Marketers are nothing without their jargon. They love to make broad generalizations about your hypothetical car-buying trajectory and the path that leads you into the driver’s seat, simplistically categorizing car shoppers with decisive-sounding heuristics like “purchase funnel” and “customer journey.” And many small cars feel as if they were intended to be a cheap and not very satisfying entry point into a brand’s portfolio, deliberately holding back features and content to lure the buyer into that perfect marketing-prescribed journey toward more profitable models.
For even deeper coverage of the Golf, view our Buyer’s Guide in-depth review.
The Volkswagen Golf stands in stark contrast to this catch-and-move-up strategy. This is precisely why we’ve honored it with a 10Best Cars award now eight years running, as it truly feels as if VW hasn’t held back any of its vast carmaking know-how, while eschewing nearly all of the obvious cost-cutting measures found in many of its competitors’ compact hatchbacks. If you never drove anything more expensive in the VW (or even Audi) hierarchy, in many ways you’d not miss much-the brand’s character is fully expressed in the Golf. And here’s why it gets so much engineering love: Although a relatively small player in the United States, the Golf is the VW behemoth’s global best-seller (nearly a million were sold last year), making this model as critical to VW as the F-150 pickup is to Ford.
In our testing we’ve found the Honda Civic to be both quicker and more fuel efficient, but inline-fours don’t get any smoother than the Golf’s 170-hp turbocharged 1.8-liter iron-block engine. We appreciate its prompt tip-in from rest, and although it propels the Golf to only a modest, 7.7-second run to 60 mph, it does so with sonorous sophistication that’s better than that of many four-cylinder-powered vehicles wearing luxury labels. On our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test loop, we saw 36 mpg, 3 mpg better than its EPA highway estimate. The only downside here is that, for fuel-economy purposes, the six-speed automatic transmission, as found on our test car, sometimes compels the engine to lug down into its lower register, causing some cabin boom (a common issue industry-wide these days). But that’s easily remedied by pulling the shift lever back into Sport mode, during which keen observers will note the high-quality action of the Golf’s shifter.
The shifter is only the beginning of the list of little things done right in the Golf. There’s the automatic up/down function for the windows at all four corners. There’s a beautifully tailored standard leather-wrapped steering wheel and a uniform soft-touch dashboard with no unsightly cutlines. And there’s the precise action of the shift paddles (which are, incidentally, the same as those used in some Audis). Although the seats lack lateral support and we’re dubious of VW’s noncommittal approach to the adjusters-partially powered, partially manual-their comfort is excellent with just-right seat-foam density. It’s hard not to be impressed by the clever rotating VW badge that releases the liftgate and also hides (and keeps clean) the backup camera. Even below the surfaces there are pleasant surprises, such as the carpeted well beneath the cargo hold that not only pampers the mini spare but no doubt contributes to a cabin that’s among the most hushed in its segment. Throughout the interior and exterior, build quality is meticulously tight.
When in Doubt, Facelift
Along with the addition of a lengthy six-year/72,000-mile warranty, the 2018 model gets a minor facelift, with front LED running lights (although not the slim and better-looking light pipes that are on the GTI), LED taillights, updated infotainment, and-in a head-scratching move-fake exhaust outlets, a disturbing recent trend among VW and Audi vehicles. Is anyone fooled by these extraneous chrome-ringed trapezoids? The actual (dual) exhaust exits on the left side, just ahead of the rear bumper.
Other than the infotainment, the interior isn’t touched by the facelift. The rear seat continues with generous headroom and average legroom, and the Golf’s large hatchback opening allows its cargo hold to ingest larger-than-expected items.
Although the Golf range is broad-in addition to this hatchback model, there’s a SportWagen variant, the lifted and all-wheel-drive Alltrack wagon, sportier GTI and R models, and an EV-there are only two trim levels for the basic Golf. VW offers the base S model and the $2745 more expensive SE tested here, which adds proximity entry, heated leatherette seats, 16-inch wheels, and a larger and more vibrant 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. Neither model offers any factory options outside of an automatic transmission ($1100) and the choice of paint and upholstery colors.
Dynamically, the Golf is more than competent, but for enthusiast types like us, we strongly suggest spending a bit more to step up to the $27,265 GTI, which brings advantages beyond its 220-hp turbo four. The Golf has substantially more body roll and is generally far less fun than the GTI when pushed into corners with vigor that approaches its modest 0.83-g maximum cornering limit. However, there are hints of life at the rear end during transient maneuvers. Its road isolation is impressive, though; on pockmarked roads, the Golf does more smothering and covering than a Waffle House, even if we found the 16-inch wheels on our SE test car to look rather undersize (S models ride on even smaller 15-inchers). The steering ratio is on the slow side, but the effort buildup is linear and natural, as is the excellent brake-pedal response.
If we’re being picky, and we always are, there’s a below average but not terminally insufficient amount of stowage space inside the Golf, including a particularly small center-console bin. The USB port in the forward bin is buried a bit too deeply for easy access, so plan to buy a dedicated cord and leave it connected. And relative to the Golf’s most feature-laden peers, there are a couple of things missing-for instance, heated seats are included with the SE model, but there’s no heated steering wheel on any Golf, up to and including the $40,635 R. Also, the manual-transmission option is an ancient five-speed unit, but now that the six-speed has appeared in the Golf’s sedan counterpart, the new 2019 Jetta, we hope it will soon appear in the hatchback as well.
The Golf continues to provide an incredible level of sophistication and practicality for its modest price. If you’re looking for a car whose appeal won’t fade during the daily grind, the journey can stop here.
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