Volkswagen should be able to sell more of these vehicles than it does.
The Golf SportWagen TDI — an updated version of the car previously known as the Jetta SportWagen — combines a sporty ride and ample passenger and storage space with a clean-burning, low-maintenance diesel engine that will run forever and generally costs less to fill up than a regular gasoline-fueled car.
Largely ignored by a car-buying public riveted by SUVs and compact crossovers, this old-fashioned station wagon is a throwback to simpler times, when the average soccer mom or dad didn't need to ride high, wide and cushy-soft to feel safe on the road.
Low-slung and sedan-like in its ergonomics, the SportWagen is a practical answer for the family that needs enough storage for groceries or hockey sticks in a car that drives like a coupe. ("Turbo up front," the ads say. "Wagon in the back.")
Over several days of Southern California testing, this 2015 model proved a little stiff and balky around town but quite sublime on the highway.
On the surface streets, with the vehicle unladen, the suspension didn't do much to smooth the bumps out of the road, instead providing plenty of pavement feedback.
Once up to highway speeds, with a few passengers in the car, the ride softened nicely. What felt a little unwieldy between streetlights felt secure and stable in the fast lane. This is a great road-trip ride.
Acceleration is sure and swift — almost too much so, at first: The low-end torque comes on sharp, and a lead-footed driver might leave a little rubber on the road by accident.
The generous storage area in the rear isn't matched by a front seat space. The operator's side is narrow and knee-bumping. The passenger side is tight enough that the glove compartment can't open while the passenger's legs are deployed. And the CD player inside that glove box is so artfully hidden that only a child or very small adult could see it.
As on all Volkswagens, the dash layout is spare and thoughtful. This one is adorned with a small information and entertainment screen that doubled as backup camera.
But the mostly monochrome dash presentation is perhaps too subtle. Although the SportWagen beeps in several different tones to warn of objects too close to the front or sides of the vehicle, only a tiny icon warns that a vehicle is too close to the front of the car on the freeway. A slightly larger one flashes when a collision is imminent.
A much more advanced suite of safety features, and an upgraded infotainment system, will be available on the 2016 SportWagen, which will be in dealerships by the end of this year.
Heated front seats, heated side mirrors, front fog lamps and headlights that follow the steering wheel to illuminate corners as you go around them are standard on the SportWagen TDI. Also standard are keyless ignition, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and leatherette seats front and rear.
And that glove compartment that's otherwise difficult to use? It's cooled.
The non-diesel versions of the SportWagen start at about $22,000. The diesel ones start at about $25,000.