When I was in high school, I paid $325 for a mint-condition 1961 Chevrolet Bel Air station wagon. It wasn’t the sexiest car in the Campbell High School student parking lot, but it was a wagon I could work it with my eyes closed.
And it was quite useful for a number of reasons. Let your imagination run wild.
To this day, I think about that Bel Air whenever I test one of the surviving few station wagons you can buy in Canada. Cars like the latest Volkswagen Golf SportWagen, which as-tested came it at $38,420 with the $1,750 Driver Assistance Package (Adaptive Cruise and all that), plus $1,650 for freight and dealer prep.
Just to summarize: this very nice VW wagon sells for more than 100 times what I paid for my Bel Air a few decades ago. Some of you will say, “Yeah, and so what?” That’s fair.
Because in every way, this new and very slick Golf SportWagen is a vastly superior car to my old Bel Air, even when that Chevy was out-of-the-box new — other than the fact the VW is not nearly as roomy as my Chevy.
But where the Bel Air was a lumbering beast with plastic bench seats front and back, the SportWagen lives up to its billing as a lively wagon powered by a tasty 1.8-litre, fuel-injected four-banger mated to a fantastically responsive six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. And the SportWagen has a very good 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system, which puts to absolute shame to the rear-drive layout of the Bel Air and its three-on-the-tree tranny.
Still, the sticker price of the VW took my breath away. I know, I know, automotive technology has come miles and miles since the 1960s. The most high-tech bit of business in the Bel Air was a tinny AM radio that I upgraded to an FM radio for $39, doing the installation myself.
This lovely SportWagen I just drove came with juicy bucket seats, “Climatronic” dual-zone climate control, a 12-way power driver’s seat, smartphone integration (Apple Carplay and all that), satellite navigation, adaptive cruise control, an eight-speaker Fender sound system with wonderful clarity, and even adaptive lighting. The skinny bias ply tires on my Bel Air had all the grip of a pair of ousehold slippers, while the 18-inch alloy wheels shod with 225/45R18 radials on the VW hold the road like crampons on Everest.
I absolutely love the Golf SportWagen. It’s a tidy compromise for anyone who wants the versatility of a small SUV, but not the lumbering responses that come with a tall SUV (sport-utiliyt vehicle). This is a Golf with an open cargo space in the back that can be made immensely useful thanks to 60/40 split folding seats.
Moreover, VW has finally, FINALLY gotten with the program and updated its infotainment interface such that it’s user-friendly. Yes, yes, the screen it too small for any car at this price in 2019, but I’ll forgive this nonsense because the car’s dynamism is just so rewarding.
But that price staggers me and not simply because I’m old enough to have owned and enjoyed a $325 Chevy wagon.
To be fair, the base version of this car goes for $24,400 and I think I could be quite happy with it, even though the 1.4-litre turbo four is not exactly a gem. But if you choose to go all-in with the very fanciest Golf SportWagen, powered by a very strong 170-hp 1.8-litre four-cylinder, you’re looking at 84 monthly payments of about $500, if you take VW’s current finance offer. Add insurance, fuel and maintenance, and your monthly nut approaches $1,000. For 84 months before the car is yours.
When you break out the numbers, you better understand why so many millennials are reluctant to buy a new car and they all seem to live with their parents. There is an affordability issue at play here.
Which takes me back to my fond memories of a $325 Bel Air that wasn’t terribly stylish, but it did the job and I could buy it even in 1975 for a single paycheque from my summer job in a sheetmetal shop. Insurance was $100 a year. And there wasn’t anything on that Chevy that I couldn’t fix myself.
2019 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen Execline 1.8.
Price: $36,670. As tested with options, freight and PDI: $38,420.
Engine: 1.8-litre I4 (170 horsepower/199 lb-ft of torque).
Transmission: six-speed automatic Tiptronic.
Drive: 4MOTION all-wheel.
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.2 city/6.3 hwy.