Review by Jonathan Yarkony, photos by Jonathan Yarkony and Mike Schlee

Related Articles:
Long-Term Update 1: 2013 VW Golf Wagon TDI Diesel
Long-Term Arrival: VW Golf Wagon TDI
Used Vehicle Review: VW Golf/Jetta/New Beetle, 1999-2005
Final Drive: 2003 VW Jetta 1.8T Wagon

Photo Gallery: 2013 Volkswagen Golf Wagon
Photo Gallery: 2003 Volkswagen Jetta 1.8T wagon

Odometer: 4,999 km
Observed Fuel Consumption: 6.9 L/100 km

Costs: $493.42 (Gas $337.54; Winter tire installation $155.88)

It hasn’t been long since our last update, so there’s not much to report on our Golf Wagon aside from the successful repair of the squeaky sunroof frame, covered under warranty, so no expenses incurred there. It continues on at the same thrifty efficiency, now in quiet serenity (well, aside from a measure of wind and road noise), and hasn’t seen a load it can’t handle.

2013 VW Golf Wagon TDI. Click image to enlarge

However, I thought I’d take this space to ruminate on the progress this vehicle has made over the years. Those of you familiar with this site might realize that my personal car is essentially the same model, but of a different vintage, a Mk IV 2003 Jetta Wagon, affectionately lambasted in one of Mike Schlee’s Final Drive columns. It has its flaws, but I went into ownership knowing full well the risks (reliability, expenses), and none of them have surprised or phased me. Okay, maybe I hate paying for premium gas.

When purchasing this vehicle, it came down to this very rare 1.8T Wagon vs the much more popular (and efficient) TDI, with higher mileage, of course. I guess I still hadn’t gotten all the youth out of my system in the GTI that preceded it, and wanted just a touch more sport, and the TDI was about three grand more pricey—VW diesels hold their value rather well, despite VW’s overall record for below-average reliability.

Anyhow, the 2003 Jetta Wagon makes an impressive 180 hp and 173 lb-ft of torque in 1.8T trim, very solid numbers for those days, and I’ve had a very reliable powertrain (knock on wood). Reliable, yes, but smooth, no. While the engine is a gem, the five-speed “Tiptronic” automatic transmission absolutely sabotages almost any smooth driving, with some of the most herky-jerky shifts (whether up, down, or manually prompted) this side of the original Smart Fortwo.

2013 VW Golf Wagon TDI. Click image to enlarge

With 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque on tap in the 2013 Golf Wagon TDI, it is an entirely different type of power on tap, but both feature generous helping of turbo lag before anything happens. Once that power hooks up, both will chirp their tires, but the 2013 TDI seems far more modestly tuned as far as throttle input goes. VW engineers know what kind of torque is on tap, so they keep it well reined in, but as you get into the mid-range of that diesel torque band, the car will leap ahead, with gear changes served far more smoothly and quickly by the six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG)—the pair of automated clutches ready to make quick switches.

The 1.8T and subsequent 2.0T were long-since dropped from the Jetta and Golf Wagon variants, much to the chagrin of sporty-wagon lovers everywhere. But let’s face it, wagon buyers are usually the more practical sort here in North America, and sporty types trend toward hatchbacks…. However, as mentioned in the Long-Term Arrival, Volswagen has released a Sportline edition that offers sporty equipment, but with a more stodgy powertrain—the 2.5L five-cylinder that very closely matches the 2003 1.8T, with 170 hp and 177 lb-ft, though nowhere near the character of the peaky but powerful turbo.

As far as handling goes, it’s a wash, the 2003 handling almost like an extended GTI, and the Golf Wagon showing the impressive progress made to the Golf chassis over the years, delivering top-notch compact class road manners, but a far more comfortable ride to go along with it. However, for steering feel it is no contest—the steering feel in the 2003 is rubbery and loose if slightly heavier, while the 2013 is light, especially upon initial turn-in, but exhibits excellent accuracy and good feel for the road.

2013 VW Golf Wagon TDI. Click image to enlarge

The interior is a curious study. For 2003, the Jettas and Golfs of their day were so far ahead of the compact mainstream brands in look and feel, that it is hard to acknowledge where these cars have regressed, and where the market has simply caught up. In fact, it is the Mk IV interior, with its blue numbers and sweeping orange needles in the gauges that first caught my eye. The signature soft-touch dash was a generation ahead, but switchgear and controls were also solidly built and still the equal of many current ‘luxury’ brands. Okay, they were, when new, and a fair number of them remain solid and consistent in my ’03. Of course, there is no cure for velour seats—they were bad from almost any manufacturer in any decade, but these ones have held up surprisingly well (aside from a couple of burn marks where the seat heaters shorted out and burnt through the fabric), and after 10 years and almost 200,000 km, not surprising that some of the finish is peeling off on various touch points, but there are still spots where you can see the original low-gloss, high-grip rubber surface.

The 2013 still features a soft-touch dash top, and the switchgear also seems well secured, and it should be noted that this model is assembled in Mexico, so it seems there is little difference in quality relative to German-built Golfs. However, as you go lower, you find progressively cheaper plastics in the centre console and other areas. It’s not a deal breaker for me. And obviously the level of equipment, with navigation, touchscreen interface, automatic climate control, Bluetooth, seat heaters that work, and other modern amenities put the Jetta’s AM/FM/CD stereo to shame. Oh, and my Jetta has a tape deck, too.

Sadly, the cupholders are in a much more conventional position between the seats, and as much as I loathe to admit it, are much more functional. As awful as the cupholders are in my old Jetta—any cup taller than a Tim Horton’s Medium Small is precariously balanced and only a suggestion of a bump will likely send it into your passenger’s lap (any owner knows you never put an open container on the driver’s side in this contraption), and forget about changing the radio station if a drink is in place—it is still a goofy thrill every time I press in the cover panel and watch the arms swing out and bottom drop down. I feel like a caveman witnessing fire for the first time, every time. Make fun of over-engineered German hideaway cupholders (and a nod to Saab, too) all you want, there is something about them that I just find cool. Yes, I know I’m a dork. So be it.

Anyhow, the most improved aspect of the 2013 Golf Wagon over the 2003 Jetta Wagon is interior space. Headroom, legroom, and shoulder room are all noticeably improved, but the extra couple inches (2003 – 851 mm; 2013 – 902 mm) of rear legroom are really clutch, offering adult passengers precious space. Our rear-facing infant seat, which already limits front passenger space in the Golf Wagon, will probably force my wife right into the glove box in our Jetta.

The platform has grown, increasing in length, width and wheelbase, but chopping the height to give it a longer, lower, sleeker look. Curiously, despite almost 150 mm of growth in length, cargo space is actually smaller (shrinking from 963 L to 929), but is more useful—it is wide enough to fit our folding stroller across in the Golf Wagon, whereas the Jetta requires a diagonal loading that really eats into space functionality. Most of that space reduction is likely over the window line anyway, where the Golf Wagon’s raked rear hatch and sloping roof are decidedly less boxy.

And speaking of space functionality, the Golf Wagon has a lifting, folding cargo floor panel that can be secured in three positions to create a flexible cargo hold that better secures bags and packages and keeps things from rolling all over the wide, deep cargo bay. It is particularly appreciated in winter, when it can save you, your back, and your pants (from dirty bumpers) from having to reach all the way to the seatbacks to retrieve a melon or case of pop that slid out of your neat arrangement after a visit to the grocery store. Or you could just not drive like me.

2013 VW Golf Wagon TDI. Click image to enlarge

Finally, when comparing efficiency, it’s really apples to oranges, or perhaps oranges to clementines. While the 1.8T is the sporty engine, its small size and turbocharging also offered respectable efficiency, rated at approximately 10/7.5 L/100 km in city/highway driving, as per Chris Chase in our Used Vehicle Review of that Mk IV generation. While I don’t track my fuel consumption in the Jetta Wagon, I’d estimate it well over 10 L/100 km based on distance driven and weekly fuel costs. The TDI of its day rated as efficient as 5.5 L/100 km for city and under 5.0 L/100 km for highway, depending on trim.

Our Golf Wagon’s 7.0/4.9 city/highway rating are a reflection of stringent emissions regulations, but 7.0 is really about the worst you could do as I continue to average 6.9 L/100 km through our last tank of almost exclusive city driving and rush-hour commuting. Just out of curiosity, I also checked out the ratings of this generation’s nominal ‘sport’ model, the 2.5 Sportline; it manages, 9.9/6.6, but I doubt its real-world consumption would be any better than my 1.8T.

Looking at the bigger picture, it’s hard to see 10 years worth of progress in this update, although safety systems and crashworthiness that have steadily progressed are not readily apparent in the driving experience, but they are significant. Despite this Golf Wagon not being as premium a product relative to its competition as the Jetta was in its day, it is no less a practical, efficient, and engaging car for that. However, despite the improved ride and modern features, I find it hard to overlook the value of my $7K Jetta (okay, probably closer to $5K now) vs the $35K Golf Wagon Highline—do all the math you want, I haven’t had that many repairs.

Pricing: 2013 Volkswagen Golf Wagon Highline TDI Clean Diesel
Base Price: $31,495
Options: $2,290 (DSG $1,400; RNS 315 Navigation System $890)
Freight & PDI: $1,395
A/C Tax: $100
Price as tested: $35,280

Crash test results
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)

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