2017 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen 4Motion Review - So Many Letters, Yet Not Enough

Chris Tonn
by Chris Tonn
Fast Facts

2017 Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen TSI S with 4Motion

1.8 liter I-4, DOHC, turbocharged (170 hp at 4,500 rpm, 184 lb-ft at 1,600 rpm)
Six-speed DSG automatic transmission with all-wheel drive
22 city / 30 highway / 25 combined (EPA Rating, MPG)
23.7 (Observed, MPG)
Base Price
As Tested
Prices include $820 destination charge.
2017 volkswagen golf sportwagen 4motion review so many letters yet not enough

I’ve no idea how, as I’ve lived in the same Ohio county for all of my 30-plus years (sounds better than nearly 40) on this earth, but I stumbled upon an unfamiliar rural road not far from home last week while testing the new 2017 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen. New roads are naturally meant to be explored, so I flicked the signal lever and looked for adventure.

The weather was typical for late December: brisk, with frost in spots making the fallen leaves a bit slick. My first instinct was to drive cautiously, but I realized that I never get opportunities like this. A few hours alone behind the wheel, in daylight, with nowhere to be. The 4Motion all-wheel drive should save me if things get hairy, right?

Alas, there was no trouble found; only fun times behind the wheel in the twisties. VW takes the Sport part of SportWagen seriously. Heck, even the DSG transmission was remarkably enjoyable, shifting quickly and seamlessly.

It’s not as fun to look at, sadly. In low-spec S trim, it’s positively dowdy and entirely too familiar. It’s a new car with a new drivetrain, but the package remains anonymous. Squinting at it from certain angles reminds me of the E90-chassis BMW 3 Series wagon — especially in how the horizontal character line cuts across the flanks, just below the door handles — but it’s not a stunning masterpiece that budding designers will study in years to come.

That’s OK, though. Sometimes an incognito ride is warranted, if not desired. It’s not like our most popular people-and-cargo haulers of the day will ever appear in a museum. The driving experience of the Golf SportWagen, especially compared to modern CUVs, makes up for the lack of visual panache.

S, SE, and SEL trims are offered for the standard front-drive Sportwagen, and on the Golf Alltrack like the one Tim drove last week, but the all-wheel-drive shopper who doesn’t want the extra ride height and body cladding of the Alltrack is limited to the base S trim, where the only option is manual or DSG transmission — if you can even get the manual. You can’t configure a manual-transmission 4Motion on Volkswagen’s website now, but I’m told that it’ll arrive toward the end of January.

Before you say it, I’m aware the old cars I love don’t have any of the luxury or safety features found even on the base model Golf. But eliminating any upgrade path seems rather unusual.

The S trim does include standard heated front seats, which were welcome to keep a couple pizzas toasty when driving them home on a frosty evening. The touchscreen infotainment system — now with USB port! — worked well and synced flawlessly with my Samsung via Bluetooth. But I’d love to see leather(-ish) seats, larger alloy wheels, and the panoramic sunroof fitted to the 4Motion SportWagen, yet it’s not possible.

The optional safety features available on other, non-4Motion trims would be welcome, too, including adaptive cruise control and blind spot monitoring. The sight lines out of the wagon are quite good, so blind spots aren’t as prevalent as those in my usual steed, but it’s a welcome feature I’d willingly pay for in my next car.

I did find the actual passenger space a bit tight. I’m broad in the shoulder and I should have played left tackle and not become a theatre geek in high school, so my wife and I were rubbing shoulders when driving together. My kids weren’t cramped in the rear seat, though. The seats themselves were reasonably comfortable, though I did note a lack of upper lumbar support on a long drive, which left me slightly sore.

The cargo area is quite roomy for such a small car, reminding me that it doesn’t take a CUV to haul a bunch of stuff. The rear seat backs fold, but don’t quite give a flat load floor. Nonetheless, VW quotes 30.4 cubic feet with the rear seats up, and 66.5 cubic feet folded. Those figures are within reach of compact SUVs like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, and are even larger than Volkswagen’s own Tiguan. No need to fear big strollers or a couple sets of golf clubs.

The long freeway cruise made me thirsty, which gave me an opportunity to appreciate a true delight — its deep, wide door pocket. Yes, that’s a 32 ounce Nalgene wide-mouth bottle nestled snugly in the door. I tested the popular stainless steel, 30-ounce Yeti tumbler, too, but the angle the cup assumes might lead to spillage if filled to the brim. Still, a car as efficient as this benefits by accommodating bladder-busting thirsts, and it’s a great feature for me.

Long freeway cruises require entertainment, of course, and the Golf SportWagen delivers adequately. The MIB II infotainment system is solid, though the sound quality wasn’t as great as the Fender-branded speaker system in the Beetle Dune I drove in September. Again, higher trim levels of the front-drive SportWagen offer the premium speaker setup, but not this all-wheel-drive version. The 6.5-inch touchscreen also displays the standard rear-view camera, which is cleverly hidden beneath the large VW badge on the hatch. That camera is perhaps too clever, as the mechanism that raises and lowers the badge is noisy, only drowned out by loud music or loud kids.

(Tim experienced some issues with MIB II in the Golf Alltrack, which you can read about here.)

I also found I could ignore the camera by punching the right pedal liberally. While the 1.8-liter turbo four isn’t overwhelming with 170 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, it’s surprisingly quick when paired with 4Motion. Pulling the DSG lever back into Sport mode enables firm, quick, full-throttle upshifts, launching the family hauler briskly.

Better yet, the venerable MQB platform was solid and surefooted. Freeway expansion joints were absorbed nicely. The ride is firm, but never jarring. And when the road turned twisty, the Golf SportWagen cornered with minimal body roll. Still, I wonder if the front-biased system helps to reduce torque steer. None was evident during my spirited drive, even though torque is only sent rearward when slip is detected.

Would I buy the Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen 4Motion?

I’m not certain I would — at least not as tested. It was a remarkably fun car to drive, but I’d need a few more features that were simply not available with the 4Motion package. If I were to buy a SportWagen, I’d opt for a front-drive SE trim and add the $595 SE Driver Assistance Package.

The SE adds the V-Tex leatherette over cloth in the S, power seats, panoramic sunroof, and the Fender audio system, while the Drive Assistance Package adds adaptive cruise control, emergency braking, and a blind spot monitor — all useful features.

While I’d forego all-wheel drive, the front-drive with good tires is plenty in nearly all conditions I’d ever encounter. As equipped, the price would be $28,445 — a $2,695 jump over my tester — but better equipped for my needs.

[Images: © Chris Tonn/The Truth About Cars]

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5 of 91 comments
  • Stevelovescars Stevelovescars on Jan 04, 2017

    Funny, I was thinking this would be a great Ace of Base article. I drove a similar AWD Sportwagon at a dealer last week and thought it was nice. It was a little noisier than I thought and the ride was a little on the rough side, but it made me think the larger wheels on the Outback (I know, but why pretend?) model would just make the ride worse. The cloth seats were comfortable and none of the added features on the higher level were all that intriguing to me. The seats were a lot more supportive than they look at first glance. I am not a fan of the silver plastic on the dash, mostly because I wonder how it will hold up over time, but that's a minor issue. I live in Michigan and my current car is FWD and I am fine, but this one is pretty intriguing, especially if I can order a 6-speed manual.

  • Tjh8402 Tjh8402 on Jan 05, 2017

    Manual buyers are the ones that are really screwed with this. No matter what drive wheels you select, you're only able to select the manual with the S trim. I can live without leather and power seats, but why do they assume I only want a crappy sound system? Unless I needed the space of the wagon, I can't see buying this over the Honda, Mazda, or Focus hatches. Mazda even commented how many of their manual buyers go for the higher trim and optioned models.

    • See 2 previous
    • Tjh8402 Tjh8402 on Jan 05, 2017

      @stevelovescars - I actually have an Abarth as well. Mine was bought used, though, so I didn't have much say in the options. the only option I was choosy about was the sunroof, which I didn't want because I was going to put a roof rack on and the two are incompatible. Mine came relatively well equipped. It has the leather, which looks nice at least, and the upgraded rims. I didn't get to drive one with the 16s, but I'm very happy with how mine drives with the 17s. the ride quality is actually feels nicer than some 500 sports I drove, but that may be my affinity for Michelins at work. On the older 500s, Navigation can be worthwhile because it made operating your phone a lot easier (my parents have a 2012 500C with it, and although I never use the nav, I do use it for phone integration). However, once they got uconnect and the bigger screen standard, it became less of an advantage. That being said, my 2013 doesn't have it and I make due just fine using the aux input. Mine also came with the beats audio which I'm actually quite happy with once I got the sound mix right. I didn't listen to the base Abarth stereo, but the standard 500 stereo is AWFUL. That is definitely worth upgrading, so unless the standard Abarth is a lot nicer, I wouldn't be happy with it. I really like to crank my music up and blast it, so I can distort the sound quality on a lot of base model radios. I distinctly suspect I'd have a problem with VW if the author is complaining. I would disagree with you on most cars having "good radios" - I've had almost no mainstream cars with base sound systems that I've actually liked or been happy with. I actually care much less about integration than sound quality so the carplay isn't a huge deal to me. I'd rather hook up an aux cable to a really capable system than have a good infotainment OS with middling sound quality. That's what I do on my car because I find going the USB route is more difficult to operate (no big screen to go through) and the volume is curiously limited and way too quiet for my tastes. I'd also worry about warranty problems with speaker upgrades. A infotainment unit is something I'm very worried about, and I'm sure any automaker will see upgraded speaker as an excuse not to pay for a new one. Previous experience with aftermarket radio upgrades says you may lose some of that functionality and integration if you do go that route.

  • Cprescott I remember when Fords were affordable.
  • Cprescott As a once very LOYAL FORD buyer, I had to replace my 22 year old Ford (bought new in 1997) once it finally started to have problems at 180k miles. I would have gladly purchased something like this from Ford but they abandoned me as a car buyer. Oddly, Hyundai still builds cars in a variety of flavors so I became a customer of theirs and am very happy. Likely will consider another once this one gets up in mileage.
  • SCE to AUX A friend once struck a mounted tire that was laying flat in the middle of her lane on the PA Turnpike. She was in a low late-90s Grand Prix, and the impact destroyed the facia, core support, radiators, oil pan, transmission, subframe, and suspension. They fixed it all.
  • Dukeisduke Lol, it's not exactly a Chevrolet SS with Holden badging.
  • Dukeisduke Years ago, I was driving southbound along North Central Expressway (south of Mockingbird Lane, for locals), and watched a tire and wheel fall out of the bed of a pickup (no tailgate), bounce along, then centerpunch the front end of a Honda Accord. It wasn't pretty.