I won't go into the minutiae of what we were looking for in a car, but our criteria included:
- Must be a manual transmission
- Must have some cargo space
- Must seat 4 (or more) adults comfortably
- Not a minivan, but some flexibility on a smaller SUV.
After lots of reading, research, soul searching, and pestering friends for ideas, we finally narrowed the field down to four that seemed like good candidates.
Volkswagen Golf TDI Wagon
After viewing one in person, we quickly eliminated the Mazda 5 because, well, it's a minivan. They can call it a crossover all they want, but it's a minivan. We haven't ruled out the Forester, but between it and the Outback the latter actually has more cargo space and about the same ground clearance, so we don't see a lot of advantage in going up to the larger vehicle.
We test drove a Golf and an Outback today and then compared thoughts later over ice cream. Some of these are subjective, some are objective. In any event it is a pretty tough choice between these two, though we are both leaning toward one at the moment.
Driving and handling:
The TDI engine in the Golf was surprisingly punchy, and its shorter wheelbase gave it much tighter handling than the Outback. On the other hand the Outback had a smoother ride - especially when we took it off the main road and went flying down a deeply rutted gravel road. It also handled well in the gravel.
The Golf was quieter, especially at highway speeds. Both vehicles were roomy inside. They were both about the same in the front, but the Subaru was a bit more voluminous in the back seats. Interestingly, the rear seats in the Outback actually recline a bit - a nice touch there. Both cars had a nasty problem with the sight lines when doing a left shoulder-check, but we both found the Golf to be marginally worse than the Outback. Overall I found sitting in the front of the Volkswagen to be a more pleasant experience than sitting in the front of the Subaru - especially when we got back to the dealership and slipped into the leather seats of the high-line model (which is the one we would be looking to buy).
I am a little biased here because the Golf had a wonderful air of familiarity behind the wheel. We both preferred the feel of the clutch in the Subaru, but we both preferred the gearbox in the Golf. The Outback had very little play, and it was disturbingly difficult to tell at times if one was shifting from 3rd or 5th gear. Things like AC, Radio and the like was a wash between them. They were located where you would expect, and were intuitive to use. We were disappointed that neither car offers independent AC/Heat controls like we have in the EOS, but I guess that's a different breed of car so it's not fair to compare. I like the placement of the cruise control buttons on the Subaru a bit better than the ones on the Golf (which are in the same place as they are in our EOS - on the turn-signal lever. More than once I've turned on the left blinker while trying to adjust our speed.)
According to most reviews the overall cost of ownership for the Golf is lower than the Outback. Mostly. The Subaru would be about $100 a year cheaper to insure based on our calculations. For gas mileage, we're looking at about 25/35 for the Outback and 30/45 for the Golf. In terms of price, depending on trim packages they are very close with the Subaru coming in about $2000 cheaper if we pay cash.
There are a few intangibles as well that play into our decisions.
The Outback is, in both our opinions, a nicer looking vehicle. It is also available in more colours.
For all that they add a surprising amount of trim to their baseline model, it irks me a bit that Subaru doesn't give you the option of leather seats if you get a manual shifter. The leather seats in the high-line Golf were glorious. At least both cars offer heated seats - a serious consideration in this climate.
Poor Weather Driving:
The Outback has all-wheel drive and high ground clearance. On the other hand the Golf has a shorter wheel base, and our experience with the EOS is that VWs handle very well in snowy and icy conditions.
The Golf seemed to be a bit more flexible in how you fold down the back seats to accommodate cargo. I liked how you could fold down the the back seats in three sections (rather than just 2 in the Outback) so that you could load up longer items but still seat four people. On the other hand the Outback simply has more cargo space overall.
The Golf - especially the high-line ones with the standard shifter - are in really tight supply at the moment. When we talked to the salesman up at the VW dealership, he admitted that they were starting to get low on the 2011 models, and that we might actually want to wait for the 2012s to come in. On the other hand the girl over at Subaru assured us that our wait for our model would be, at worst, a couple of weeks.
The VW dealer we have been dealing with has been very good, and they are much much closer to home than the only Subaru dealership in town. The Subaru lot is about as far as you can get from our house and still be inside city limits.
Anyway, if you've read this far you have probably guessed that we are leaning toward the Subaru at the moment, but it's not an easy choice. Our experience with the VW, both with our car and with the dealership, has been good (once we got the AC fixed). The turbo diesel in the VW is a really sexy drawing point, as are the heated leather seats. Which one will we ultimately choose? I guess you'll know when we do.