Wagons don’t have to suck.
A wagon can be many things. A Griswald family hauler, a Portlandian’s dream machine or, for most car guys, it’s pure opportunity. They have the versatility of a crossover, the maneuverability of a sedan and, in some cases, the power of a sports car.
My goal is to modify my VW Golf Sportwagen enough to enter it into an open track day at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca this fall. Oh, and bring my family along for the round trip without a backup car.
For me, the wagon met several initial needs as a new dad. It fit the car seat I wanted (ok needed, thank you Chicco NextFit Zip Convertible Car Seat) and it had the tech, space and power plant I’ve been itching to tune. The VW Golf platform isn’t a foreign language to me though. During my time as a editor for various magazines, I’ve been able to test drive every single generation since the Mk1. I was sold on the car long before i knew our paths would cross out of necessity.
As most soon-to-be first time dads, you can imagine that I was a bit surprised and excited hearing the news about becoming a parent. I needed to take a hard look at my transportation situation. My Fiat 500 Abarth wasn’t going to meet my new life’s demands. Thankfully, my time spent with the MK7 Golf years before made the car hunt a little easier. It offered the space, it had presence and the tuning community to realize the car’s true potential.
Today, I am the proud owner of a black, 2016 VW Golf Sportwagen S 1.8T with DSG transmission.
Now, what would my first mod be?
THE BIG IDEA
Like any good build, you need a goal and a plan. Rather than attempt an all out blitz of high horsepower aftermarket bits, I needed to take a look at what I was really aiming to get out of this build. I had to consider the vast majority of family duties the car would be performing and still satisfy my inner project car desires. It had to look mature, have the power to get a few unsuspecting Porsche owners to nod their heads and it couldn’t be too loud. After all, I did have a baby that found sleeping in the car enjoyable and for one other reason. I would build a family wagon that could take on my favorite track – Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
So, with that, a goal was established. Create a car that could accommodate my family, our gear, some essential track tools and hit the road to take on an open track day with the entire family in tow.
While all of this made perfectly good sense in my mind, I needed to get my wife on board first. To get her on my side, I took a two phased approach. Phase one, make sure she drove my brother’s Mk7 GTI first so she understood the potential my Sportwagen had. Phase two of my plan was to find a track that was far enough away from home but close enough to a civilized town that she wouldn’t hesitate to jump in the car and take on the journey. The added bonus was I found an open track day that landed dead on my daughter’s birthday. What better way to celebrate?
Thankfully, she loved driving my brother’s car and the prospect of heading to Monterey for a weekend. She finally understood what I was aiming for. With the whole gang on board, the build could commence.
STAGE ONE: HANDLING
Slamming a car is too damn easy. Get a set of coilovers, bottom out the threads, remove the bump stops and squeeze a set of oversized wheels and tires under the fenders to give an aggressive appearance. But appearance doesn’t do squat when you are dropping six stories in elevation under full load in the Cork Screw. Not to mention loading up the car with baby gear and the family will stress out the kit faster.
I would need a system that had adjustable damping to handle the day-to-day driving needs along with ability to dial it in for an occasional track venture. Luckily CATuned has us covered in that department. Coilovers alone can improve many handling attributes of a car but most forget to upgrade other stock components that need to be addressed as well. A few undercarriage braces, upgraded urethane bushings and improved adjustable sway bars will help keep the car tight in the corners, less jittery on open roads and predictable for those occasional canyon detours. Also taking the time to upgrade the engine and transmission mounts help control the weight transfer under acceleration and braking can alter the balance of the car. While race graded improvements are enticing they often offer extremely stiff solutions, translating into a rougher ride when you aren’t at the track. Stage 1 components with a tolerable amount of give are the components I’m aiming for to, again, keep life in balance.
But what good is a new suspension system without the right rubber and wheels to make it all look right. Fifteen52 is jumping on board and supplying the project with a set of their newest cast mesh wheels, the FormulaGT in 19×8.5″ for daily driving and a set of their tried and true 17×8.5″ Tarmac wheels for track days. What we’ll wrap them in remains to be seen but luckily manufacturers that make respectable UHP daily driving tires also make a good selection of track focused DOT tires.
STAGE TWO: ENGINE
Yes an upgraded turbo swap with an intercooler the size of a hipster’s reclaimed wood dining table would be great, but budget, time and the family are all key stakeholders in this build. Not just my desire to shame a car above my class. A respectable target of 250-275 horsepower with about 300 lb-ft. of torque should be just enough huff and puff to handle a straightaway battle or the need to shoot out of an apex on demand. More so than the restricted stock 170hp / 184 lb-ft. that’s for sure. An ECU flash, DSG gearbox software upgrade and programmable ESC nanny eliminator to work with a less restrictive CAT down pipe, improved boost piping, intake, cooling solutions, and exhaust should hit my target. Provided the exhaust can meet the 90dB limit at Mazda Raceway that is. I have a strange obsession with reviving a classic turn up DTM exhaust system, we’ll see what nets out in the end.
STAGE THREE: INTERIOR
Inside will be modest but well appointed for efficient functionality with a bit of style. Ditching the faux-brushed aluminum plastic trim for real carbon fiber will help glam up the joint. A pair of larger paddle shifters and a proper “captain’s chair” will be installed. If I’m lucky, maybe even a flat-bottom clubsport Alcantara steering wheel upgrade will bring enough attitude to the car.
STAGE FOUR: EXTERIOR
A few things will need to be addressed to make sure the car is “track appropriate”. Adding a skid plate is like insurance for your oil pan and steering components, with an added bonus of improving turbulent air flow under the car. A rear Oettinger wing with vertical hatch extensions will help the air traveling over and off the car transition smoothly back into the atmosphere. The front will receive a lip and a removable splitter along with side skirts and rear diffuser to keep air nice and tidy around and under the car. A 3M clear bra will be applied to the front nose, entire hood and both front fenders to minimize rock chip damage from the road trips and track adventures. Who knows, maybe a modern take on an old-school livery theme might find its way on the car at some point.
STAGE FIVE: FUNCTIONALITY
The rear tailgate will house a thick rubber mat along with a custom retractable and removable track system to help ease loading and unloading of fussy gear. Up top, a roof rack from Thule along with a single bike holder and aero shell will help ease the payload of the rear suspension by redistributing the weigh evenly and help with cabin space inside the car. Not to mention, installation and removal of the kit is an easy thing to manage when you want take on the track without the added gear and rig.
Luckily, talking about the cool things we’ll be adding to the car need not simply be in word format only, a rendering helps keep the project in perspective and the whole team, in this case my lady, motivated to see the whole thing come together.
You can follow the build on Instagram @AutomotiveConduct but you can also show us your ultimate dad cars by using the hashtag #DadConduct. We’ll feature a series of cars throughout the build and would love the opportunity to showcase yours! Sedan, wagon, old school, new school, two, three, four or more wheels are all accepted. If it’s fast, fun and yours – SHOW US!
Having a wagon can be fun. It doesn’t have to just live out its life as an econo-box destined to be plastered in cereal and baby vomit. It can still be a fun machine to satisfy everyone’s needs. If our rendering doesn’t incite a wagon racing series… I don’t know what will.