It’s no easy thing picking yourself up off the mat after getting sucker punched . . . Or getting almost diesel mileage out of a gas engine.
But, VW’s trying.
The just updated 2019 Golf Sportwagen won’t be available with a 50 MPG-capable TDI diesel — which you can no longer get in any new VW because of the fallout from the emissions “cheating” scandal.
It does, however, come standard with a new 1.4-liter engine that will probably manage 40 MPG on the highway.
That’s about 6-7 MPG better than the 1.8 liters (gas) engine that was last year’s standard — and only available — Sportwagen engine.
And VW hasn’t ditched the 1.8-liter engine; it’s still available optionally for people who prefer a bit more power — and don’t object to a bit less gas mileage.
The new 1.4-liter engine also comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission — an upgrade over the five-speed manual that came standard in last year’s base Sportwagen with the 1.8-liter engine.
Even better, these two upgrades — the new engine and the new transmission — only add $210 to the 2019 Sportwagen’s base price vs. last year.
And the wealth of room this alternative to crossover SUVs gives you?
That’s also included, no extra charge.
WHAT IT IS
The Sportwagen is a wagonized version of VW’s compact-sized Golf hatchback. It’s for the person who would like the cargo space and versatility of a small crossover SUV . . . But who doesn’t want to own a crossover SUV?
The Sportwagen has more cargo space than many compact-sized crossovers, including VW’s own Tiguan — which maxes out at 56.1 cubic feet vs. 66.5 cubic feet for the SW.
And you can get the Sportwagen with a manual transmission in any trim — and with either engine and with (or without) all-wheel-drive. That’s several things you will have trouble finding in a crossover SUV — compact-sized or otherwise.
It also comes with a lower price tag than you’ll find affixed to most small crossovers — $21,895 for the base S trim with the new 1.4-liter engine, six-speed manual transmission, and front-wheel-drive.
An eight-speed automatic (also new) can be selected instead of the six-speed manual, bumping the MSRP of the S trim to $22,995.
For reference, the front-wheel-drive’s Tiguan’s base price is $24,595.
Sportwagens with the optional 4Motion all-wheel-drive system come with the larger 1.8-liter engine that was standard equipment in all Sportwagens last year; it’s more powerful (168 hp) but doesn’t get 40 MPG.
It is available with a six-speed manual transmission, too — something you can’t get in a Tiguan at any price.
And a Sportwagen with the 1.8 engine, the six-speed manual transmission, and 4Motion all-wheel-drive still costs $200 less than an FWD/automatic-only Tiguan . . .
A six-speed automated manual is available optionally; so equipped, the Sportwagen’s price climbs to $25,495 — but that’s still $100 less than an FWD Tiggy.
A top of the line SE trim with the 1.8-liter engine, 4Motion and the automated manual transmission stickers for $29,995.
In addition to almost getting 40 MPG without a diesel engine, the 2019 Sportwagen is available with a Driver Assistance package that bundles Automated Emergency Braking with Forward Collision Warning, Pedestrian and Blind Spot Monitoring and Rear Traffic Alert.
SE trims can be ordered with Adaptive Lighting and Lane Keep Assist.
The previously available SEL trim has been discontinued.
New 1.4 liter engine almost makes up for the loss of the VW’s brilliant TDI diesel engine.
Crossover cargo room without the crossover.
Both of the Sportwagen’s available engines are still available with manual transmissions — and they’re both six-speeds now.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
No 50 MPG-capable diesel engine — over infinitesimal variations in exhaust emissions of no concern to the environment or public health.
AWD isn’t available with the new 1.4-liter engine.
The more powerful 1.8-liter engine is now only available with AWD.
UNDER THE HOOD
VW used to be the only company that sold a whole line of affordable diesel-powered cars.
Almost every model they made — the Beetle, Golf, Jetta, Passat, and Touareg — was available with a turbo-diesel engine and some of these could deliver mileage as good as any hybrid while costing less than a hybrid.
But now the diesels are gone — taken off the market for “cheating” Uncle’s emissions certification tests.
The cars’ actual emissions were “cleaner” than those of cars made in the early 2000s and only fractionally less “clean” than the near-zero-emissions standards of today — and so weren’t a big deal as far as air quality or health. But it was a very big deal to affront the Authority of Uncle — and for that, VW was almost driven into bankruptcy.
And of course, the diesels have been blackballed, probably for good.
But without its diesels, VW has lost a major selling point — almost hybrid mileage — and VW still has to meet Uncle’s MPG mandates.
The Sportwagen’s new 1.4-liter engine has been put under the hood to try to deal with that dilemma. It’s not a diesel, of course — but its mileage is within 8-10 MPG of what the force-retired TDI engine was capable of delivering.
Official numbers weren’t available when this review was written in mid-October, but the same 1.4-liter engine in the 2019 Jetta rates 30 city, 40 highway.
That is at least decently close to the formerly available TDI engine’s 31 city, 46 highway. And the 1.4 engine burns regular unleaded — cheaper than ultra-low sulfur diesel. No need to top off a DEF tank or deal with a particulate trap, either.
The 1.4-liter engine also makes almost as much torque as the larger (and still available) 1.8-liter engine: 184 ft.-lbs vs. 199 ft.-lbs.
Both of these engines also make that torque at a very diesel-like 1,600 RPM.
It’s not quite as much torque as the TDI diesel engine produced — 236 ft.-lbs. — but the gas engine does make its peak torque lower in the powerband (1,600 RPM vs. 1,750 RPM for the diesel) which means it’s available sooner.
And the horsepower made by the 1.4-liter engine is dead heat: 147 vs. 150 for the old TDI.
You can go with the standard six-speed manual or select the optional eight-speed automatic, both of which have leverage advantages over last year’s standard five-speed manual and six-speed automatic.
However, you can’t get the optional 4Motion all-wheel-drive system with the 1.4-liter engine. Whether you go manual or automatic, you’ve got to go front-wheel-drive.
On the upside, the 1.4-liter engine is available in both the standard S and the higher-line SE trim, which comes with upgraded amenities such as a larger/nicer 8-inch touchscreen.
On the downside, the more powerful 1.8-liter engine (168 hp) that was standard and could previously be purchased in FWD versions of the Sportwagen now comes paired only with the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system.
Put another way, if you want more power — and more performance — you have to pay more now.
This, incidentally, isn’t VW price gouging you. It’s VW coping with necessity.
You see, the more powerful 1.8-liter engine isn’t almost-diesel efficient. Its lower MPG numbers make it a liability for VW as far as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regs are concerned. Even with FWD (as was available last year) the best it managed was 25 city, 34 highway.
Those numbers drag down VW’s overall corporate numbers.
The “solution” — in quotes to emphasize the perverse things car companies are forced to do to meet Uncle’s demands — is to sell fewer Sportwagens with the 1.8-liter engine by making them more expensive.
The 1.4-liter engine is intended to be the 2019 Sportwagen’s volume engine.
The 1.8-liter engine is still available for those who really want the power uptick and are willing to pay extra for it. But that’s Uncle’s way of punishing those buyers for not agreeing with him that a car’s fuel efficiency is its most important attribute.
A six-speed manual is however still standard with the 1.8 liter engine/4Motion combo — or you can opt for the available six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) automated manual. It’s a more performance-oriented type of automatic than the eight-speed used with the 1.4-liter engine, designed to bang off extremely quick shifts whereas the new eight-speed automatic that comes with the 1.4 engine has multiple overdrive gears and is designed to maximize the efficiency potential of the smaller engine.
ON THE ROAD
The new 1.4 engine — like many of the new turbocharged small displacement gas engines — is almost-diesel torquey. It pulls with the strength of a Clydesdale — even though it’s the size of a pony.
Get it with the manual transmission, though, if you want the most fun out of the thing. The six-speed has tighter gear spacing than the new optional eight-speed automatic, for one thing — and for another thing, it is not programmed to upshift into its overdrive gearing as quickly as possible, to maximize mileage.
The eight-speed automatic is.
The six-speed manual is “programmed” by you.
It’s also easy and pleasant to drive. Some cars with manuals can be a chore to drive in traffic, not so much because of heavy clutches (that’s been done away with via hydraulically assisted clutches, which all late model cars with manuals now have) but because of abrupt clutches. They are either engaged — or not — and can be difficult to drive smoothly.
Which gets tiring in traffic.
No issue of that kind here.
There’s enough torque on tap to squeal the front tires, too — which is something you won’t be able to do if you choose the larger/stronger 1.8 engine because of its power courses through all four wheels.
The manual is still the more fun transmission, but the optional DSG transmission is the one you want for best performance. Automated manuals are race car technology, designed to shift faster and more precisely than even race car drivers can consistently.
Not even race drivers get it right every time. Automated manuals do.
Regardless of the box — manual or automatic — the Sportwagen itself is more fun than the crossovers it’s a practical alternative to — and not just because it’s available with a manual transmission.
Because it is a sport wagon.
Which means it’s low to the ground rather than jacked-up high. That means its center of gravity is lower to the ground, and that means better high-speed handling and superior stability. Crossovers have lots of air rushing underneath — and their mass is higher riding — which makes them inherently less balanced and stable.
They are better in snow, no doubt. The Sportwagen’s 5.4 inches of ground clearance is two inches less than most crossovers have. But then, the Sportwagen isn’t meant for snow days.
It’s meant for fun days — every day.
AT THE CURB
The Sportwagen isn’t much bigger than the Golf hatchback it’s based on — but it has almost three times the cargo capacity: 66.5 cubic feet vs. 22.8 cubic feet.
It also has more room for cargo than the Tiguan, VW’s compact crossover SUV — which is bigger than the Sportwagen.
And not just with its back seats folded flat, either.
The Tiggy maxes out at 56.1 cubic feet with its second row down and has only 12 cubic feet with the second row up — vs. 30.4 cubic feet behind the Sportwagen’s back seats.
Put another way, the Sportwagen is more practical than the Tiggy, which has very little room for cargo when it is carrying more than one passenger.
Well, unless it snows.
Here the Tiggy — and other crossovers — have the advantage because they’ve got much more ground clearance. Almost eight inches in the Tiggy’s case — which makes it a good snow-day vehicle even if it is a less fun vehicle on other days.
And even if it’ not great in the snow because of its in-the-weeds stance, it’s easier to load stuff in the back for precisely that reason. The cargo floor is 24.8 inches off the pavement; the cargo floors of most crossovers are several inches higher up.
Another Sportwagen plus is plenty of headroom — in both rows — a trait it shares with the Golf and crossover SUVs.
The Sportwagen has a bit more headroom than the Golf, surprising given its visually sleeker-looking profile. You get 38.6 inches in front and back; in the Golf, you get 38.4 inches up front and 38.1 inches in the back.
There is a bit less backseat legroom in the VW than in some compact crossovers (including the Tiguan), but the difference is slight — 35.6 inches vs. 36.5 inches vs. the Tiggy — and as it turns out, the Sportwagen’s got more legroom up front: 41.2 inches vs. 40.2 inches.
The new 1.4-liter engine comes standard with an awesome auto-stop/start system like those almost new cars also have — which means the engine shuts itself off every time the vehicle stops, then automatically restarts when the driver takes his foot off the brake pedal. This is supposed to save gas and may — a little bit.
But it also makes the starter battery work harder (re-starting the engine a dozen times every day instead of just twice or so each day) and that will probably mean replacing it sooner, which may mean spending more money on the overall net.
The Sportwagen also has some pleasantly anachronistic features — including a manual (pull-up) emergency brake lever and (in S trims) a physical ignition key.
A large and growing number of new cars have an electrically-activated parking brake. It frees up space on the center console to get rid of the manual pull-up emergency brake lever, but you lose the ability to stop the car in a controlled manner in an emergency if the main brakes (or the electrical system) fail. Also, the pull-up emergency brake is mechanical and simpler than an electrically-activated parking brake. If it ever breaks, it will probably be easier and cost less to fix.
Same goes for the VW’s standard old-school ignition key. You will never have to worry about not being able to start the car because the battery in the fob died or the circuitry in the fob fritzed. Physical keys are also easier to make cheap copies.
Keyless ignition fobs often aren’t.
If you prefer to push a button, VW lets you do that, too. Keyless ignition is available optionally.
VW may or may not offer the full LCD gauge cluster it’s putting into other ’19s, including the Passat and Jetta. Given that the Sportwagen is supposed to be the sensible wagon, they may not.
It also explains the sensible standard 15-inch wheels. Upgrade, if you like — but you’re not forced to ride around on harsh-riding, short-sidewall tires that make more noise, don’t last as long and cost more to replace.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A 50 MPG-capable diesel would have made this car almost irresistible. But it’s still a very appealing package, even without it.
Got a question about cars — or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!
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The Eric Peters Car Review is sponsored by the NMA Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation. The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions.