How a rental car helped me find happiness

My typical rental car experience is not something I want to replicate in a vehicle I own. Usually, it’s some bland sedan or sparsely optioned hatchback that doesn’t move the needle; too slow, numb steering, sloppy suspension, a CVT! You get the idea, an unpleasant place to be. However, that trend changed on a recent road trip.

I needed a rental car while my Boxster was undergoing an emergency repair (new convertible top), so I checked out the rates at the Colorado Springs airport to see what I would be stuck with for a few days. As expected, the list was not inspiring. I went with a Standard rental from Enterprise, a Volkswagen Jetta, or similar. The price was between $300 and $400 whether I chose a compact, standard, or small SUV, so my choices boiled down to the company.

I was surprised when the clerk said my rental car was indeed a Jetta since I rarely get the vehicle highlighted on the website. So, I had a little chuckle when the attendant pulled to the curb in a Volkswagen, but not a Jetta. The car in question was a 2019 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen. I had not driven this model before, so I was pleasantly surprised.

The SportWagen was relevant because I’d been scouring the internet for my next daily driver for weeks, and a 2018 or newer GTI was on my list. My criteria of a manual transmission, a nice place to be but still fun to drive, practical usability but still small, in a legitimate color (no more silver, white, or gray), and a max price of $25K left me with a small list of used vehicles. The usual suspects included a BMW 2 Series, a GTI, E90 BMW 3 Series, or maybe a unicorn E46 M3 in good condition and not in need of many things. I’ve already played the cheap German car game and paid the penalty of deferred maintenance (reference the $14K Boxster that needs a new top in the middle of a 7,000-mile road trip). Other fun cars fit my criteria (Hyundai Veloster N being one), but I don’t need this car to be max-fun since I still have the Boxster. It needs to lean toward comfortable, borderline luxury daily driver material. 

The Golf SportWagen is no GTI, but the bones are very similar, and my time with the car would cover highway driving and two-lane mountain roads. The experience should paint a good picture of what it would be like to live with a GTI. 

Golf SportWagen with a Boxster and Corvette Z06
One of these things is not like the other…

This particular car was an S trim 4Motion all-wheel drive, powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine producing 168 HP and 199 lb-ft of torque. The GTI’s I’ve been sifting through would have 220 HP and 248 lb-ft of torque, so if this SportWagen were fun to drive, a GTI would be fantastic. It did not have the heavily bolstered seats I would find in a GTI, but it had the same radio and infotainment system found in the S or Rabbit trim level GTI. The SportWagen rental had the optional six-speed dual-clutch (DSG) transmission and not the manual I required. Even with this transmission, I knew I could learn a lot from the car and gain valuable seat time that might shorten my required “driving homework.”

I oriented myself to the cabin of the SportWagen, and I liked what I saw. The seats were basic but very comfortable, supportive, and ergonomically well designed. The steering wheel was one of the most notable items. Steering wheel design and feel is a huge item for me since it is what you interact with the most. Volkswagen does an excellent job designing a comfortable steering wheel that is sporty with well-thought-out controls that fall in just the right places. The wheel’s rim is thick but has a taper to it that fits nicely in your hand.

The base stereo system is pretty good, with a quick, reliable Bluetooth interface and a straightforward and intuitive setup for CarPlay. The 6.5-inch display is smaller than what you get in the higher trim levels, but it provides everything needed for CarPlay usage with a mix of touchscreen and actual buttons. After the initial setup, my phone connected via Bluetooth almost immediately, even before I could plug the phone in for CarPlay. The functionality of the base system was impressive and made me realize I shouldn’t discount the lower-trim GTIs because of their tech. I typically search for the highest-level tech packages I can find because the base systems can be pretty lame, some lacking basic Bluetooth functionality.

I continued to familiarize myself with the vehicle as I drove back to the hotel. The highway manners were enjoyable with relatively low wind noise and power that was adequate. No one will ever mistake this engine for a performance model, but I had zero issues merging with traffic or getting around a semi when needed. 

The luggage capacity of the cargo area was terrific. I was blown away by how much room is behind the seats of the SportWagen, especially compared to my old Porsche Macan S (30.4 cu. ft. vs. the Macan’s 17.7). Auto journalists are correct; wagons are better suited for how 90% of buyers use SUVs. After loading the Golf with luggage, it was time to drive from Colorado Springs to Estes Park, Colorado.

The sky was gray, and it would snow by evening, perfect weather to test the SportWagen. The extended highway driving further confirmed my initial assessment. The car’s manners proved excellent with good steering, a smooth ride, and comfortable seating. The power ratings may seem meager on paper, but the Golf easily kept up with traffic and was good for getting around drivers meandering around the lanes at highway speeds while looking at their cell phones. 

I was impressed with the interior storage options with just the right amount for cups of coffee and a few cell phones. The in-door storage compartments even held a 32 oz Hydro Flask bottle, a rare feat in my experience. Otherwise, our journey northbound on I-25 was fine. We hit the predictable traffic jam near Mile High, or Invesco, or whatever-the-hell-the-new-sponsor-name-is field and moved on our way. 

The SportWagen’s visibility was incredible! Now, this revelation maybe because I’ve been driving a Porsche Boxster for six months, but still, visibility in the station wagon was fantastic. I felt as if I were driving the proverbial fishbowl. I’m sure there is a blind spot somewhere, but I didn’t experience one. 

Once we were clear of Boulder on US-36, traffic thinned out, and the road produced the first twists and turns of the day. I was eager to see what an “underpowered,” all-wheel-drive wagon with mismatched all-season tires (thanks Enterprise) would do on a cold and winding road. To my surprise, it was damn good. The driving dynamics were more hatchback than wagon. The steering feel was decent but not sports-car territory, turn-in was better than expected, and overall handling was impressive. The rear cargo hatch was packed tight, so I wasn’t worried about suitcases flying about the interior.   

Just a dusting of snow

The SportWagen didn’t feel heavy in the corners either. That’s not to say I was going deep into braking zones to hit apexes; it is still a station wagon. But with a reported curb weight of 3,051 pounds (and several hundred more added with passengers and cargo), the wagon moved like a much smaller, nimbler vehicle. I was pleasantly surprised at how the entire package (steering, suspension, and transmission) worked together to provide an enjoyable driving experience in what is at its core, a people-mover. 

By the time we reached our hotel, the drive had all but decided my next vehicle purchase. I was so impressed with everything I experienced in the Golf SportWagen; the GTI was now solidly at the top of my wish list. This wagon was down in every category to a GTI except cargo space, and my family doesn’t regularly need that extra capability. The handling, comfort, and responsiveness of a base model station wagon with a dual-clutch automatic transmission told me enough to know that the GTI with a six-speed manual would make me a delighted owner. Honestly, I spent more than a few minutes on AutoTempest and some forums looking at SportWagens for sale. Like all Volkswagen Auto Group turbo-charged platforms, many modifications are waiting and ready for this car. 

Still snowing!

My search for a used GTI accelerated when I returned home. The 2019 Cornflower Blue Rabbit edition was the car I wanted (no sunroof and a great color), but finding one in my price range was very difficult. Thankfully, my second-choice color of Tornado Red seemed to be plentiful in Rabbit and SE trim. During my daily stroll through the online search engines, a new listing for a 2018 Tornado Red GTI in the top Autobahn trim level appeared. The car was just a few hours from my house and within my budget. 

Ready for a test drive!

After a fun cruise to the dealership in my Boxster (with the new top down, of course), I test drove the car. It was near perfect. This GTI was unmodified with less than 27,000 miles and nearly flawless except for some rock chips on the hood. The driving experience was as I imagined after my experience with the SportWagen. With the test drive done, only the paperwork remained, and that didn’t take long.

While the Autobahn trim level provided the top tech, driving modes that make a difference, and leather seats, it also included a giant sunroof. I’m never a fan of these since I rarely use them; they add weight in the worst location and potentially leak. Unfortunately, that’s part of the give-and-take of option packages manufacturers love these days. 

I’ve put a few thousand miles on the car already with various road trips and explorations of my new home state. I have zero regrets because this GTI proved to be just the thing I wanted. This transaction was my 28th vehicle purchase, and it’s one of the very few times I didn’t have immediate buyer’s remorse within the first few days. 

Mine!

In all my travels for work and pleasure, I never thought a rental car would have such a profound influence on a vehicle purchase. I have had plenty of rental spec cars that confirmed I would never in a million years purchase one, but they were usually a model or type that I wouldn’t buy anyway. My chance encounter with a, frankly, unicorn rental car helped me eliminate a ton of driving homework. The SportWagen communicated everything I needed to know about the Golf platform and was an incredible rental car experience. 

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