VW Golf TSI SEL sets up a nice hatchback, but good luck finding one

By Paul Borden

(March 3, 2017) I just spent a week in the 2017 Volkswagen Golf TSI SEL and though it isn’t the “hot hatch” that the Ford Focus RS that I had a couple of weeks ago is, it still offers a lot in the way of driving fun and in a more economical package.

The base MSRP for the Golf is $27,995 and even tacking on an optional package like the SEL Driving Assistance and Lighting Package that includes park assist, lane departure warning, HID headlights and similar niceties plus the $820 destination and delivery charge runs to just $30,610.

The Focus RS starts at $36,775 including destination and delivery and options ran the final tab on my test vehicle to $41,550.

In addition, the Golf sips fuel at the rate of 25 miles-per-gallon city, 35 highway, and 29 combined while the Focus RS gulps it at a rate of 19 mpg city, 25 highway, and 22 combined. The RS also requires premium fuel. The Golf gets by on regular.

Sure, it’s going to take you about three seconds longer to get from zero-to-60 mph in the Golf than the Focus RS, but what’s your hurry?

So if you are shopping in the compact hatchback segment, the 2017 Golf TSI SEL has a lot to offer.

But you can’t have it.

The top-of-the-line SEL trim was a limited production model in the Golf lineup for 2017 and the window for a dealership to order one has closed, a company rep said. So unless you’re able to find a dealer who ordered one and didn’t sell it, or maybe someone who bought one and has had a change of heart, you’re going to be out of luck.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that other 2017 Golf models are actually less expensive than they were in 2016. With a base model starting at under $20,000, a well-equipped Golf TSI S will run $21,035 for 2017. For 2016 it was $23,680. Part of that is attributable to the German automaker’s simplification of the Golf lineup, including the elimination of the SEL trim.

Don’t despair, though. The Golf Wolfsburg edition (named for the town in Germany where the company is headquartered) comes with a lot of extras like a panoramic sunroof, leatherette seating surfaces, keyless access with push-button start, heated front seats, automatic headlights, rain-sensing windshield wipers, 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels, special floor mats, forward collision warning and emergency braking, and blind-spot monitor with rear traffic alert.

With a couple of exceptions, like 18-inch wheels, that’s pretty much the same as the SEL offers, and they both come with a 1.8-liter turbo 4 engine that is rated at 170 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed automatic transmission shiftable via steering wheel-mounted paddles or the shifter on the console is standard on the SEL, and it is front-wheel drive. (Those manual shifts are barely noticeable, btw.)

Though it may lack the overall power and track capability of the Focus RS, the Golf TSI SEL still packs a pretty good punch. It takes some of the pain out of driving in the usual heavy traffic that is as common to South Florida as tourists’ sunburns.

In its seven generation, the VW Golf has been around for over 40 years in the U.S., where it also has borne the nameplate Rabbit for a couple of generations, and thus VW has had time to get it right. It is pretty roomy inside for a compact, though legroom in the backseat can be compromised by where those in front, especially the driver, adjust their seats.

Maybe because it’s European, but the Golf TSI SEL has the interior ambiance of a much more expensive vehicle. It’s just too bad there aren’t more of them available.

What I liked about the 2017 Volkswagen Golf TSI SEL: It offers lots of nice standard features, like a Fender premium audio system, and the operation of the infotainment features is fairly basic (thank goodness for knobs for the audio and A/C) with one exception (see below).

What I didn't like about the 2017 Volkswagen Golf TSI SEL: The voice command system, at least for operating the audio, is one of the most frustrating I've ever dealt with. The system doesn't seem to respond commands even when you follow instructions. It does tell you to speak more softly if you yell at it, but that didn’t seem to help. I didn’t try it on the nav system. I was afraid of where it might take me.

Would I buy the 2017 Volkswagen Golf TSI SEL? I’m not big into compact hatchbacks so you wouldn’t find the Golf TSI SEL on my list. But if that’s the genre you’re looking for, the Golf deserves a look. If you can’t find a 2017 SEL, check out the Wolfsburg edition.