I test drive around 50 to 60 cars, pickups, and SUVs every year. The contrast in overall quality between what consumers can buy now and what they could buy when I was growing up is astounding.
It’s fair to say that there are almost no bad cars anymore.
Every so often, I get behind the wheel of one that doesn’t do it for me. This happened last year with the 2016 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen TSI S.
I didn’t out-and-out hate the car. It’s a wagon after all. Car writers have a soft spot for wagons.
But the VW didn’t compare favourably with other vehicles in its general price range and with its configuration I’ve sampled in 2016 (and in the years before that). To be honest, it ultimately soured me on basic wagons a bit and got me thinking that automakers are correct to focus on smaller crossovers and SUVs to serve the needs of what in the past might have been wagon aficionados.
It has some pluses, of course. And I had, when I tried the SportWagen out, just finished driving a VW Dune Beetle that I really enjoyed. Also, let me say at the outset that my $22,445 test vehicle served as quite capable basic, versatile transportation. I wasn’t expecting a Ferrari FF.
Let's get right to it. I may not be the best driver in the world -- far from it -- but I pride myself on never stalling stick-shifts. The SportWagen TSI S, with a Silver Metallic exterior and Titan Black interior, came with a five-speed manual. Not a six-speed, pretty much the industry standard these days, but a throwback five. To be honest, I was sort of thrilled. Sixth gear has always annoyed me, although it makes sense for fuel-economy reasons.
Anyway, I stalled the SportWagen about a half-dozen times in stop-and-go driving from my office in Manhattan's Flatiron District to the Lincoln Tunnel. BI's Ben Zhang was riding shotgun and can vouch for the entire embarrassing spectacle.
The clutch on the SportWagen was horrible. It felt like I was depressing a child's toy. It didn't even feel like a clutch. It felt like a $1 spring. Sproing! Sproing! Sproing! I couldn't figure out how to finesse it to keep the engine running. Well, I did eventually, but yikes! A man of my age and experience shouldn't have to go through this.
That was beginning of my unhappy journey.
Now, I have to admit that if I were going to buy a car, I might still go for the SportWagen, given its price, utility, and relative lack of attention-getting looks. It's reasonably well designed for what it costs, it drives OK beyond the miserable clutch, the little 1.8-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder engine doesn't give the impression that the car is powered by hyperventilating hamsters, and the no-muss-no-fuss interior would be good to motor around my kids, who tend to mess up cars.
But I would then be buying a car that gives me very little joy past being able to accommodate my beloved ironing board (I love to iron). Yes, you can drop the rear seats and create good cargo space. And yes, the SportWagen was able to handle two kids in the back seat on a rather long drive to the East End of Long Island from suburban New Jersey, although they weren't comfortable.
The SportWagen is a decent-looking car. Emphasis on 'decent.' Which could be translated as 'rather boring, in a sort of el-cheapo German stately Euro-austere way.'
The more time I spent with it, with that dour grey exterior and the black interior, the more depressed I got.
It started. It was ever-so-slightly spirited in corners. It didn't beat me to death on the highway. The infotainment and audio systems were ... adequate. The AC blew. It got quite good gas mileage: 25 city/36 highway/29 combined.
But seriously, it was a grey rectangle of basic-ness. It wasn't ever trying to be more.
As much as I didn't end up liking the SportWagen, I can certainly imagine folks who would.
They're people who don't want to think about their car that much. They want something for grocery story/IKEA run/short vacation/commuting/pick-up-the-kids duty -- but they aren't completely tuned out and aren't going to default to a Honda CR-V or other popular, versatile crossover.
They want something European. Something German (even if it's made in Mexico). But not as expensive as a BMW or a Mercedes.
They are, in short, pretentiously unpretentious.
You can get the SportWagen with an automatic transmission, by the way, if you don't want to suffer the evil clutch.
But honestly, even though the clutch was dreadful, the five-speed was the only thing holding my interest after a weekend of driving the SportWagen a lot.
I kept hoping I'd get over it. Why, oh why, can't I establish a bond with this car?
Then I figured it out. The SportWagen is indeed basic, affordable, German-accented transportation. But there are so many other less staid choices for basic transpo these days, cars that will make your A-to-B at least moderately engaging.
We don't need to accept vehicles like the Golf SportWagen anymore (it really isn't that sporty, either). And although it is far from an objectively bad car in any way, it was the worst car I've driven all year, so far.
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