Mountain Wheels: VW’s Outback alternatives blossom with SportWagen
2016 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen TSI S
Powertrain: 170-HP 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder; five-speed manual transmission
EPA figures: 29 MPG combined; 25 city, 36 highway
So it may once again be safe to even mention the Volkswagen brand again in conversations about automobile purchases — things were pretty dicey there with the diesel issue, but a huge and relatively quickly-negotiated solution for owners has smoothed things out a bit. I am not a Volkswagen diesel owner myself, however, so I will not venture to put words in your mouths.
In the interest of fairness, let’s instead concentrate on one of the more unusual members of the VW lineup, one I had great hope for a few years back — even including it in a glossy magazine profile about how it was going to offer some Subaru Outback-worthy competition, with the added space and utility mountain folks love so much.
It turns out that the VW Golf SportWagen is not exactly the Outback alternative I’d imagined it would be. Working off of the proven and popular Golf platform, the SportWagen is an elongated and wagon-ized machine that offers an impressive 66.5 cubic feet of storage, when the rear seats are folded flat.
It’s the new variation of what used to be the Jetta SportWagen, a nice option for those rare but steadfast American drivers who appreciate the commodious, still car-based capacity offered by a wagon, the ones who are not still in therapy regarding the years they spent growing up in the back of their parents’ monstrous American station wagons.
I would have gone on at length last year about SportWagen’s diesel option but let’s skip that for a moment and revel in the actually-uphill-travel-worthy 1.8-liter four-cylinder turbocharged gasoline engine, with 170 horsepower and 199 lb.-ft. of torque.
My tremendously affordable SportWagen – just $22,445 – was outfitted with a five-speed manual transmission and without fail, the car was able to harness that torque in ways that I found absolutely wonderful, especially compared to the litany of 1.5- and 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines now populating the automotive world. With little effort, it’s also capable of exceeding its 36 MPG highway rating; again, no diesel, just a lot of almost diesel-styled boost.
Handling also felt like a slightly unglued version of the Golf, though in the wagon tradition, you get the core sportiness of the car mixed with the additional capacity. Thin tires on 15-inch rims also contributed to some rumble and buckling on grooved concrete.
Austerity is also the name of the game in that price range, though the add-ons, including a non-navigation-equipped 6.5-inch touchscreen and an eight-speaker audio system, do add a little flair: Inside and out, it’s truly one of the most basic and adornment-light automobiles out there. The low cost also tended to amplify a few annoyances, such as a cheapo spare tire that rattled around like an anvil in a dryer under the rear deck, and a rear door lock that loudly relocked itself every time the car was put in reverse.
Versatility is indeed centered around that large rear storage area, complete with a multi-adaptable floor panel system. For about $25,000, there’s also a Limited model of the SportWagen that does step things up with 17-inch wheels, a panoramic sunroof, leatherette seating and heated front seats.
Back to the Outback comparison. While the Golf SportWagen is not quite there, though it does mix affordability, additional room and a charming peculiarity into the equation, Outback’s real competition comes in the form of the SportWagen’s Alltrack version — which is finally going to appear in the U.S. this fall, we believe.
Much like the Outback, Alltrack adds an all-wheel drive system (VW’s 4MOTION setup, using a Haldex system), new body cladding and an inch of additional ground clearance. Alltrack is otherwise very similar to the SportWagen — same engine, but with a six-speed manual as a late-arrival option to supplement the six-speed automatic. Interiors will also be more upscale, with leatherette seating, unique badging and the 6.5-inch touchscreen as a standard issue item.
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