It’s no easy thing getting almost diesel mileage out of a gas engine.
But Volkswagen’s trying.
The just-updated 2019 Golf SportWagen comes standard with a new, fuel-sippy 1.4-liter engine that will probably manage 40 mpg on the highway — just 6 mpg shy of the highway mpg posted by the turbocharged-direct-injection diesel VW used to sell in models like the Golf, New Beetle and Jetta.
And the wealth of interior space this alternative to crossover SUVs gives you?
That’s included, no extra charge.
What It Is
The SportWagen is a wagonized version of VW’s compact-sized Golf hatchback.
Though it’s about the same overall size as a compact crossover SUV, it has significantly more cargo room than many — both behind its second row and with its second row folded flat.
Prices start at $21,895 for the base S trim with the new 1.4-liter engine, 6-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive.
A top-of-the-line SE trim with a larger 1.8-liter engine, 4Motion all-wheel drive and an automated manual transmission stickers for $29,995.
All trims are 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 also be ordered with adaptive lighting and lane-keep assist.
The previously available SEL trim has been discontinued.
The new 1.4-liter engine comes close to delivering the mileage of a diesel engine.
Crossover cargo room… without the crossover .
Both of the SportWagen’s available engines are still available with manual transmissions.
All-wheel drive isn’t available with the new 1.4-liter engine.
The more powerful 1.8-liter engine is only available with all-wheel drive.
Under the Hood
VW had to stop selling its high-mileage diesel engines, so now it’s selling high-mileage gas engines.
The mileage capability of the SportWagen’s newly standard 1.4-liter, 147- horsepower engine isn’t quite as high as that of the turbocharged-direct-injection diesels VW used to offer in most of its cars, but it’s close.
Official numbers weren’t out yet when this review was written, but the same 1.4-liter in the 2019 Jetta rates 30 city and 40 highway.
For more power, the previously standard 1.8-liter (168 horsepower) remains available optionally.
You can choose a 6-speed manual transmission with either engine; a new 8-speed automatic is available with the 1.4-liter engine.
The 1.8-liter engine is available with a more performance-oriented 6-speed automated manual.
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 6-speed has tighter gear spacing than the new optional 8-speed automatic, and it is not programmed to upshift into its overdrive gearing as quickly as possible, to maximize mileage.
Regardless of transmission, the SportWagen itself is more fun to drive than the crossovers that it’s a practical alternative to — and not just because it’s available with a manual transmission.
Because it is a SportWagen.
That means it’s low to the ground rather than jacked-up high, so its center of gravity is lower to the ground. And that means better high-speed handling and superior stability.
Crossovers 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 again, 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 versus 22.8 cubic feet. Another SportWagen plus is plenty of headroom — in both rows — a trait it shares with the Golf and with crossover SUVs.
The SportWagen actually 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 VW’s Tiguan) but the difference is slight: 35.6 inches versus 36.5 inches versus the “Tiggy.”
And as it turns out, the SportWagen’s got more legroom up front: 41.2 inches versus 40.2 inches.
The SportWagen still comes standard with a physical ignition key.
You will never have to worry about not being able to start the car because the battery in the fob died — or because the circuitry in the fob fritzed. Physical keys are also cheap to make copies of. Keyless ignition fobs often aren’t.
If you prefer to push a button, VW lets you do that, too. Keyless ignition is available optionally.
The Bottom Line
A 50 mpg diesel engine would have made this car almost irresistible. But it’s still a very appealing package, even without it.
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