It’s not called a Jetta anymore, but Volkswagen’s new compact wagon is better than its predecessor.

The 2015 Golf SportWagen is to the new Mk. VII Golf hatchback as the 2014 Jetta SportWagen was to the old Mk. VI Golf. The difference, beyond a full generational makeover, is the name. After 15 years, VW has ditched the Jetta badge on its U.S. wagon in favor of Golf -- which is what the Golf wagon has always been just about everywhere else in the world, including Canada.

Why change now? Volkswagen notes that the U.S.-centric Jetta sedan has evolved onto a unique, slightly larger platform and will likely have less in common with the Golf going forward. With an overhaul of the Golf lineup for 2015, now seemed as good a time as any to get the names in sync.

To our thinking, it doesn’t matter much what the SportWagen is called. It debuts with the same class-above refinement that has critics -- including ours -- raving about the Golf hatchback. It’s bigger and more powerful than the ’14 SportWagen, but its EPA ratings increase as much as 12 percent. It delivers the nourishing driving satisfaction that has defined the Golf for decades, with more utility and sophistication than ever.

In a fantasy world, we’d all like a GTI wagon, but we won’t be getting one -- much less the 296-hp, all-wheel-drive Golf Rwagon launching now in Europe. In North America, we’ll settle for gas and diesel variants that make the Golf SportWagen a fine alternative to compact SUVs, with better gas mileage.

Like the Golf hatchback, the ’15 SportWagen starts on VW-Audi’s modular MQB platform, which has essentially identical structure between the steering box and the firewall, regardless of the vehicle -- subcompact Polo to midsize SUV. The wagon shares its 103.5-inch wheelbase with the hatch, but it adds a full foot in length for the wagon parts, primarily in the rear overhang. Most of the ’15’s exterior dimensions increase slightly from 2014, but the roof sits an inch lower, helping drop the drag coefficient substantially. Minimum curb weight falls 137 pounds, despite extra volume inside. Less drag and lower weight contribute to the mileage improvement.

The SportWagen has the same engine lineup as the standard 2015 Golf: VW’s 1.8-liter direct-injection turbo four (170 hp, up to 199 lb-ft) or the new EA288 2.0-liter turbocharged diesel for the TDI. The diesel weighs 15 percent less than its 2014 counterpart, and horsepower increases by 10 to 150. The TDI delivers 18 percent more torque than the 1.8T (236 lb-ft) and 18 percent higher EPA ratings.

The transmission lineup seems a bit odd. The SportWagen 1.8T comes standard with a five-speed manual in base S trim -- with peak torque limited to 184 lb-ft. From there (SE, SEL trims), it’s a six-speed torque-converter automatic and the full 199 lb-ft. The TDI comes standard with a six-speed manual across the range, though the VW Group's DSG dual-clutch automatic is available for a reasonable $1,100. VW’s product planners say this is a function of SportWagen demand the last few years. Eight in 10 buyers have chosen the diesel, and half of the diesel buyers took a manual. All ’15 SportWagens come with the XDS Cross Differential introduced in the Golf hatch. It electronically balances torque delivery by braking the inside front wheel in a bend to help manage understeer.

The wagon gets the hatchback’s familiar strut suspension in front. Like the hatch, gasoline-powered SportWagens have a fully independent multi-link arrangement in the rear. Diesels get a torsion-beam rear axle, and that’s odd too. Perhaps VW thinks diesel buyers are less likely to notice that it saved a few bucks with a solid rear axle. As it is, the SportWagen TDI’s base price drops $2,000 compared to 2014. All wagons now come with aluminum wheels, ranging from 15 to 18 inches in diameter.

The 2015 Golf SportWagen will hit showrooms in April, assembled at the VW plant in Puebla, Mexico. The 1.8T S lists at $22,215 with Bluetooth, satellite radio and an $820 destination charge. The wagon line tops out at $33,995 for a TDI SEL with DSG and two option groups: Driver Assistance ($695), with forward collision warning and park distance control, and a lighting package ($995) with adaptive headlights. The product planners say VW’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive might appear in the SportWagen’s future, but they won’t say when.

If we were King, we would decree that a SportWagen GTI take precedence over 4Motion.

This 170-hp 1.8-liter turbocharged and direct-injection four-cylinder TSI engine is mated to either a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. When equipped with the six-speed automatic transmission, the Golf SportWagen’s EPA estimated highway fuel economy has improved by 5 mpg over the previous 2.5-liter Jetta SportWagen, to 35 mpg.PHOTO BY VOLKSWAGEN

How’s it drive?

There are many vehicles faster, grippier, sexier or more spacious than a Golf SportWagen. There are few with the same combination of economy, usefulness and simple driving goodness, at any price.

It starts with what the driver sees and touches from the command seat. The monotone black interior seems a bit somber, but also rich. The two-tone interior scheme -- depends on paint color -- is livelier. There are good soft-touch materials everywhere, given the starting price. High-trim SportWagens get piano-black trim with a carbon-fiber pattern, but the stuff in the cheaper ones looks and taps like brushed aluminum, and it doesn’t seem like a downgrade. There are good, supportive seats -- not too sloppy for small people, nor too snug for big ones -- in the base SportWagen S. The vinyl upholstery seems richer than a lot of low-end cloth seats.

The SportWagen’s switch arrangement is excellent -- a simple, effective combination of touch controls on a 5.8-inch screen and direct buttons or knobs for frequently adjusted essentials. Even the upgrade automatic climate control keeps the knobs, rather than touch operation. There’s no useless extravagance in the interface. Rarely does a command require multiple steps or layers, and this lack of annoyance operating the radio sets the tone for what follows when the SportWagen gets rolling.

Compared to its predecessor (or the current Jetta), this wagon seems a class above. It’s smoother, quieter and more solid, but the refinement doesn’t come at the expense of response or the wholesome goodness that has been essential to the Golf’s appeal. The SportWagen is more pleasing in the tactile sense than a lot of other all-purpose compact vehicles.

If your opinion of diesel engines was formed more than four or five years ago, the TDI might shock you. VW’s DSG automatic has its appeal, but with the manual you can save $1,100 and have as much fun as you'll find in any diesel anywhere.

When the speedo hits 35 or so, you can leave the manual TDI in sixth and drive it like an automatic. It won't lug, and there’s enough torque from about 1,500 rpm to accelerate with the flow without shifting. But if you stir with the gear change, mileage be damned, the diesel can be almost as lively as the gas engine -- more so, actually, in quick mid-range bursts. The diesel revs reasonably freely to an un-diesel-like 5,000 rpm, and the car will squirt through corners or into open gaps. The SportWagen 1.8T isn’t really faster than the TDI, though in a fashion it’s more responsive to the gas pedal. It still makes revs quicker -- and a lot more of them. 

The SportWagen has been engineered to meet or exceed all current crash regulations and features no fewer than six airbags as standard, along with a number of electronic safety systems.PHOTO BY VOLKSWAGEN

One might assume that the DSG in the TDI is a better choice for manual operation than the torque-converter automatic in the 1.8T. It isn’t, thanks to VW’s control software, which is no doubt influenced by the diesel’s power curve. In manual mode, the DSG electronics will overrule the driver and shift up well before the redline (indeed, the only way to find the diesel’s redline is with the manual). The DSG will prohibit downshifts until much lower road speeds. The 1.8T’s torque-converter box makes it much easier to manually grab lower gears, and it will hold at the 6,900-rpm redline all day in second.

There are still noise and vibration differences between gas and diesel, but one isn't necessarily better or worse than the other. VW's 2.0 turbodiesel works more smoothly and quietly than any inline diesel we’ve sampled -- better than BMW's, and on par with Mercedes' V6. The TDI is still a hair louder and bumpier than the 1.8T at idle, but VW has done great work mitigating noise and vibration in the diesel’s high-torque range. With extra insulation and dampening features, the TDI might actually cruise a hair more quietly than the 1.8T. What you hear and feel from the gas engine is higher pitched, higher frequency, but in certain circumstances it’s more pronounced. Either engine can create a bit of boom in the big metal box behind the front seats, depending on the operating speed. It’s noticeable only if the audio is turned off.

Regardless of the engine, the Golf SportWagen will please in just about any circumstance. It manages body roll in fine style, but its ride is always smooth and compliant. Only keen rear-ends will notice a difference with the TDI’s solid rear axle on reasonably smooth pavement, though if you drive hard and brake late often, in Michigan or places with similarly lousy roads, you will notice. The steering, brake and other inputs are generally spot on, just like the switch operation, and the SportWagen creates a nice, comfortably tight Euro flavor wherever you’re driving.

The Golf’s holistic competence is its strength in a world full of good, moderately priced compact cars. The Golf SportWagen gives up almost nothing to the hatchback in the dynamic sense, but in the United States at least, it’s more or less a class of one.

The SportWagen distinguishes itself from other Golfs behind the front seats. There’s a bit more headroom for rear passengers and almost as much as you’ll find in the typical compact SUV. There’s a pass-through in the rear seatback to go with the folding backs, and now there are levers to fold the backs from the tailgate. There’s a 150-watt AC outlet just inside the gate.

And there's a lot more room to put stuff, with 40 inches of width to the tailgate’s aperture and a low 24-inch lift-over. The SportWagen has more cargo volume behind the rear seat (30.4 cubic feet) than a Jeep Cherokee and more volume with the seat down (66.5 cubic feet) than the Cherokee, a Mazda CX-5 or a ’15 Chevy Equinox. The reach to a SportWagen’s roof rack is a lot shorter than with any of the compact SUVs. 

In addition to the expansive interior space, the driver controls are positioned for optimal ergonomics and usability. Seat placement, shifter height and even the spacing between the pedals have all been fine-tuned as well.PHOTO BY VOLKSWAGEN

Do I want it?

If you can only dream about a Golf R, and you’re not getting a GTI, why not the SportWagen? We can think of only one reason, and it has nothing to do with the social baggage wagons might carry. The $3,000 price step from a five-door Golf to the SportWagen could be a little steep if you don’t need the extra utility.

Allow us to editorialize. If we did want the space and drove almost exclusively on pavement, even in Minneapolis or Cleveland or someplace where winter weather is a threat, we’re pretty sure we’d want a Golf SportWagen as our daily driver more than we’d want any compact SUV. A GTI option, or maybe 4Motion, would seal the deal. 

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