I recently had the opportunity two drive two similar but different 2018 Volkswagen Golfs. The first was a Golf S SportWagen. The second was a conventional Golf SE hatchback. The differences in trim between the two were limited to a sunroof, leather seats, and a bigger infotainment screen on the Golf SE. The two vehicles had the same 1.8T engines. The wagon was equipped with a five-speed manual transmission while the hatchback had a six-speed automatic.
In theory, both should be very similar. The biggest decisions a buyer should need to make should be between is which trim level and transmission to pick. Both have the same wheelbase and chassis setup. But to my surprise these two Golfs were very different and not it a good way, either.
2018 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen S
The SportWagen truly surprised me, even in this bottom S trim. The ride was smooth, the handling predictable, with some built-in understeer which was clearly communicated even through the economy tires. The vehicle clearly showed solid potential. With improved rubber and perhaps slightly larger wheels, handling would be substantially improved. Slightly lower, but not stiffer, springs and matched shocks would make this an absolute joy to hoon.
The 170-horsepower 1.8-liter turbocharged engine was great, too. It pulled the wagon forward with authority from low engine speed, kept the momentum through the mid-range, and began to slightly run out of breath toward the redline. The aftermarket does have a cure for that high RPM choke, should you wonder.
The gates on the five-speed transmission are slightly sloppy but that makes shifting easy. The clutch pedal is equally soft – this is a grocery-getter, after all. The gears themselves are well-spaced for the engine power but there are not enough of them. On several occasions I found myself looking to shift into the obviously missing sixth highway gear.
For its low price, spacious size, and features, this is one solid wagon. No, it’s not necessarily designed with enthusiast in mind. But enthusiasts enjoy modifying their vehicles and this S model is a fantastic starting point. Get some Audi or GTI take-off wheels, add some subtle suspension tweaks, chip it, and bam, you got yourself a real SportWagen.
2018 Volkswagen Golf SE
I got into the hatchback Golf with expectations of driving something similar to the SportWagen, except smaller. Nope. It’s like I was in a total different but similar-looking car, albeit with a sunroof and a slushbox.
The ride in this Golf SE was stiff and uncomfortable, even my passengers who typically don’t give a poop about cars said so. It got upset over road imperfections, transmitting them to the inside, and not in a good way. And this car was wearing balloon-like eco tires. I found that really surprising because the GTI, with bigger wheels and lower profile tires, was buttery smooth.
When coupled with the six-speed automatic transmission, that same 1.8T engine makes 199 lb-ft of torque, 15 more than when equipped with the stick transmission. But this whole set-up seems damn lazy. The transmission is clearly designed with fuel economy in mind. Putting it into S, for Sport, kept the engine speeds unnecessarily high and for too long. It was the other side of annoying. It was so annoying in fact that I did something I never do with slushboxes – I went into the M, for manual, mode and changed the gears myself.
There is good news is if you want a Golf hatchback that is comfortable and fun to drive – spend a little more and get the base model GTI. Yes, it’s a few grand more but it is substantially better from the driving perspective. But it also nicer outside and the interior is upgraded, too.
Changes are coming to the 2019 Golf line-up. The hatchback and the wagons are still available in S and SE trims but the 1.8T engine gets ditched and replaced by the same 1.4T, 147hp engine found in the new 2019 VW Jetta. The five-speed gets replaced with a much needed six-speed manual transmission and the automatic gets two more cogs for a total of eight. The Redusernab jury is out if this is an improvement or not.
Quick Spin: 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI SE
First Drive 2019 Volkswagen Jetta: Mainstream American Family Sedan