There is nothing in the passenger-car market that can match the 2018 Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen's cargo-hauling value. With a $21,685 starting price -- plus $895 for destination -- the Golf is less expensive than larger, heavier crossovers like the Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5 and even Volkswagen's own Tiguan.
Even if you step down to cheaper subcompact crossovers such as the Ford EcoSport, Hyundai Kona or Nissan Kicks, none of them comes close to the Golf's capaciousness. And then the Sportwagen steps into unicorn territory by wrapping that frugal practicality into a fun-to-drive, well equipped package that's really difficult to pass up.
I'll get to the practicality in a moment, but what makes this car really stand out is how good it is to drive. Just like other Golf variants, the Sportwagen balances ride comfort and driver engagement with admirable skill.
The Golf's 1.8-liter, turbocharged engine has refinement and power delivery that make it one of the best four-cylinders in the segment. Delivering 170 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque through a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission, the Sportwagen accelerates with confidence. So, too, does it scrub off speed; the Sportwagen's stout set of brakes feel super solid.
Hustle it along a twisty section of road and you'll find the Sport in Sportwagen. Its precise steering digs into the curves, and the well tuned suspension limits body roll. At the same time, you can always feel what the road is saying to the chassis, but never in a way that will make your spine protest. Plus, with less weight than a larger crossover -- it's 657 pounds lighter than a Tiguan, for example -- the Sportwagen is, without question, the driver's choice for utility vehicles.
Fold the rear seats and the Golf Sportwagen boasts 66.5 cubic feet of cargo volume. That's downright SUV-intimidating. A Mazda CX-5, for example, only offers 59.6 cubic feet, and the seven-passenger version of the VW Tiguan is just shy at 65.7. (The five-passenger Tiguan, however, offers 73.5 cubic feet.)
Plus, the Sportwagen's lower ride height means it's easier to access that huge cargo hold. If you've ever tried to lift a heavy piece of furniture into the back of an SUV, you know how helpful it is to have a low load-in height.
Sure, you can achieve some of this with a compact hatchback, but none of them can carry as much as the Golf Sportwagen. The base Subaru Impreza is $2,500 cheaper to start, but even its hatchback-class-leading 55.3 cubic feet of space pales in comparison. A Mini Clubman is another option, but not only is it a full class size smaller, it's $3,215 more expensive.
Though other automakers don't offer anything exactly like the Sportwagen, this Golf's biggest competition is actually itself, sort of. The higher-riding, all-wheel-drive Golf Alltrack, interestingly, outsells the Sportwagen three to one, despite having a $4,270 higher price tag. The Alltrack's biggest draw is likely its standard all-wheel drive, but pro tip: the 2018 Sportwagen offers AWD in its base S trim, undercutting the Alltrack's $25,955 base price by $2,020.
For folks who don't want or need all-wheel drive, the Sportwagen offers a healthy fuel economy bump over its Alltrack sibling. With the standard five-speed manual transmission, the Sportwagen can return up to an EPA-estimated 25 miles per gallon in the city and 34 mpg highway. The six-speed automatic gets 24 city and 33 highway mpg. The best the Alltrack can do is 22/30 and larger vehicles like the Tiguan come with an even greater fuel economy penalty: VW's SUV returns just 22/27 city/highway mpg.
The Sportwagen boasts its low price and all its economical advantages while still being eminently well equipped. Unlike many compacts, the Golf comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which runs on a 6.5-inch touchscreen. A larger 8-inch screen, as well as embedded navigation, are optional. Rain-sensing wipers also come standard, but you'll have to shell out extra dough if you want adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, collision-mitigation braking or rear cross-traffic alert. And do yourself a favor and opt for the 400-watt, nine-speaker Fender premium audio system. It's several leagues better than the standard audio and goes farther in making the Golf feel more premium than its price would suggest.
Ideally I'd spec a fully loaded Sportwagen with a manual transmission, but in the US, Volkswagen lets you row your own on the lowest S trim only. The top-of-the-range, $31,140 (including destination) SEL offers a much fancier leatherette interior under a panoramic sunroof along with a 12-way power driver's seat and the 8-inch touchscreen that manages that rockin' Fender audio.
The SEL also bundles the adaptive cruise control, collision-mitigation braking, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert with embedded navigation and dual-zone climate control. That suite of bells and whistles is enough for me to ditch my "Manuel only drives a manual" philosophy and settle for the paddle-shifted, six-speed automatic transmission, which is actually pretty damn good.
The Golf Sportwagen gets you a lot of car for very little money. My tester is equipped with just one option: the $1,100 automatic transmission. Including the $895 destination charge, that amounts to $23,680 out the door. That's an extraordinary value play, offering more interior room and simultaneously costing less than most crossovers.
The cherry on top is that the Golf Sportwagen is genuinely enjoyable to drive. Less expensive and more efficient than its Alltrack counterpart, the regular ol' Sportwagen offers a compelling alternative for people who need to haul on a budget.