2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen first drive review: Jetta then, Golf now

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A lot of car manufacturers agonize over changing the name of an established vehicle. Most of the time, it’s a bad decision. Take the Ford Taurus for example. First it was a Taurus, then the 500, then Taurus again. And if that wasn’t confusing enough, Ford made a Taurus X, which really threw everyone for a loop because it wasn’t a sedan. Not sure if all this name-game playing hurt the vehicle, but a good rule to follow is: once you pick a name, stick with it. This is probably one of the reasons why automakers lean toward alphanumeric monikers.

badgeName changing is exactly what VW did for 2015. What was once the Jetta SportWagen is now the Golf SportWagen. Bad move? In this case, probably not. First, for VW, moving the wagon over to the Golf side should add more sales numbers to that marque. Currently, the Jetta nameplate outsells Golf three to one. Second, since the Golf family has such a diversified lineup (R, GTI, hatchback, four-door, and electric), adding a wagon only can increase appeal. And Jetta owners are loyal to VW, so to get the wagon back, they probably won’t care what the badge says on it, as long as the vehicle delivers the goods.

And that’s just what the VW Golf SportWagen does. It’s a fun alternative to the overhyped crossover vehicles running rampant down our highways. We grew up with wagons, and are partial to them, with or without fake wood paneling on the side. Even if it doesn’t have a rear-facing jump seat like the Country Squires of old, it does offer great fuel economy, impressive cargo volume, and European handling characteristics.

Engine 1The Golf SportWagen is available in two flavors: a 1.8-liter turbocharged, direct-injected four-cylinder gas engine (TSI), or a 2.0-liter turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder diesel (TDI). Both are offered in three trim levels: S, SE, SEL. The TSI produces 170 horsepower at 4,500 rpm, with 199 lb-ft of torque at a low 1,600 rpm with the six-speed automatic (184 with the five-speed manual). The TDI has a little less horsepower: 150 at 3,500 rpm, but a lot more torque at 236 lb-ft at 1,750 rpm. The TDI is offered with a choice of the six-speed manual transmission or the DSG dual-clutch automatic. The diesel is rated at an EPA estimated 31-mpg city, 43-mpg highway for fuel economy, while the TSI sees 25/36 with the manual transmission, and one less mpg on the highway with the automatic.

Badge 1Both engines provided more than enough power to move the wagon around with two people. At a later date, we’ll give it a go with cargo and five passengers total. Driving the manual diesel first, we noted that it hits the 5,000-rpm redline quickly, but also has tall gearing, making it a lot more fun on the highway because it’s not shifting so often. The best feature of the diesel besides good fuel economy is its quiet operation. Those who fondly remember diesels from the past (or maybe not so fondly) recall the cacophonous operation as it moved down the road. That, and the lovely black belching from the tailpipe. Today’s diesels, and especially Volkswagen diesels, are so advanced that owning a diesel-powered vehicle is no longer a hassle. The new EA288 turbodiesel in the Golf SportWagen features advanced technologies like camshafts that are integrated into a separated housing by a thermal joining process to ensure rigidity and low weight. Plus each cam operates one intake and one exhaust valve per cylinder (instead of the usual one camshaft for intake valves and the other for exhaust) to provide greater air delivery and swirl for refined combustion. As much as we liked the diesel, the TSI was no slouch, either. The extra horsepower was noticeable, and we didn’t bump the redline as often as in the TDI model.

Because this is now a Golf instead of a Jetta, it gets the benefit of VW’s MBQ chassis architecture, which underpins all new Golf models now. It’s an advanced unibody with high-tech engineering features designed to provide both solidity and weight savings. It’s a great platform that serves the Golf line well, and makes sense when you’re building everything from wagons to electric vehicles on the same underpinnings.

golf_front_suspension_4171Part of the fun of these vehicles is the suspension. Although it’s built in Puebla, Mexico, the SportWagen feels quite German in its handling. All models feature a front strut-type suspension and stabilizer bars, but differ in the back: the TSI gets a multilink setup with coil springs and a stabilizer bar, while the TDI uses a compact torsion beam with coil springs. Both also get VW’s XDS cross-differential system that came from the performance-oriented GTI model. It’s basically torque-vectoring that delivers improved handling around corners. When we pushed the cars on the few sweeping corners we encountered during our drive in the Hill Country around Austin, Texas, the SportWagen remained composed and predictable, while the electric power steering providing good feedback.