Those who don't like sports utility vehicles but who crave their space and versatility have a nice new alternative: the 2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen.
Not only does the five-door, front-wheel drive SportWagen have impressive European-style handling, it has 66.5 cubic feet of cargo room — more than a Chevrolet Trax small SUV and 94 percent of the cargo room in Honda's popular CR-V.
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And, with a direct-injected, turbodiesel, four-cylinder engine, the SportWagen rates higher in federal government fuel mileage than any non-hybrid, non-electric SUV in .
Specifically, the government rates the diesel-powered version of the 2015 SportWagen at 31 mpg in city driving and 42 mpg or 43 mpg on the highway, depending on whether the engine is paired with an automatic or manual transmission.
And don't be surprised if the SportWagen surpasses these ratings. The test-driven diesel SportWagen with automatic transmission managed 47 mpg on a 1½-hour highway run, which translates to more than 600 travel miles on a single tank.
Best of all, the starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a five-seat, 2015 Golf SportWagen is $22,215, which would put it at the low end of SUV pricing.
This base price is for a SportWagen S with a 170-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine and five-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic transmission boosts the price by $1,100, to $23,315.
To get the 150-horsepower turbodiesel, buyers must pay more: $25,415 for a six-speed manual transmission and $26,515 for an automatic one for the base S models.
Remember, a key appeal to a diesel is torque — the strong "oomph" that the engine readily supplies that pushes passengers into their seatbacks. Here, the SportWagen's diesel engine shines by delivering a healthy 236 foot-pounds at a low 1,750 rpm.
In contrast, peak torque in the heavier, taller gasoline-powered Honda CR-V with non-turbo, gasoline four cylinder is 181 foot-pounds, which kicks at a higher 3,900 rpm.
Competitors to the SportWagen are SUVs as well as station wagons.
The starting retail price for a 2015 Chevy Trax with a 138-horsepower turbocharged gasoline four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission is $20,995.
Meanwhile, the starting MSRP, including destination charge, for a 2015 Volvo V60 wagon with a 240-horsepower, turbocharged, gasoline engine and automatic transmission is $36,890.
The new Golf SportWagen, which began arriving at dealerships in the late spring, is the replacement for the Jetta wagon, which had a loyal following.
Like its predecessor, the 2015 SportWagen is a tidy, functional package. It stretches 15 feet in length, which is the same length as a CR-V.
But passengers sit lower to the ground than in an SUV, and the SportWagen's low center of gravity means there's no tipsy feeling when rounding corners and curves.
During the test-drive, passengers felt some road bumps, but mostly mildly, and the overall ride was controlled, with sport firmness. This buttoned-down ride is not what buyers get in many SUVs.
The electric-assist rack-and-pinion steering in the test-driven vehicle was precise and responsive, and a small turning circle made U-turns easy. The brakes stopped the vehicle quickly and the brake pedal's response was nicely linear.
The 2-liter double overhead cam, direct-injected turbodiesel made a considerable racket, but it was heard more by passers-by than those inside the car.
And there was power aplenty for merging into traffic, zipping around slower vehicles and bounding up mountain roads.
Volkswagen does its usual magic with firm, supportive seats, and all four side windows have one-touch power-up control.
The panorama sunroof in the SEL added airiness, but the 5.8-inch touchscreen display would be better if it were larger. Also, there's no built-in USB port.
The back seat is best for two adults, not three. Rear-seat headroom of 38.6 inches is a surprise, because it's the same as that in the taller CR-V. The CR-V has 2.7 more inches of back-seat legroom, however.
The SportWagen's cargo area is at a nice, low height, so there's no heaving of cargo high up into the back of the vehicle.
Rear seats split 60/40 to accommodate a mix of passenger and cargo duties.
The SportWagen's well-crafted and non-gimmicky interior is appealing, but its exterior styling is ho-hum, and the test-driven car didn't garner any envious glances.
SportWagen pricing can reach more than $32,000 for the top-of-the-line, TDI model in SEL trim, which includes power windows, mirrors and door locks, automatic, dual-zone climate control, premium Fender audio system, navigation system, keyless entry, panorama sunroof, rear camera and heated front seats with 12-way, power-adjustable driver's seat.
Note that leather seat trim is not available. All SportWagens come with VW's V-Tex leatherette material that's quite convincing as faux leather.
Next year, a SportWagen with all-wheel drive is planned.