In the interest of full disclosure, I should start by confessing that VWs have taken over my garage at home.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should start by confessing that VWs have taken over my garage at home. It started back in 2001, soon after landing this gig as an automotive journalist helped me realize that my brand-new Nissan Sentra wasn’t quite the mini-Maxima I thought it would be. That our first “family car” immediately followed a Nissan 240SX and Mazda MX-6 was painful enough, but one of the first cars I test drove for a review was a Volkswagen Jetta 1.8T. I was so smitten by it that within a year I bought a gently used one from the local dealer.

I know it’s just so auto-journalist of me to be driving a diesel wagon with a manual gearbox, but there it is.

Much has happened since then, including the purchase of a Mazda6 wagon in 2004 to accommodate our second child and the gear and road trips that would follow. We loved that car. When it was time to retire that ride, we replaced it with a 2012 VW Golf Wagon TDI. The ownership experience to date has been nearly flawless, with only scheduled maintenance and one minor warranty repair in the last three-and-a-half years.

I know it’s just so auto-journalist of me to be driving a diesel wagon with a manual gearbox, but there it is.

This summer I spent the week with the new, seventh-generation Golf Sportwagon. Much praise has been heaped on the new Golf: North American Car of the Year, AJAC best new small car over $21K, Motor Trend Car of the Year, and Motoring TV Car of the Year, just to name a few. So my expectations for the wagon to perform were pretty lofty indeed.

Our tester is not an apples-to-apples comparison with our own car, however. Both cars are the Highline trim, but rather than the diesel/manual combo that we have, VW sent us what is sure to be a higher-volume spec: the direct-shift automatic paired with VW’s new 1.8L turbocharged gasser.

VW likes to play with names for this car. While ours is known as the Golf Wagon, the same car was being sold in the US under the name “Jetta Sportwagen”. But this year we’re getting closer to achieving a level of consistency with our brethren to the south; we now know the car as the Golf Sportwagon, they call it the Golf Sportwagen. Tomato, to-mah-to. I’m not really sure of the significance of adding the “sport” to the name, but the car is sportier than most crossovers, so we’ll let it go.

Starting price for the new wagon is $22,495 for the Trendline. Standard kit includes heated front seats, a cargo cover, 15-inch alloys, 5.8-inch touch screen and eight-speaker audio, satellite radio, a 115V power outlet, rear-view camera, Bluetooth connectivity, aluminum trim, independent suspenders all around, and a five-speed manual gearbox.

From one fanboy to another: 34th GTI Treffen at Worthersee

Compared with last year’s Trendline, the new car is about $1,000 cheaper and many of the features noted above were not included or even available on that car.

A $2,200 bump nets the Comfortline, adding such goodies as faux leather for the seats, 16-inch wheels, and fog lights.

The $30,495 Highline tops the model range, adding dual-zone climate control, interior reading and ambient lighting, push-button start, auto-dimming rearview mirror, 12-way power sport seats, real leather for the seats, automatic headlights, panoramic roof, 17-inch alloys, and rain-sensing wipers.

 

The six-speed direct-shift automatic remains as a $1,400 option across the board. A major part of the reason I’m loyal to VW is that (a) they still sell cars with manual gearboxes, and (b) said stick-shifts are available across the range of trim levels. Oh, and they’re great fun to drive. The only anomaly here is the presence of five, rather than six, ratios when the gas engine is specified. Go for the oil-burner, and the six-speed stick comes with.

Our tester was further enhanced with the $2,220 multimedia package, which adds bi-xenon headlights with adaptive lighting, navigation, Fender premium audio, forward collision warning system, and LED daytime running lights. All told, we’re sitting at $34K for this premium compact wagon before destination and taxes are figured in. At this price, it would be nice to see a blind-spot warning system included.

That’s a few bucks, to be sure, but this needs to be looked at in the context of compact crossovers with which the Sportwagon competes. It’s easy to find a loaded Mazda CX-5 or well-equipped Ford Escape with the same (or higher) price tag, so I don’t find the wagon’s pricing structure to be unreasonable. It’s competitive on interior space; to me the fundamental decision buyers need to make is high seating position and all-wheel drive versus driving dynamics and efficiency.

While I would have liked to see this new 1.8T as a spiritual successor to the Jetta 1.8T that I was driving more than a decade ago, this new mill has more noble aspirations: rather than being a sporty, GTI-like option for the wagon, this engine tries to walk the line between sporty and efficient. To that end, the automatic Sportwagon achieves ratings of 9.6 L/100 km in the city and 6.7 on the highway. For the curious, the TDI diesel nets 7.5 and 5.6 respectively.

This new engine is smooth and quiet; way ahead of the 2.5L five-cylinder that it replaces in terms of efficiency and performance. It’s rated at the same 170 hp, and produces only a few more lb-ft of twist at 185. The difference, though, is in torque delivery. The old engine achieved peak torque at 4,250 rpm; this new one gets there at 1,600 revs and holds it right up to 4,200. The result is a flexible powerplant that makes the transmission’s job just that much easier.

VW’s six-speed automatic is a refined unit that makes Mercedes’ newer seven-speed gearbox feel antiquated by comparison. I didn’t use the manual shift mode much, which speaks to the capability of the transmission in automatic mode to be in the right gear at the right time. Mostly I preferred the transmission’s sport mode, holding lower gears longer and being more apt to downshift at the appropriate times. All of this fun comes with a fuel consumption penalty, so choose your shift mode wisely. I saw 10.3 L/100 km after a week of city driving.

Electric power steering replaces the electromechanical unit from last year’s car, to no ill effect. VW’s trademark intuitive steering response has survived intact. Braking feel is improved over the old car, with less sponge in the pedal’s travel.

Of course, with a new generation comes new styling, inside and out. When we were shopping for a new vehicle (cross-shopping the Golf Wagon with compact crossovers), the biggest drawback for the Golf to me was its styling, which borders on frumpy. It’s a little too rounded overall, and with taillights that remind me ever so slightly of a 1984 Ford Tempo (an unfair stretch, I know), a refresh was in order even when that model was new.

The new wagon ticks the right boxes from a styling standpoint. As with other seventh-gen Golfs, the new car is more angular and its taillights are more in line with those of the standard Golf hatchback. The lighting on this loaded tester adds a further does of style with those U-shaped running lights. It’s a little more muscular, a little less bloated, and it’s just what the doctor ordered.

The changes inside have equal impact in terms of modernizing this wagon. The symmetrical look of the old car’s centre stack has been replaced by one that is more of a continuation of the instrument panel and is angled slightly toward the driver. It’s a variation on what I loved about the E46 BMW 3 Series, the fourth-gen Subaru Legacy, and current Kia Optima’s dashboard design, and it’s been pulled off nicely here.

The 5.8-inch touch screen, while nicely integrated, is on the small side for a top-trim car. Trying to cram too much information onto a small screen can be a challenge, and VW has dealt with this by incorporating a proximity sensor to shift the display when a person’s finger gets close. Pretty slick.

Not quite as slick is VW’s new voice-activated user interface. The system is rich in features, especially compared to last year’s phone-only voice commands and overly cartoonish graphics. But the voice interface when trying to dictate navigation destinations or making phone calls seems to take multiple efforts before it recognizes the commands properly. And even then, it’s just monotonous and unpleasant to listen to, with its awkward “what, next?” response to most commands.

Fortunately, VW is introducing their new MIB II infotainment system (incorporating Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration) in several 2016 models and it promises to be a big step forward in this regard.

On the utility side, things haven’t changed much with this new car. My Golf accommodates 930L of cargo with the rear seat up and 1,890L when folded. The new car is slightly trimmer back there with 860 and 1,880L respectively, but overall passenger volume goes up by 50 litres.

As before, the rear seats fold down by going into the rear seat area and releasing the seatbacks from there, but I’m a big fan of the new releases that are located in the cargo area. Now, when you’re in the middle of loading something long into the back, a quick pull of the lever gets that rear seatback down and out of the way. Simple and effective.

That the cargo cover is standard on all models is a refreshing change from the current trend we’re seeing with other manufacturers. I just drove a 2015 Ford Edge Titanium; a $50K vehicle that doesn’t include a cargo cover. Plus, this vee-dub’s cover extends within a track along the sides of the cargo area which makes short work of extending and retracting it quickly.

The seventh-gen Golf is enjoying critical acclaim, and for good reason. I realized through my week with the car that it’s not a revolutionary change from those models that preceded it, but rather an appropriate evolution that makes a great all-around car even better. Competition in the wagon world remains scarce, with only vehicles like the BMW 3 Series Touring and Audi A3 being close in function but decidedly upmarket from the vee-dub. But the ever-growing compact crossover segment continues to satisfy market demands for all-wheel drive, higher seating, and more rugged styling. For the time being, at least, we have a true car option available. Let’s enjoy this while it lasts.

Warranty:
4 years/80,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/80,000 km roadside assistance

Competitors:
BMW 3-Series Touring
Volvo V60

Specifications

Model Tested 2015 Volkswagen Golf Sportwagon   Destination Fee $1,605
Base Price $30,495   Price as Tested $35,720
A/C Tax $100  
Optional Equipment
$3,620 (automatic transmission, $1,400; multimedia package (bi-xenon headlights with adaptive lighting, navigation, premium audio, forward collision warning system, LED daytime running lights), $2,220)