In the early 2010s, my wife and I enjoyed an idyllic life by San Francisco Bay. We both lived and worked in a compact midcentury cottage in Corte Madera and could hit the road whenever we wanted. That usually meant getting in our 2006 Toyota Matrix, a car my wife couldn’t drive because of its manual transmission. In mid 2015, the news that a third person would join our pas de deux upended life on two fronts. First, we agreed to go back East to be closer to our families. Second, the enjoyment of shifting my own gears would come to an end. We would buy a new car with an automatic transmission before the baby arrived.
As rewarding as mastering the manual Matrix had been, cracks had formed in my façade of happy Toyota ownership. Foremost, when you overlooked the driver engagement afforded by the manual transmission, the Matrix really wasn’t that fun to drive. It was nimble and responsive, sure, but it wasn’t as entertaining to toss through corners as my Protegé had been. It lacked the on-the-road personality that endeared my Legacy and Impreza to me.
Furthermore, I couldn’t find a credible Matrix replacement under the Toyota umbrella. My core auto shopping list has always been roughly the same: fun-to-drive, fuel-efficient wagon with a sunroof. By the end of its run, Toyota saddled all but base Matrices with 2.4L engines returning surprisingly lousy EPA figures. You couldn’t get a Yaris with a sunroof—nor any Scion excepting the tC. Toyota did offer a sliding glass moonroof on the Prius C, but that would truly stretch the definition of “fun”.
In truth, my automotive fancy had already been thrown from Japan to Germany—Volkswagen, to be specific. And that throw was over two decades in the making. My earliest automotive memories (circa age two) are of my dad’s 1975 Super Beetle. Stories of Dad’s prehistoric automotive exploits frequently mentioned his ’56 Deluxe Sunroof Sedan, a mythic figure in my young mind. Around age three, I first saw The Love Bug, and Herbie captured my imagination. I filled reams of paper with my Beetle drawings. Without a doubt, I was a confirmed VW fanatic by the time I started school. Around age 20, I ran into my kindergarten teacher, and she immediately asked: “So, do you still like Volkswagens?”
Driving an air-cooled Beetle would remain one of my unfulfilled fantasies (it still is, even to the present day) but in 2013, I got my first chance to drive a modern VW. I traveled back to Pennsylvania to visit my ailing grandmother for a few months and rented a Volkswagen CC. Though I didn’t particularly like its haunched appearance and “form over functionality” ethos, much about this VW appealed to me. Material quality, fit, and finish were exquisite. Every control operated with precision and tactile satisfaction. To borrow a line from Mazda’s early ’90s Kansei ad campaign, the car just felt right. Even the base 2.0 TSI engine overwhelmed me with its reserve power, smoothness, and efficiency. And most importantly, I found this German car exceptionally fun to drive.
A month into my possession of the CC, its registration expired, so unfortunately, I had to return it. I jockeyed cars through various Hertz locations trying to get something approaching the VW I lost. Within weeks, I went through a string of 2012-2013 Volkswagens, including a stripped Jetta S with an anemic 8V engine, a midrange Jetta SE with a 2.5L I5, and a reasonably well-optioned Passat. Perhaps Volkswagen de-contented these “Great Value” cars to appeal to American sensibilities, but I still found a likeable feeling (dare I say…Fahvergnügen?) that united them all. After a fling with these VWs, I got a sinking feeling that they forever ruined my betrothal to Japanese makes.
My wife and I toured Europe in 2014, and during our trek across the continent, we visited Wolfsburg. I marveled at the enormity of the Volkswagen plant and the clean modernity of Autostadt. I coveted the array of VWs that were verboten in the U.S. And just as traveling to Germany meant returning to the homeland of my ancestors, being at the epicenter of the Volkswagenwelt felt like a homecoming to my automotive roots.
Naturally, when I began more serious car shopping in late 2015, Volkswagen was at the forefront of my mind. Nevertheless, I weighed a few alternatives first. Perhaps it was an overcorrection from our previous freewheeling lifestyle, but I started to reconsider our vehicle choice in the context of accommodating visiting family members. Wouldn’t it be nice if our car could also carry a few visitors for a group outing?
I knew I didn’t want a bloated American-sized minivan but gave a lot of consideration to the Mazda 5. This tidy people mover struck me as a spiritual successor to the Colt Vista my family had in my childhood. My appreciation for the 5’s anti-minivan positioning and “zoom zoom” zeal couldn’t overcome the car’s many negatives, though. Most viscerally, Mazda’s gaping, maniacal Nagare smile had been a major turnoff since I first saw it. As an outgoing model, Mazda allowed the 5’s interior and safety tech to slide into obsolescence. And when I saw the 5’s dismal small overlap crash results, I crossed it off my list for good.
I also briefly considered Ford’s six-passenger Transit Connect Wagon. The Connect’s bread truck stature, rarity, European heritage, and erstwhile commercial vehicle status had a strange appeal to me. It seemed to occupy a niche not unlike the one VW’s Transporter did around, say, 1955, before the first hippie laid hands on one. But in general, modern Fords irritate me, and I always bristle when I’m assigned one as a rental. Everything from their clunky Sync interfaces to their warning chimes to their Freedent-blue gauge needles rubs me the wrong way.
Once I dumped the six-passenger fantasy and turned my attention back to Wolfsburg, we quickly decided on the ideal vehicle. In 2015, Volkswagen brought the new seventh generation Golf to the U.S., and the lineup now included a wagon. VW sold this modern-day Squareback in Europe as the Golf Variant and in North America as the Golf SportWagen. Fun-to-drive, fuel-efficient wagon with a sunroof—check, check, check, and check. The equipment we wanted dictated a very specific buying configuration: the top SEL trim with Driver Assistance and Lighting packages. This particular unicorn proved quite difficult to find. I searched dealerships up and down the eastern seaboard but unearthed very few matches. After pursuing a few dead ends and dealerships unwilling to deal, I found a suitable Golf near Washington, D.C. I negotiated the terms from home and bought a one-way ticket to DCA to pick up my new VW.
To be sure, taking delivery of my Golf in January 2016 was a momentous occasion replete with firsts. I was buying my first new car—my first Volkswagen—mere days before the birth of my first child. Sitting behind the wheel for the first time and cautiously launching the Golf for the long drive home—at night, appropriately enough—I absorbed every feeling and every sound. The car was quiet and controlled yet energetic and agile. It exuded the unostentatious refinement of the CC yet boasted a cargo area that put my old Matrix to shame. The open panoramic sunroof teased my hair with the invigorating January wind. Without really trying, I surpassed 40 MPG in that first trip. If only my SportWagen had a manual transmission, it might be the perfect car.
Over the course of seven years, the Golf has served our family admirably. Both it and my daughter entered the picture at virtually the same time. While my daughter is growing like a weed and looks older every day, the Golf is perpetually young. The car now has over 100,000 miles on the odometer but still looks and feels much like it did new.
Admittedly, those haven’t been trouble-free Toyota miles. The car developed a serious oil leak by 5,000 miles, and Volkswagen opted to replace the entire engine under warranty. (The new engine has been flawless.) That was the first of many in-warranty replacements: the headlamps, secondary air injection pump, and seatbelt pretensioners. I visited the Volkswagen dealer several times to address sunroof leaks, and they ultimately replaced all of the drain hoses with a revised design and installed new carpeting as well.
To Volkswagen’s credit, most of the costly work—easily five figures’ worth at retail prices—was covered under warranty. I have gotten stuck with costly repairs only a few times. Most recently, a faulty vehicle level sensor was causing the adaptive headlights to point very sharply to the ground. Replacing that sensor and the control module cost about a thousand bucks. More problematic have been the 18-inch alloy wheels with their low profile 225/40 tires. They might be fine for smooth sunbelt roads but are ill-suited to the mean, potholed streets of the Northeast. Each year—despite my best efforts to dodge every road imperfection—I spend a few hundred dollars on wheel straightening.
If I could go back to 2016, would I buy the Golf SportWagen over again? Would I purchase yet another Volkswagen? Absolutely. What I’ve spent on repairs has been minimal weighed against the tens of thousands of miles I’ve driven and the enjoyment the car has provided. Very often when I’m out on the open road, I’m taken by the symphony of sensations that surround me. This is a terrific car, I say to myself.