Maybe you were a Boy Scout as a kid. If you were, you may remember the infamous Snipe hunt. The Scoutmaster would gather everyone around the campfire and tell the boys about the mysterious Snipe – then send them off into the woods with flashlights and false hope to hunt the thing down.
You may know the punch line. There is no such beast as a Snipe.
Similarly, there is almost no such beast as a compact-sized wagon. Particularly if you posit a price starting under $22k.
Especially if you want it with all-wheel-drive.
Other than Subarus, there’s just one other “Snipe” you might hunt: the VW Golf Sportwagen.
The upside being there is such a beast as this.
The Sportwagen (auf Deutsch) is the wagon (English) version of the VW’s popular Golf hatchback sedan; the hatchback coupe version of the Golf has been dropped.
Same basic car but more room inside – and you can get it with VW’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, a feature that’s not available in the front-wheel-drive-only Golf hatchback sedan.
The high-performance Golf R comes standard with all-wheel-drive, but this version of the Golf isn’t a wagon, is much more expensive – $35,650 to start vs. $23,830 for a 4Motion-equipped Sportwagen – and competes with high-performance/AWD sport sedans/hatches like the Subaru WRX.
The 4Motion Sportwagen, meanwhile, is a practical thing that targets the Subaru Impreza, which comes standard with all-wheel-drive and costs less ($18,895 to start) but only comes in sedan and hatchback versions (no wagon).
It’s also a gimp.
Though it’s practical and affordable, the Impreza is slow. Almost ten seconds to 60 – vs. mid sevens for the VW.
It also has less room inside because of its sedan/hatchback-only layout.
VW has added 4Motion all-wheel-drive to the Sportwagen’s roster of options and – coming soon – will also offer an “Outback” (or “Crosstrekked”) version called the Alltrack. Like its Subaru muse, this is a jacked-up (more ground clearance) version of the standard-issue Sportwagen, though not quite as jacked-up as the Subaru. It will have about 6.7 inches of ground clearance vs. 8.7 for the Crosstrek (the regular Impreza splits the difference with 5.1 inches of clearance).
Base price for the Sportwagen Alltrack should be just under $26k.
It goes in snow… and it goes.
More cargo space/versatility than either the Impreza or the Crosstrek.
Available with a manual transmission – including 4Motion versions.
Standard turbocharged engine sips regular unleaded.
Significantly pricier (with AWD) than the Impreza and the Crosstrek.
4Motion (and six-speed manual transmission) only offered in S trim.
The automatic that’s optional with in 4Motion-equipped Sportwagen’s is VW’s efficient and quick-shifting but hugely expensive to repair/replace if it breaks DSG dual-clutch automated manual.
Cue Soup Nazi voice: No more TDI diesels for you!
The 2017 Sportwagen comes with one engine – a 1.8 liter turbocharged gas-burner four that makes 170 hp – making it significantly stronger than the Subaru Impreza’s (and Impreza-based Crosstrek’s) larger (but not-turbocharged) 2.0 liter four, uprated slightly for the 2017 model year to 152 hp vs. 148 last year.
You can choose a five-speed manual (FWD S trims) or a six-speed automatic (conventional/hydraulic in FWD-equipped versions). If you go with the newly available 4Motion all-wheel-drive system (available only in S trims) you can go with either a six-speed manual or – optionally – VW’s Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), which is more complicated, but quicker-shifting and a more efficient type of automatic than the conventional/hydraulic six-speed automatic used with the FWD versions of the Sportwagen.
Whichever combo you go with, you’ll get where you’re going quickly: Zero to 60 in the mid sevens, vs. about ten for the Impreza and Crosstrek. The Acceleration Gap is probably the biggest single objective difference between the VW and its Subaru target. Two seconds may not sound like much just reading about it, but when you’re out driving – and trying to get moving – it is a huge difference. I’ll get into this more below.
Another difference between these two is that the Subaru doesn’t offer a six-speed manual transmission – a five speed is standard – and its optionally available automatic is a continuously variable (CVT) automatic. A CVT doesn’t up or downshift; it just sort of surges forward like a turbine spooling up. This is helpful as far as squeezing as many MPGs as possible out of the drivetrain and also gives good performance when there’s enough engine paired with the transmission. But when there’s not, CVTs tend to make an under-engined car feel (and sound) slower than it is. The engine will rev, but the car doesn’t seem to move much.
It does make a lot of noise, though – because the engine will spool up to fairly high RPM (as long as you keep your foot down) and stay there. With a conventional automatic, the revs, will drop as the transmission shifts to the next-highest gear, reducing engine noise and the feeling that the thing is working really hard just to keep you going.
But, the Subaru is easier on gas: 28 city, 38 highway with the CVT. This is outstanding fuel economy for an AWD-equipped car. The VW – with 4Motion – comes in a distant second on this score: 22 city, 30 highway.
You used to be able to get a diesel-powered Sportwagen, but not anymore. And probably never again.
Which really sucks – because the TDI engine didn’t.
The last time it was available in the Sportwagen (2015) it rated 31 city and 43 on the highway – near-hybrid mileage without the hybrid’s triple powertrain (a gas engine plus an electric motor and a battery pack) and the expense up front (and down the road) that comes with it.
But because VW “cheated” Uncle’s emissions tests – a teensy little bit – Uncle has forbidden VW from selling the TDI engine in the Sportwagen or any other current VW. So, we all burn more gas – which is great for the environment… right?
Subarus are great cars, if you’re not in a hurry.
The Impreza (and even more so, the Crosstrek) are also outstanding Snow Day cars. They are enormously popular where I live, which is a rural/mountainous area subject to rough winters, deep and long-lasting snow. People here buy Subarus like they buy guns and it’s not just because they are AWD. That has become common.
Less common is ground clearance.
4x4s have it, but they also have a hungry appetite for fuel and they “handle” kind of like George W. Bush speaks off the cuff.
Subarus handle like cars and – now that they have the efficiency-enhancing CVT transmission – are better-than-decent on gas.
But they are loose-toothed things with marginal power and absolutely nothing in reserve for when you need to move . . . now. Attempting to pass is always precarious and requires an extra safety margin of time and space, which is often hard to find. Which means you don’t risk it and stay stuck behind the slow-mover ahead of you. And sometimes, you don’t have the luxury of choice, as when you need to bring the car up to speed for a merge onto the highway or risk pulling in front of someone with a 20 MPH speed disparity between you and him and the strong likelihood of being rear-ended or cursed out or both.
What the VW offers is snow day balls and sunny day guts. It does move when you need to get going.
The turbocharged engine has a meaty bottom end (199 ft.-lbs. of torque, peaking at just 1,600 RPM – vs. 145 ft.-lbs., peaking at 4,500 RPM in the Impreza/Crosstrek) as well as a much stronger mid-range (the VW’s horsepower peaks at 4,500 RPM vs. 6,200 for the Subaru). It goes whenever you need to.
The Subaru doesn’t.
Handling – cornering – is another point of departure. The Subaru is not set up for high speed work in the curves – assuming you can achieve high speeds before you get to a corner. It likes an easygoing pace, which is what most Subaru People (WRX people excepted) want. They will not notice any lack, because they are generally not in a hurry.
The VW is for people who like lateral speed as well as straight-line speed. Whether FWD or 4Motion, the Sportwagen is… sporty. That word has become meaningless through over-use (e.g., “sporty” minivans) but it actually does apply in this case. Probably because the Golf is German and the Teutons like to move fast (ask the French, ask the Poles).
Ironically, the Sportwagen has slightly more ground clearance than the Impreza. So it might prove to be better in the snow. Yet it still handles fast curves better, more like it likes it.
The soon-to-be-here Alltrack will up the snow day ante with a bit more ground clearance (6.9 inches) but it doesn’t quite match the Crosstrek’s creek-fording/unplowed driveway-ready 8.7 inches, which is more clearance than many 4×4 SUVs have. But, the Crosstrek suffers from underhood ED, having the same limp noodle engine as the lighter (and more aerodynamic) Impreza it’s based on.
This also makes it harder to pick the optional CVT automatic.
By the numbers, the CVT-equipped Impreza and Crosstrek aren’t that much gimpier than the manual-equipped versions. But they feel it and sound it. Also, you can work around marginal power with a manual transmission. You can hold it in lower gears – or dump the clutch coming off the line. With the CVT, you can’t do those things. But if you want/need an automatic, you have to put up with the Sound . . . .and Lack of Fury.
The VW goes with whatever box you pick, whether manual (either) or the regular automatic or the optional DSG automatic. So you can pick whatever works best for you without having to go up anything to get it.
It’s just too damn bad about the diesel. It was ideal for snow day work (even more torque, even lower down in the RPM band) and had more guts (and delivered much better mileage) than the Subaru’s gas engine.
Good ol’ Uncle. He’s always looking out for us… .
The Japanese are generally credited with being the kahunas of space-efficient design but the VW is proof incarnate that’s not always so.
Though it is a smaller car overall – 179.6 inches (180.2 for the Alltrack) vs. 182.1 for the Impreza hatchback – it’s more accommodating inside. For cargo especially. The VW has 30.4 cubic feet of space behind the second row and when you fold the second row down, this expands to 66.5 cubic feet. The Impreza hatchback has 22.5 cubic feet behind its second row, maxing out to 52.4 with the second row folded. The Impreza sedan, meanwhile, only has a 12 cubic foot trunk.
The SUV-ish Crosstrek also comes up short: 22.3 cubic feet behind the second row, maxing out at 51.9 cubic feet when the second row is down.
You can do some pretty serious hauling of things in the VW. I used the car to transport a 4×4 tortoise habit I had built for the … tortoise my wife and I kept as a pet. When she decided she no longer wanted to be my wife but did want the tortoise, I brought the enclosure – in one piece – to her apartment. Along with its lid, the table it all sat on (legs unbolted) and several boxes of tortoise gear. I got all of this in the car without even needing to use the front seat, or even slide the front seat all the way forward.
I could not have transported all this stuff in an Impreza – sedan or hatch.
Or the Crosstrek.
The VW is also easier to load – because of a very low loading height, just 24.8 inches off the ground. The rear liftgate opening is huge, too – 40.8 inches.
Room for passengers is excellent, especially for such a small car: 41.2 inches of legroom up front and 35.6 inches of legroom in the second row. Plus – and this is an important and often overlooked measure – 38.6 inches of headroom in both rows. The Subaru has more headroom up front – 39.8 inches – but less in the second row – 37.1 inches.
The Tall do not suffer in the Sportwagen.
Just a few semi-sucky things:
One, the USB port (for iPods and phone chargers) is awkwardly located in a cubby just ahead of the shifter on the shifter console. In automatic-equipped Sportwagens, when the shifter is in Park, it is not easy to plug anything in to the USB port – because the shifter lever is directly in the way. The way clears if you move the selector back toward you into Drive – but it ought not to be necessary to do this.
Two, some of the higher-end creature features you might want – like the Adaptive Front Lighting System, which swivels the headlight beams up to 15 degrees, to follow the curves, are only offered in the higher-trim SE and SEL versions of the Sportwagen. Which are not available with the 4Motion AWD system. That is limited to the S trim. Why VW decided to not offer 4Motion (an upgrade) in the SE and SEL trims is something as mysterious as the popularity of the Kardashians.
Oddly – or rather, unusually – the S trims also still come with a physical, insert-here ignition key. These are becoming almost as rare as ashtrays – and there are pros and cons to consider. On the pro side, a metal key is simpler and you will probably never have to worry about replacing it (unless you lose it) and the ignition switch will probably last next-to-forever, too. But the pushbutton thing is convenient. Just keep the key fob with you somewhere (pocket, purse) and all you have to do is push the button to start the car. Just don’t lose the fob – or run it through the wash.
Higher trims (again SE and SEL) get the pushbutton.
Minor (possibly major) annoyance. The Sportwagen – like all new VWs (and Audis) produces a lot of false-flag radar clutter, emanating from its myriad “safety” systems. If you run a a radar detector, it will alert continuously as a a result. This makes you more vulnerable to the Highway Taxman.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Those niggles – and the big niggle (about the now-gone TDI diesel, which isn’t VW’s fault) aside, this is a pick-of-the-litter car, one I am tempted to buy myself. It is relatively cheap, incredibly useful and just a of fun to drive. Its main rival, the Impreza (and the Crosstrek) can claim two out of those three qualities.
I’d rather have the triple play.
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