the most desirable options usually get stripped out, leaving you with a car that never truly feels as good as it could have been if you had spent a few thousand dollars more for the mid-level model. Would a car that’s only meaningful option was a dual-clutch transmission actually be worth buying?
Luckily, the S isn’t completely stripped out, even if Volkswagen managed to keep the price low. Going for the DSG added $1,100 to the base price, pushing the MSRP up to $26,500. Included in that were roof rails, 16-inch wheels, leatherette seats, push-button start, a rear-view camera, keyless entry, and a touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth. The key fob also worked as a proximity key, allowing me to walk up to my car and open the door without having to unlock it.
What that all translated to was a car that felt much nicer than you would expect for less than $27,000. Volkswagen generally uses high quality interior materials, and the Golf is no exception. The seats were comfortable, the plastics mostly felt high quality, and the controls were easy to use. I was initially disappointed with how thin the steering wheel felt in my hands, as I usually prefer thicker ones, but once I got used to its size, I had to retract my initial complaint.
I doubt anyone will confuse the Volkswagen’s interior for an Audi, but in the sub-$30,000 price range, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a car that feels as premium as the Golf.
One notable option that was missing on my test car was a navigation system. If you bump up to the SEL, you get navigation, but on the TDI, that would push you over the $30,000 mark. You also get quite a few other options that potentially make it worth the money, but there’s also a lot more competition at that price point.
Initially, I thought I would miss having an in-dash navigation system, but I ended up not. Were I buying this car for myself, I’d probably spring for a dash mount so I could use Google Maps without holding the phone in my hand, but smartphones are so much easier to use than the systems most automakers come up with, I end up using my phone for directions half the time anyways.
Behind the driver’s seat, the back seat had adequate space for two adults or three children. Your two grown friends probably wouldn’t be thrilled about the prospect of spending four hours back there, but I doubt they would complain about riding back there on a trip that’s less than an hour.
The reason you buy the SportWagen and not the regular Golf, though, has nothing to do with the backseat and everything to do with the space behind the backseat. Opening the hatch revealed more cargo space than you would expect, and if you choose to fold the rear seats down, the 66.5 cubic feet of available storage space rivals that of many crossover SUVs. You still get the maneuverability of a car, but you also get the space of a compact crossover.
If two adults and two kids wanted to go on vacation, there would be enough room for everyone and all of their stuff. If two adults and two kids wanted to take two dogs to the park, there would also be plenty of space. A minivan would offer more capability, but for smaller families who don’t necessarily want to take the plunge and buy one, the Golf SportWagen would make a great alternative.
What about the TDI’s supposedly amazing fuel economy? That, like with most cars, is dependent on how you drive it.
Unlike a lot of cars though, the biggest fuel economy killer isn’t aggressive driving. It actually did surprisingly well when I drove it hard. Instead, what killed my fuel economy the most was stop-and-go traffic. If the majority of your driving is going to be done during rush hour, you’ll probably benefit more from a hybrid than a diesel.
But as long as traffic stayed moving, the diesel engine lived up to its fuel-efficient reputation. That also meant it was important for the sake of fuel economy to make sure I got stuck at as few traffic lights as possible. In a hybrid, it may be better to slow down when a light turns yellow, but for the sake of the environment, when the light turns yellow in a diesel, the best thing you can do is speed up. After all, you want to save the planet, don’t you?
Volkswagen’s 2.0-liter TDI engine may not scream all the way up to 9,000 RPMs like a sports car, but it does make 236 pound-feet of torque, which meant there was plenty of twist available any time I decided to punch it. I wouldn’t have won many drag races in that car, but its engine was more than capable anytime I wanted to pass slower traffic, zip through an intersection, or just have a little fun on a back road.
Speaking of back roads, while the Golf SportWagen isn’t ever going to be confused for a GTI, it was surprisingly fun to drive. When you compare it to another fuel-efficient car a lot of people often consider, the Toyota Prius, the Volkswagen is in a completely different league. You only buy a Prius for fuel economy, but you can buy the TDI for fuel economy, fun, practicality, and its high-end interior.
Over the nearly 7,000 miles that were on my test car, it had averaged just over 46 miles per gallon. A Prius would probably beat that number by a few miles per gallon, but the difference probably wouldn’t be much. The Prius may end up being slightly cheaper as well. Then again, if you want the Prius to match the Golf SportWagen’s cargo volume, you have to bump up to the Prius v, which not only gets worse gas mileage than that but brings the price much more in line with the TDI, as well.
There’s also the issue of how much more diesel costs than regular gasoline. Diesel prices tend to be more in line with the cost of premium gas, not regular gas, which means that while you’ll probably get great fuel economy in a TDI, you’ll also be paying more at the pump than you would if you were putting regular gas in a Prius.
If you’re trying to reduce buying a fuel efficient hatchback for your family down to just what you will spend on fuel, though, you’re going to miss out on other important factors like the quality of the Golf SportWagen’s interior, how quick the torquey engine makes it feel, and how much more fun it is to drive. For some people, the Prius v may end up being the better choice, but there’s a reason these Golfs are moving off dealers’ lots so quickly, and it’s because the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen TDI truly is a great car.