The Volkswagen Golf SportWagen Can Make America Tailgate Again

But first, the wagon must overcome a challenge—and it's yuuuge.

Volkswagen Golf Review
Volkswagen

Prolechariot is a series about vehicular value. It's about slapping your needs and wants on a wall, grabbing a fistful of darts, cocking your arm back and trying to strike as many of your targets as possible. In other words, it’s about making the second-largest purchase decision most Americans face, and making it right. Prolechariots are cars for the rest of us, and Jonathan Schultz is driving them. Up this week: the 2016 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen S.

Check your wallet, America. Is there $34,264 in there? Hey, congrats! That will buy five mint first-edition copies of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, 3,269 packages of Volkswagen-brand currywurst (in-market), 2,676 carbon offset credits, or a new car at the nationwide average price. Even after purchasing a 2016 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen S, you’d still have $11,800 to stuff in your bedazzled Euro fanny pack.

On second thought, let’s make it 1,050 packages of currywurst, a Weber Smoky Joe, 75 fifteen-pound bags of charcoal briquettes, and a SportWagen to haul it all in: We’re making America ‘gate again.

Indeed, Prolechariot has a station wagon on its hands, and it’s not some woebegone family truckster. It’s the Golf SportWagen, successor to the vaunted Jetta SportWagen that was rebranded in 2015 because change—as VW execs and owners have bitterly learned—is life’s only constant.

Given the crossover craze and Volkswagen’s pariah status among persons endowed with consciences,Prolechariot has zero delusions about this car's sales prospects. VW doesn’t seem to, either, having moved just 1,122 units in the U.S. in July. Those 1,122 examples represent a staggering 57 percent drop from sales levels of a year ago. Subaru, meanwhile, sold more Outbacks in three days.

And yet the charms of the Golf SportWagen S are so undeniable, and the financial barrier to entry so low, that a Prolecharian's reference points get scrambled. Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, the Golf SportWagen S may represent the most compelling car in the Prolechariot canon.

Yeah, we just said that. But before you read any further, one question: Can you abide a five-speed stick, in a brand-new car, in the year 2016? If you answered no, click here. If yes, then stick around. The dogs are just starting to sizzle.

Here are the five things you need to know about the 2016 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen S.

1. It’s Oh So Wagon

The cult of SportWagen bundles certain assumptions. One, that you’d rather stick hot camshafts in your eyes than buy a crossover. Two, that you expect Sparky, bless his arthritic, flea-bitten ass, to bound into the back of your car until the day he dies. Three, that you’re impervious to the Mr. Mom jibes you get from your Cherokee-driving friends. (Then again, if you drive a SportWagen, you may not have such friends.)

Prolecharians might’ve inferred that the Golf SportWagen S isn’t what you’d call muscular. The perfunctory styling that mars the Jetta sedan is here, but like the seventh-generation Golf hatchback that underpins it, the SportWagen has at least been crisped and sharpened. Despite its conservativism, our tested SportWagen S—squatting on 15-inch alloys and painted a professorial Tungsten Silver Metallic—will make some Prolecharians’ upper lip areas moisten with desire.

Historically, the cult of SportWagen has been inseparable from that of TDI. Before Dieselgate, TDI models accounted for as much as 81 percent of the SportWagen’s monthly sales mix. Notwithstanding the e-Golf, no VW model is more closely associated with a particular powertrain.

Volkswagen

But that allegiance has since gone up in a cloud of tailpipe soot. As the TDI goeth, whither goeth the SportWagen cult?

2. It Has Its Work Cut Out For It

Tommy, the husband of a former co-worker, bought a Jetta SportWagen TDI two years ago. Volkswagen’s $14.7 billion settlement with U.S. regulators in June made Tommy a winner in the TDI lottery: When he returns the car, he’ll receive $30,000 to put toward a new one—of any make. But can you guess which carmaker made his shit list?

“The quality isn’t where it needs to be for me to trust them, and with the TDI disaster they lost me as a customer,” he says of V-Dub. Granted, his SportWagen’s maladies (sunroof delamination, particulate filter failure) were repaired under warranty, but the acrid taste in Tommy’s mouth is not unique.

Prolechariot’s buddy Wade, who lives with his wife and two girls in Bethel, Maine, drives a Jetta SportWagen TDI, and also has a choice to make. “Everyone up here drives diesels, which is a big reason why we bought this car,” he says. “It just does everything I ask of it, and with all that room out back, I don’t have to slap a box on the roof in the winter.” But Dieselgate sticks in Wade’s craw. “After something like that, how could you support a company? I completely lost faith.”

That was before Wade drove Prolechariot’s Golf SportWagen S.

3. This Car Likes Roads—Any Roads

We’re on a rollicking, freshly paved state route in western Maine, and Wade is grinning. Deep in fourth gear, with the Golf SportWagen S’s 1.8-liter four distantly thrumming at 2,000 rpm, he wants to know why his Jetta isn’t this quiet. “It’s a diesel,” I offer. Wade nods.

But the peace inside the Golf SportWagen S can’t be written down solely to its 170-horsepower TSI gasoline engine. Doors shut with a thwomp. The Golf family’s MQB vehicle architecture was engineered with noise reduction in mind, and upgraded seals and stampings announce themselves by being completely unnoticeable. Wade still recognizes his Jetta in the Golf: the deftly weighted steering, with just a slight degree of wheel play on center; the tight turn radius; the ego-stoking shifter and clutch; the cheekiness.

Turning around for our return to town, Wade asks almost apologetically, “You mind if we try a gravel road?” In western Maine, where unpaved paths deliver hikers and sportsmen deep into glacier-hewn granite notches, this is not the request of a Scandi-flicking hoon, but of a family man with kids to tucker out in the woods. When Wade says his SportWagen does everything asked of it, it includes this.

Prolecharian blessings secured, he turns onto a broad, well-graded gravel road outlining the periphery of Bethel’s public airstrip. In no time we’re in third gear, moving swiftly over the rocks. Flinty mica catches the evening sun; dust billows behind us. Christ, we’re moving fast, I think. And also: I really want to drive this gravel.

We switch seats. On our return trajectory, I kick the rear out. It’s stupid, asinine behavior in a station wagon not named Audi RS4 Avant, and all the more fun for it. The SportWagen is poised throughout the impromptu off-road session, its fully independent suspension and 195-size all-season tires never suggesting we’re doing something beyond their abilities. Even so, the car seems to exhale with relief when it rejoins the tarmac.

Wade likes the Golf SportWagen S. Wade, needless to say, is conflicted.

4. Its 'Faults' Only Make It Win Harder

On New York’s Saw Mill River Parkway, an undulating, speedy stretch that traces the city’s wealthy northern suburbs, the Golf SportWagen S gets stubborn: It simply won’t allow an upshift to sixth. Granted, with the engine humming contentedly at 1,800rpm and speedo displaying 65mph, it doesn’t necessarily need a higher gear, but what carmaker in 2016 would equip a car costing $22,445 with a five-speed manual?

Volkswagen, that’s who.

A Prolecharian’s shift-point instincts require some recalibration. On highway merges, the Golf SportWagen S wants to ride third gear right up to cruising speed. Feel free to skip fourth entirely and go right to fifth—as long as it’s flat and clear ahead. Torque for passing is wholly absent in high gear, requiring a downshift to fourth.

Volkswagen

The payoff for learning this anachronistic cha-cha is significant: 38.5 mpg on a 430-mile tank that saw its share of throttle stabs and stop-start interstate traffic. That’s well off a Jetta SportWagen TDI’s numbers, but far better than most TDI owners would expect from a petrol-burner.

And who but Volkswagen would make the economies of scale pencil for power-adjustable seat backs—but manual controls for the pans? At least for this Prolecharian, however, a comfortable driving position was easier to dial in than in many luxury cars with 12-way power-adjustable perches.

As for that curious mechanical noise accompanying every shift to Reverse, it’s the lift gate’s motorized VW badge swinging upward to reveal the backup camera. Odd, and oddly cool.

5. It Dares You to Love It

Like the Jetta GLI, which Prolechariot enjoyed partly because it wasn’t a Nissan Rogue, the Golf SportWagen S is lovable as much for what it's not as for what it is—and it's not another jacked-up, glorified grocery-getter (though the Golf SportWagen Alltrack is making us feel feelings). It is, however, a wholly capable, wholly rewarding $22,445 hauler that drives as small and spry as a Golf hatchback.

But the SportWagen S demands a gut check unasked by other cars. Wolfsburg's deception cuts deep in this corner of the product portfolio, as the SportWagen’s cratering sales demonstrate. And VW announced just this month that some of its TSI engines will get fitted with particulate filters after tests found their emissions levels higher than advertised. The Golf SportWagen S’s 1.8-liter engine has not been singled out, but The Drive wouldn't blame TDI owners for questioning whether a 38.5 mpg tank, even in a gasoline-burning VW, can be treated at face value.

So, the Golf SportWagen S dares you to love it. To submit is to look past (if not necessarily forgive) its builder’s transgressions. Prolechariot’s heart, hardened by the vicissitudes of 21st-century commerce and unfulfilled desires to flog V12 Lamborghinis, doesn’t soften easily. And yet, while skirting a tributary of the Androscoggin River in the SportWagen, steering wheel cradled loosely and sunlight flickering through the birches, with wife, baby, and mud-flecked hiking boots in their respective places, Prolechariot was put in mind of James Joyce:

His heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Jonathan Schultz/TheDrive.com

2016 VOLKSWAGEN GOLF SPORTWAGEN TSI S

PRICE AS TESTED: $22,445

POWERTRAIN: 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine, 170 hp, 184 lb-ft torque; five-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive
MPG: 25 city / 35 highway
CONDIMENT OF CHOICE: Volkswagen Gewürz Ketchup