Far from being a workaday hack, Volkswagen's latest Golf Variant has the ability to entertain, says DAVE MOORE.
Volkswagen has been making wagons, or Variants, as the company calls them, since before it got into front-drive cars.
In the 1960s, the then new 1500 sedan, a relatively conventional- looking car when compared with the Beetle, offered a bigger engine, more space and a Variant model.
But wait a minute? How do you offer load space in the rear when the engine's already there? Well, being an air-cooled flat-four, the power unit could be kept under the rear floor, and you end up with not one, but two load areas, as up front the 1500 already had one anyway.
That rear floor may have been a little higher than with conventional wagons, but the 1500 Variant offered a good amount of load volume, certainly when compared with the Beetle, and it proved just as reliable.
The modern equivalent of that first Variant is the Golf VI Variant, only this time there is no need to bother about building your load space around the engine as the power unit is in the front and all the rear has to do is accommodate.
Volkswagen didn't build a Golf wagon until the series III in the early 90s and followed it up with series IV and V versions.
There wasn't much style about any of them to be honest, being almost wilfully squared off at the rear in the name of ultimate space.
The series VI Golf wagon, launched here this year is a little different. Its load extension is styled to work sympathetically with the rest of the car's design, with an angled, rather than upright, tailgate and from any view it's an attractive design.
While that rakish hatch angle might restrict ultimate volume, I'm not an advocate of packing any higher than the top of the seatbacks in a station wagon, and with the ability to split-fold and tumble the rear row of seats, the Golf VI's load space can be extended.
The Variant is a Golf hatch right back to the rear closure line of the back doors, and its running gear and underpinnings are taken from the hatch as well.
Just two drivetrains are offered for the model: a 77 kilowatt 1.6-litre TDi turbodiesel, as tested here, and a 90kW 1.4-litre TSi turbo petrol, which arrives in showrooms in May.
Both versions use VW's uncanny seven-speed DSG twin-shaft electronic two-pedal gearbox, and I wouldn't have it any other way. If you can shift more quickly and smoothly than this unit, you're better at it than I am.
While VWs are traditionally a little pricier than their opposition, the good news is that the Variant models are only $250 more expensive than their hatchback equivalents, at $41,000 (TSi) and $45,000 (TDI). All they do without is a set of alloy wheels, while the cars' roof rails, and classy, plush-lined load areas are more than sufficient compensation.
They don't lose out in the fun stakes either. One of the things that helped the Golf VI hatch to win last year's World Car of the Year title, was its chassis.
Even in its most aggressively wheeled and tyred versions, it rode with great comfort and was able to cope with wickedly twisty backroads with much aplomb.
It remains as neatly set up as a station wagon, and in fact benefits from the extra mass of the load area, which tends to counter understeer when cornering.
Alloy wheels, which are often chosen for looks rather than practicality, are things I can do without in an ordinary family machine such as this. After all, you can't see them when you're driving the car - unless you look in shop windows - and it's only when the car is stationary that you can tell it is wearing flash wheels anyhow.
The standard 16-inch steel wheels with trims are smart enough anyway, although I found there was a tad more road noise than I remember the hatch had in the rear.
Passenger accommodation in the Variant is generous. I compared the car to an inquisitive neighbour's Camry wagon - due for replacement, he tells me - and despite ostensibly being in a segment smaller than the Aussie-built Toyota, the VW seemed to have similar passenger volume.
I was impressed with the VW's dash and driving environment. Few others do theirs as well. The plastic matrices and textures are classy and solid, although I would have liked VW to offer a higher-level trim option, as the basic so-called "Roxy" cloth upholstery was not particularly smart. The Variant can be ordered with what VW calls "Comfortline" trim on some markets, cladding the seats with Scout-Merlin fabric, which seems so much more easy on the eye.
However, to be consistent with my attitude towards alloy wheels, I should acknowledge that when you are sitting on dull upholstery, at least you can't see it.
So which would I recommend? I admire VW's small-capacity TSi turbo petrol units immensely and when the 1.4 TSi Variant arrives in May, I'm sure it will be as brisk and entertaining as the hatch version proves to be.
There is something about the 1.6 TDi, its lusty mid-range torque and the way the unit's 250kW works so well with the DSG gearbox that I'd miss. It suits the Golf Variant's load- carrying intentions perfectly and it never feels stressed or lacking in urge, even though it is 13kW down on the 1.4 TSi's 90kW.
It is torque that counts, however, and with 25 per cent more of it than the 1.4 TSi, the 1.6 TDi requires such small throttle openings for most of its driving duties that I found the factory-claimed 4.2L/100km fuel economy almost conservative. It's quite easy to dip into the "threes", and that will please company accountants and family budgeters.
As a family or fleet load carrier, the Golf Variant proves that sensible motoring can be fun to boot.
VW GOLF VARIANT
* Drivetrain: Transverse FWD DOHC 16v fours, with 7-speed DSG gearboxes. TSi - 1390cc turbo petrol producing 90kW @ 5500 rpm and 200Nm at 1500 rpm TDi - 1598cc turbodiesel producing 77kW at 4400 rpm and 250Nm at 1500 - 2500 rpm.
* Performance: TSi - Max 200kmh, 0kmh- 100kmh 9.5 seconds, 5.9L/100km, 139g/km CO2. TDi - Max 189kmh, 0kmh- 100kmh 11.2sec, 4.2L/100km, 123g/km CO2.
* Dimensions: L 4534mm, H 1504mm, W 1781mm, W/base 2578mm, weight 1351kg- 1391kg, fuel 55L, luggage volume 505 to 1495 litres.
* Pricing: Golf Variant TSi $41,000, TDi $45,000.
* Hot: Solid build; ride and handling; practicality; crisp performance; frugal nature; DSG gearbox.
* Not: Diesel is pricey; anonymous styling; would like a higher trim choice.
* Verdict: Complete family or user-chooser wagon will hold its price for resale while being a pleasant and mature drive.