COAL: 2015 VW Golf SportWagen TDI SEL – More of the Same

2015 VW Golf SportWagen TDI SEL

I should start off by saying that I was quite satisfied with the 2014 Jetta SportWagen and wasn’t looking to replace it. But then temptation came calling, in April of 2015. In this case, one of the salesmen from the car dealership where I worked called me one afternoon. I was away from my desk, but he asked if I could come to the local Volkswagen dealership, the one in Oklahoma City, and help him with some computer stuff (I was also in-house IT, which was a whole issue in and of itself, but that’s neither here nor there).

“Why?” I asked. “Did you switch jobs?”

“No,” he said. “We’re buying the Volkswagen store, and some of our employees ended up setting up here for a bit.”

Really? I thought. And then I headed that direction.

I can’t remember exactly what the computer issue was, but I know that afterwards, I spoke to one of the Volkswagen salesmen. The seventh-generation Golf 3- and 5-door hatchbacks were hitting the lots right at the time I had bought my Jetta SportWagen back in 2014. And in 2015, the wagon version was tricking in, in very limited numbers. “Say, do you have any of those new wagons?” I asked him, purely intending to just sample it.

They had two. The car had actually come out that very week. One of them was a loaded-up gray (Volkswagen called it Platinum Gray Metallic) TDI SEL model, and it’s the one I drove. As soon as I saw its sleek, grey exterior, I was impressed. The old wagon had only been called the Jetta SportWagen in the U.S. and a few other places. In other markets, it was called a Golf Variant or Golf SportWagen. This new 2015 model, however, wore the styling of the new seventh-generation Golf and thus got the Golf SportWagen name in the U.S. as well as elsewhere. I liked how crisp the lines were. It looked as new as anything I’d seen all year.

The TDI SEL was the highest and priciest trim level. This particular one came with a 6-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), although you could specify a 6-speed manual transmission all the way up the range. The SEL models came with some other niceties, too, including 18-inch 5-spoke wheels, fog lights, keyless access, silver roof rails, and a panoramic sunroof. Inside, SEL models got sportier leatherette seats with a full power driver’s seat, Fender audio, dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless start, and built-in navigation. The other option, and one I would come to find out was difficult to find at the time, was that this one had the extra-cost bi-xenon/LED headlights, which would both swivel around corners and activate nifty cornering lamps when you were getting ready to turn. The only thing this one lacked was the Driver Assistance Package, which bundled forward collision warning and front and rear parking sensors.

2015 Golf SportWagen TDI SEL Interior

The interior of the 2015 Golf SportWagen TDI SEL Interior. You could get these black-and-grey two-tone seats, but mine were just black


The other thing was that the Golf SportWagen came with the third and final generation of Volkswagen’s “Clean Diesel” line of four-cylinder engines in the U.S. (the first-generation version was in the 2009-2014 compact cars, while the second-generation version version found use solely in the Passat). The second- and third-generation diesel engines used diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), which Volkswagen sells under its AdBlue brand, but the first-gen (the one in my Jetta SportWagen, did not).

This is important for later.

The test-drive itself was uneventful. I remember it driving mostly like my Jetta SportWagen, however I appreciated the new features and the modern design. I also really liked the multifunctional rear emblem. You pushed it toward the top to make it pivot and become a rear trunk release. It also swiveled on its own when you shifted into reverse to expose the rearview camera, which was especially nice as it kept it clean when not in use.  But was it enough to get me to trade in my current ride?

Thirty minutes later, I found myself sitting across from the salesman, working out the numbers. Despite the fact that I was now a pseudo-employee for the Volkswagen store (since my company was buying it and my office was immediately moved there) they would not budge an inch off of MSRP, and no incentives were available for such a new product. Also, the car for which I’d paid near to $27,000 nine months previously was now only worth $21,000 on trade, more than I owed. Ouch! (First and last time for me to ever finance negative equity into another car).

2015 VW Golf SportWagen

The car the day I bought it. You can see the salesman transferring everything from my 2014 Jetta SportWagen, in the background


On the way home, I dialed my best friend on Bluetooth and told him I’d just bought something from the Volkswagen store. “A Beetle Convertible? Is it a Beetle Convertible? No? How about an Eos?”

As you can see, my friend is a sucker for convertibles of any sort, and has particular affection for FWD bathtub-shaped convertibles that don’t sell well. When I told him I’d replaced the Jetta SportWagen with essentially a newer version of the same thing, he barely stifled a yawn. When I called my mother, her jokingly disdainful response was “Since you have all this money to buy new cars, why don’t you buy everyone dinner and bring it over?

The Golf SportWagen only had 2,500 miles when I got into an accident with it. I was in one of two lanes turning left on a green light onto a busy street. A young gentlemen driving on a permit, with his mother in the passenger seat, decided that this was a good time to turn out of a shopping center, and I caught their 2013 F-150 dead in the side. I saw it coming and was able to slow down significantly, so it was a low-speed collision, but it left a nasty dent in their rocker panel, and damaged my hood, left headlight, left fender, and front bumper. After hearing both sides, their insurance carrie arranged to put me in a rental car that day and fix my Golf SportWagen. When I got it back, it drove as well as it ever had, at the expense of about $5,000 to the insurance company, half of which was for the light assembly.

2015 Golf SportWagen, Damaged

My car, with accident damage to the left front corner


2013 Ford F-150, Damaged

Their 2013 F-150, with damage to the rocker panel. I’m not sure if or how it got fixed


And then September of 2015 rolled around, and word broke of Volkswagen’s emission chicanery. You can read about it in-depth elsewhere, but the gist of it was that all of VW Group’s four-cylinder diesels dating back to 2009 failed to meet emissions compliance. There was some sort of program that would detect the car being put through an EPA cycle, and switch to compliant tuning. On the road, however, it was a different story. These cars polluted tens of times the legal limit, likely in order to meet emissions, price, or longevity targets. I was pretty shocked; I’d had two of them and couldn’t believe Volkswagen would go to such lengths.

As I awaited further news on what would turn out to be the boldest scandal of the era, the Golf SportWagen continued to serve me well. Sometime in late October, my best friend Austin decided we should take a random road trip to South Lake Tahoe, California. At first, it seemed like a stupid idea, but then it grew on me, and I decided to go for it. It was to be me, his uncle David, and him. The Golf SportWagen was easily the best candidate for a road trip among our fleet of cars. But when we were about to take off, I saw Austin putting his ancient poodle, Minnie, into the backseat. “What the hell are you doing?” I asked.

“I think we should take Minnie.” I didn’t like this idea. First of all, we’d be staying in hotels; what were we going to do with a dog? Second, Minnie was mostly blind, deaf, and, most importantly, highly incontinent. But then Austin pleaded and I acquiesced. Minnie was starting to exhibit signs of persistent pain, and this was a chance for him to give her one final trip in style. So, we took Minnie with us and headed west.

I’d been getting persistent warnings about the level of the DEF tank, which was drawing low as I approached 10,000 miles. The car needed the DEF in order to remain emissions compliant (ha!) so it was programmed such that it would give you increasingly frequent messages within the last 1,000 miles letting you know you were low. When the tank was fully empty, you got one or two more trips, and then it would refuse to start until you filled the tank back up. I knew this trip would put us well into the red, so I suggested we do something about it while we were still in Oklahoma City, where we lived. There was a truck stop just along I-40 and we pulled in. David, who is a truck driver, suggested we try the DEF pumps at the truck station. “It’s the same stuff,” he said. And he was right. And I didn’t need Volkswagen’s special AdBlue filter to fill the tank, nor did I need their AdBlue solution itself. All in, I think I paid around $10.

2015 Golf SportWagen TDI, Low AdBlue Message

The low AdBlue (DEF) message.


We took turns driving, with me doing the first leg. We had our first night in Vegas, just off the strip. Austin put Minnie in a duffle bag and smuggled her to our room, and she actually behaved herself instead of whining. On the second night, we found ourselves driving up a narrow mountain road on the way to South Lake Tahoe, and the Golf proved itself an adept partner in that environment, with swift Germanic handling and a manageable profile. It also had no problem getting up to triple-digit speeds in the flat, unpopulated portions of the interstate. The visit to South Lake Tahoe itself was uneventful, and I don’t remember how many places we stopped on the way back, but what I do know is that at the end, my car had 2,500 more miles on it, and a reported average MPG score of 47. And Minnie, to her credit, did not urinate in, defecate in, or damage my car in any way.

One of the things that annoyed me about the car was the slow infotainment system. In 2016, Volkswagen put a nicer, faster and larger infotainment system in all of its cars except the Touareg, including those that were getting long in the tooth, like the Tiguan and CC. Annoyingly, that’s when they decided to incorporate Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. I wound up dating a guy with a 2016 Tiguan, so I got to experience the new system and its superiority in great detail. The other thing that annoyed me was that all of the SEL-trim cars had gloss-black plastic trim, in place of the simulated brushed-aluminum on the S and SE models, which I found to be far more tasteful. I would have swapped interior trim in from an SE, but my car had a couple of additional buttons, which necessitated cutouts that the SE trim didn’t have. And sourcing brushed-aluminum trim that fit my car from another market was too difficult. My solution was to put some adhesive brushed-aluminum material from Amazon on my car’s interior. This involved gently removing all of the trim pieces and carefully wrapping them, then putting them back. At first I liked it, but then it started to peel and didn’t have quite the look I was going for, so I removed it.

2015 Golf SportWagen TDI with Interior Trim Wrap

My car’s trim after I wrapped it. Don’t laugh at my Mariah Carey Christmas album, either.

Sometime in November of 2015, Volkswagen sort of half-admitted its wrongdoing with the TDI cheating scandal and awarded owners $1,000and three years of roadside assistance. This was because the cars lost quite a bit of value overnight with the breaking of the news. Of that $1,000, half was in the form of a prepaid Visa gift card (which I somehow promptly lost and never saw again), and the other was dealership credit (I spent that on a service job and some VW swag).

In March of 2016, I got into another accident with the Golf SportWagen, this time a single-car accident that was entirely my fault. I let my emotions get the best of me and lost control at high speed, hit a curb, and essentially bent the front left wheel into the fender. That one required replacing the left front tire and wheel, much of the suspension, the fender, and the rocker panel. This time, when I got it back, it didn’t quite drive the same. I couldn’t point to any one thing, but it suddenly felt less solid and sure on the road.

2015 Golf SportWagen, Damaged

I learned an important lesson that day about driving while angry


I was still happy with the Golf SportWagen, but I owed way more than it was worth, between the TDI scandal, my negative equity from the other car, and the two car accidents. Plus, I was putting quite a few miles on it. Despite having two cars at one point (next COAL), I somehow had put 40,000 miles on it within a year and a half. Salvation came in late 2016 with Volkswagen’s settlement offer, which was something like $28,000 for them to buy the car back entirely. That still wouldn’t cover my balance, but they were willing to wipe the slate clean if you financed with Volkswagen Credit, as I had. In January of 2017, they came out with an offer to make compliant the gen-two and gen-three diesel engines (the ones that used DEF), which itself came with a healthy settlement, something like $5,700 in my case. But I decided to go ahead and get out from under the car while I still could, and in February of that year, was no longer in my possession.

I still miss the Golf SportWagen. I have long toyed with the idea of buying a gasoline-powered Golf SportWagen or Golf Alltrack, just so I could have the magic of that car back. It was practical, economical, and I loved the way it looked and drove. However, I didn’t realize that at the time, and so what replaced it was very, very different.