Expert Reviews

Road Trip: 2015 Volkswagen Golf Sportwagon TDI

Article and photos by Brendan McAleer. Additional photos by Haney Louka.

A young family with lots of stuff. A long interstate with little to see. A need to cover ground without burning a hole in your pocket. Perfect turbodiesel work – or so you'd think.

While rear seat space was again more kid-oriented than adult-friendly, as a car for a younger family, things seemed perfect.

This is the updated Volkswagen Golf Sportwagon, a lengthened version of the happy little MQB-platform Golf. From the rear seat forward, it's exactly the same as VW's best-selling (in Europe, anyway) compact car, and provides solid handling and a range of interesting engines.

From the seatback’s back, it's a wagon, and that means more room for stuff. With two kids under three and a week away in Portland planned, our family would be testing that capacity to something approaching its limit.

However, the Sportwagon was more than equal to the task in this regard. Because of the requirements of pickup point and timing, we actually ended up unloading a Tiguan into the little silver wagon, with some surprising results. While bigger and heftier feeling than any Golf, the Tiguan's carrying capacity just quailed in the presence of the wagon's cavernous trunk. While the rear seats of the Golf variant weren't huge, and though they accommodated a brace of car seats with ease, the rear space was nearly a third more than VW's crossover, increasing even more with the flip and fold cover for the spare tire well.

VW states the Sportwagon's capacity at 860 L, but as we shall soon see, VW says a lot of things. Still, absorbing a Bob stroller, bassinet, clothes and diapers and a couple of empty growlers – we are on the way to Portland – was no issue for the Sportwagon. While rear seat space was again more kid-oriented than adult-friendly, as a car for a younger family, things seemed perfect.

Cooking with gas(oline): Test Drive: 2015 Volkswagen Golf Sportwagon

It was a wet start, with a border to cross and several cities’ worth of rush hour to face. The Vee-Dub's 2.0L turbodiesel whistled up to speed without complaint, and then settled into a contented grumble, no more intrusive in the cabin than a gasoline engine would be. On the highway, the six-speed DSG slotted quickly into highest gear, happy to mine the TDI's 236 lb-ft of torque. If a pass was required to get past a wandering semi-trailer, the 150-hp rating didn't tell the story so much as the turbodiesel's excellent low-end response.

Taken all together, the powertrain and capacity made for the ideal road trip car, in theory. The seats were thickly bolstered, yet comfortable. The panoramic moonroof lit up the somewhat dour cabin on a grey and overcast day. Ride quality from the 16-inch alloys was perfectly acceptable, and road noise was very controlled. Everything seemed fine.

However, there were a few issues to be sorted through, mostly involving VW's infotainment system. While a mild improvement over the previous model's screen, the current system still features those annoying proprietary cables rather than just a USB connector (meaning that only one of our phones could be connected), and the screen is a little on the small side. VW gets around this with touchscreen ‘buttons’ that sense when your hand is close and then disappear for more full-screen operation, but the size and resolution isn't Audi-lite, and it really should be.

Further, the navigation system came with a few hilarious quirks of its own. Often, directions would be given extremely far in advance; fine on the highway, a bit confusing once we reached Portland's grid of one-way streets. There was also a tendency to issue strange commands (“turn half-left” was a favourite instruction), and the occasional unnecessarily lengthy route was plotted.

Still, we passed through Seattle's long tail-backs without issue, sticking to the high-occupancy vehicle lanes and making decent time. A stop in Olympia for a quick bite and bathroom break proved the Sportwagon as easy to park as its shorter Golf stablemates, with squared-off lines and easy viewing out the back. Compared to the high beltlines and curving over-styling of some SUVs, it's a far easier city experience, the kind to make you wonder why more car companies don't build wagons.

While it takes a good deal longer than the five to six hours that Google maps would suggest, our convoy finally rolls into Portland around nine pm with both kids fast asleep in the back. We find our hotel, unload the car, and send it off to the parkade.

Job done, and done pretty well. Add in the week's worth of driving around the city between parks and playgrounds, the waterfront and the science museum, and the TDI will still managed an impressive 5.5 L/100 km, actually even better than its stated 5.6 L/100 km highway mileage. That's better than excellent, especially considering the interstate's combination of higher speed mixed with clots of traffic in Seattle, Everett and Tacoma.

As a result, it's an easy recommend, with a few caveats. The clunky infotainment is one, but it's maybe not a deal-breaker. A bigger worry is the ownership cycle outside of warranty – traditionally, VW parts are expensive and electrical failures are far from unknown. The TDI versions usually soldier on, but things like windows and power seats and the like can go.

Maintenance, too, isn't cheap. Owning a diesel VW can be costly once the mileage gets very high, so it's not likely the fuel savings will pay for themselves unless you're turning the car over every five or six years. The real value in the TDI models is both the easy driving experience, and the rock-solid resale. Compared to the old 2.5L model (now replaced by a 1.8L turbocharged gasoline engine), the TDI variant was often worth $5-6K more in the used marketplace, far above its initial premium.

But wait, there's more: and it's not good news. With the revelation that their emissions controls had basically been gaming the system, and that NOx levels specifically were far above allowable levels, VW has absolutely decimated the reputation of their TDI brand. It's not too early to tell that the fallout from this scandal will be huge; fines, sure, but worse is the damage to the company's reputation.

And never mind the company, what about the owners? Having experienced this TDI over a week's worth of driving, I was pleased with its performance. The thrift was one thing, but it also felt good to be limiting consumption of a fossil fuel, given the two young ones along for the ride. I wasn't just saving pennies for their education, but theoretically keeping their world a little cleaner too.

Except, of course, that's not the case at all. So, what do you do if you have a TDI currently? Well, don't rush to dump it as the current climate is going to be punishing. Further, don't accept the first fix that comes along, as it's likely to increase fuel consumption, perhaps significantly. Be sure to take a look at one of the class-action lawsuits filed by owners, but remember that often it's only the lawyers who win in cases like these.

VW's ‘dieselgate’ and revelations that other brands have similar, though not as severe, emissions issues will hurt all diesel passenger cars for the next little while, and will certainly see the company struggling further in North America. It's a shame, as the niche vehicle they served up seemed so excellent; turns out, it was smoke and mirrors.

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

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