The VW Golf SportWagen: A car for the smart individualist

From the front, it feels just like the Golf hatchback. Down the back, it picks up the dimensions of a full-size station wagon. Inside, I could view the big sky of Texas through the panoramic sunroof. It's the 2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen, boasting comfortable and mostly quiet driving dynamics, loads of cargo space and efficient diesel and gasoline engines.

To experience the new Golf SportWagen, a favorite of iconoclasts throughout the US and a typical family hauler in Europe, Volkswagen brought me to Austin, Texas -- one of America's more individualistic cities. It's a mystery to me why the wagon is not more popular in the US, but Volkswagen's own research found many folks here are scarred by memories of sitting in the rear jump seats of a classic 1970s station wagon, a la National Lampoon's Vacation. That's a bad thing?

2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen
The new SportWagen looks more like a full-size wagon and less like a compact. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

As evidence of the Golf SportWagen's unique demographic, Michael Klopotowski, Volkswagen's product planner for the Golf family, told me that 80 percent of buyers of the previous generation opted for the TDI version with its diesel drivetrain, while 30 percent got the manual transmission -- numbers that don't jibe at all with automotive buying trends in the US.

This new Golf SportWagen comes out as a complete tires-to-roof rails update of what Volkswagen used to call the Jetta SportWagen in the US. Based on the Golf hatchback, which saw a major update last year, the new Golf SportWagen stretches more than 12 inches longer than its hatchback originator, while its roof rises over an inch higher.

That means an impressive cargo area of 30.4 cubic feet, increased to 66.5 cubic feet if you fold the rear seats down. On my rough estimate, you could fit 25 French Bulldogs in the cargo area, and still carry passengers in the back seat. Or consider a run to Costco, where you could stuff 29 48-roll packs of 3-ply toilet paper into the Golf SportWagen's full cargo area, with the rear seats down. That's a lot of toilet paper.

However, more size means more weight, and the Golf SportWagen carries an extra 120 pounds over its hatchback sibling while retaining the same drivetrain options.

2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen
The cargo area in the Golf SportWagen is impressive, rated at 30.4 cubic feet with the rear seat up. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Diesel or gasoline?

I spent time with both the TSI and TDI versions, each using the same drivetrains as the Golf TSI and Golf TDI . For the former, that means a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine using direct injection and a turbocharger to achieve 170 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque. The TDI engine is a 2-liter four-cylinder diesel, also with a turbocharger, producing 150 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque.

If you weren't paying close attention, you could be forgiven for not knowing if you were driving the gasoline or diesel Golf SportWagen, as Volkswagen does a phenomenal job of damping the noise from the diesel engine and making the driving character between the two similar. However, you would certainly see the difference in fuel economy, as the TSI scores a respectable EPA rating of 25 mpg city and 35 mpg highway that gets blown away by the TDI's 31 mpg city and 42 mpg highway.

Those numbers reflect the available six-speed automated manual transmission, Volkswagen's DSG. Add 1 mpg to the highway number for the six-speed manual transmission.

For those who want to try biodiesel in the Golf SportWagen TDI, Volkswagen only supports B5, a mix of 5 percent biodiesel with fossil fuel diesel. As Indiana regulates a standard for B20, Volkswagen supports use of that biodiesel mix within the state. A Volkswagen spokesperson told me that use of greater amounts of biodiesel would not void the car's warranty. However, if the injectors become fouled due to poorly refined biodiesel, you might get stuck with the repair bill.

From the driver's seat, the Golf SportWagen felt much like its hatchback sibling. The steering wheel offered the same tight response and linear electric boost. Getting onto some twisty roads in the hill country outside Austin, I began to feel the extra length of the SportWagen. There was just more car behind me to maneuver around the turns.

But the 'sport' part of the car's name refers more to the activities you might do once you reach a destination, not to any sports car characteristics. Both engine options focus on economy more than power.

Driving the Golf SportWagen TSI, I passed an older Lexus on a two-laner and it was anything but quick. The gas pedal pressed to the floor, the Golf SportWagen slowly drifted past the Lexus, and I was very happy no oncoming traffic turned up. The 1.8-liter engine is perfectly adequate to get around town and deal with the daily commute, but load the car up for a vacation and you'll want to stay in the slow lane when climbing mountain highways.

In the Golf SportWagen TDI, I could feel its higher torque work on the front wheels, and the frequent shifts from the DSG transmission. This one felt like a better choice for taking advantage of all that cargo space. I was, however, amused at the engine's deadly growl and the bit of chirp from the front tires when taking off from a stop at just half throttle. No amount of damping could hide the TDI clatter when the revs climbed towards the 5,000 rpm redline.

The fuel savings from the TDI are a nice perk, but you will need to refill the AdBlue tank every 10,000 miles. The car's emissions system uses AdBlue, also called Diesel Emission Fluid, to break down the nitrous oxide from the engine's exhaust. It's an easy process and covered by Volkswagen's initial free maintenance period, but something to keep on your calendar.

2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen
The AdBlue filler sits right next to the diesel filler, making it easy for owners to replenish the exhaust cleaning fluid. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

As for that DSG, I would recommend it over the manual transmission if you really want to get good fuel economy. The manual transmission may rate higher in EPA testing, but in daily driving most people are likely to leave it in a lower gear for too long, not upshifting at the precise point for optimum fuel economy. The DSG will do that for you, and it also offers a manual shift mode with hard and quick gear changes.

S, SE or SEL?

That panoramic sunroof stretching from front to back seats, opening the cabin to the big Texas sky, comes standard at the middle SE and top SEL trim level on the Golf SportWagen. Volkswagen wraps up most of the extras in the model's three trim levels. The bottom trim, S, comes with a 5.8-inch touchscreen for audio and Bluetooth hands-free phone, and keyless entry. The SE trim adds the big sunroof and a Fender audio system. You will need to move up to the SEL trim to get the navigation head unit, which is not offered as an option at the lower trims.

2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen
The panoramic sunroof, standard with the SE or SEL trim, stretches from front to rear seats. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

With a mere 160 miles of wheel time split between myself and another journalist, I could delve deeply into the navigation system. From what I saw, the maps were easy to read and showed traffic flow and incidents. The screen proved responsive to touch commands, and even offered a little gesture sensitivity, the destination menu bar popping up when I moved my hand near. There was no option for online destination search built into the navigation interface, although the Golf SportWagen comes with Volkswagen's Car-Net telematics service, which lets you look up destinations on a mobile app and transfer to the car.

I've been very impressed with the Fender audio system in other Volkswagen models, and consider it one of the best low-priced premium audio systems available in a car. That comes standard in the SE and SEL trim levels.

For audio sources, the Golf SportWagen comes with a CD player, satellite radio and Bluetooth audio streaming, but there are no USB ports. Instead, you have to use Volkswagen's proprietary connector, which supports cable adapters for USB and both Lightning and 30-pin iOS.

The base 2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen S, with the 1.8-liter gasoline engine, goes for $21,395 in the US, £18,525 in the UK where it is called the Golf Estate, and AU$25,540 in Australia, but the prices climb rapidly when you go up the trim levels or switch to the TDI diesel engine. The 2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen TDI S, with the diesel engine jumps to $24,595. In either version, the DSG automated manual transmission adds $1,100 to the price.

The gasoline SE model goes for a healthy $26,995, bringing in the DSG, Fender audio and the panoramic roof. The TDI in SE goes for $27,995. If you want navigation you will need the SEL version, $29,345 for the gasoline engine or $30,345 for the TDI.

Wait for the next one

Being a wagon fan, I like the 2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen. Along with loads of cargo space, it drives much more nimbly than your average SUV or crossover. Sure, the available engines don't make a lot of power, but the excellent fuel economy seems a worthwhile trade-off, especially if you've a mind to take road trips.

However, there are a couple of good reasons to wait for the 2016 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen, which should become available this Fall. Klopotowski told me that Volkswagen will fit the car with a new head unit supporting Apple CarPlay , Android Auto and MirrorLink. And if you take a lot of road trips, you will want to consider the driver assistance package for that next model year SportWagen, as it will feature adaptive cruise control.

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