Given the multiplicity of variations on the Volkswagen Golf, it really has become the Compact Car for All Reasons.
In addition to the regular hatchback, there are two wagon models: the SportWagen and a recently minted crossover called the Alltrack. (The Alltrack is essentially a more upmarket, more off-roadable version of the SportWagen.)
There are also two sporting versions of the Golf, the GTI and the even higher-performing R model. While the mainstream hatches and wagons are powered by a 1.8-liter, direct-injected turbo that develops 170 horsepower, the GTI and R are motivated by peppier 2-liter turbos. The GTI engines are rated at 210 or 220 horses, spending on trim level, while the R puts out 292. In other words, while the 1.8-liter machinery might get you a bronze in the stoplight 800-meter event, the GTI and R are thinking silver and gold.
The base S model I drove starts at $21,580 with front-drive and a six-speed manual gearbox. Opt for the all-wheel-drive system and the asking price levitates to $23,830. Substitute the six-speed automatic for the manual, as was the case with the AWD tester, and you have a list of $24,940.
That's not dirt cheap, but then, this is a nicely equipped car even in base form. The tester had standard features like 16-inch alloy wheels, heated power mirrors, heated washer nozzles for front wipers, rear window wiper/washer, roof rails, a rear camera, cruise control, heated front seats, and a cooled glove box to keep your sandwiches from going off.
Using the air-conditioning system to cool down the glove compartment is one of several clever and useful touches in the SportWagen. For example: The unpowered lift gate's light weight and clever engineering make it easy to close with one hand.
While that lift gate is still open, you may want to fold down the rear-seat backs to generate more cargo space. You won't have to walk around to the rear doors to gain access to the seat releases. Just open the lift gate, press the remote releases on each side of the cargo space, and presto, the 30.4-cubic-foot cargo space with the seats up converts into an even more generous 66.5.
These features are, of course, subsequent discoveries. The first thing you notice about the SportWagen is the elegant simplicity of its exterior and interior design. There is a sound marriage here of the aesthetically pleasing and Germanic wash-your-hands-before-dinner cleanliness. The designers' proclivity for less-is-more is particularly evident in the dashboard design. There is none of the busyness and fussiness I often encounter. The controls and instruments are made very accessible in a setting as lovely as it is simple.
There is a good measure of soft-touch surfaces in this roomy interior, as well as comfortable, supportive seating. The SportWagen is rigged for silent running, and affords good visibility.
From a driver's standpoint, I've probably saved the best for last. The ride and handling compromise negotiated into this suspension is excellent. The car corners very well, and the athleticism dialed into the undercarriage doesn't beat you up on rough pavement. I also liked the steering response and effective braking.
The SportWagen with the automatic and all-wheel-drive has rather unspectacular EPA mileage ratings of 22 city and 30 highway. It garners a top five-star government safety rating.