The best compact hatchback you’re probably ignoring

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(Septermber 18, 2018) Volkswagen reported sales for August, and — as expected — SUVs are selling well while the car side of the ledger doesn’t look so hot. Unless we’re talking about the Beetle Coupe and Convertible, where sales are up for the month and down (Beetle Convertible) for the year-to-date. Golf R sales also are up — strongly — showing that, despite expectations, folks recognize a relative performance car bargain when they see it.

Jetta sales are down, though sales were stronger than the Atlas and Tiguan SUVs, and I suspect part of that is due to VW blowing out the old cars and taking time to get the new ones into the showroom.

What really baffles me, however, is the Golf. Sales are down 45% for the year and 55% for July-August (even GTI numbers are down, though not as much). It is the perfect car for everyone from young adults and even empty nesters, and gives the option of moving up to the SportWagen should the need to haul people and lots of stuff increase.

This is a fun, efficient, well-equipped car that rides and handles with the grace and fluidity you expect from a more expensive German sedan. It even gives you the option of choosing a manual or automatic, though you are stuck with the entry-level S (five-speed) or GTI (six-speed) if you want to shift for yourself. The rest get a six-speed automatic (dual-clutch in the GTI).

Unless you get the GTI with its 2.0-liter turbo (we’ll leave the all-wheel drive Golf R out of this discussion), VW’s turbocharged 1.8-liter EA888 inline four is under the hood. It produces 170 horsepower at 4,500 rpm and 199 lb.-ft. (184 lb.-ft. with the five-speed manual) from 1,600-4,400 rpm. EPA rated at 24 city/33 highway/28 combined, this combination is capable of exceeding those numbers — if you roll into the turbo. Call up the boost and you will find the acceleration to be lively, but the fuel economy disappointing.

Pressing the “Car” button on the audio unit’s touchscreen, however, and VW’s Think Blue driving coach pops up. Normally, I equate these gimmicks with communist re-education camps as they try to tell you how to drive the vehicle “properly,” but found it fun to see how I would do if the screen was off versus when it was on. (The system tracks your progress either way.) Once you stop worrying about getting run over when starting to accelerate from a dead stop, it’s pretty easy to rack up some impressive numbers. It was tough to drop below a score of 97 when showing even a modicum of restraint, and a score of 100 was much more common than it was in school.

That said, part of the fun is dipping into the throttle, and when this is d
one, the Golf scoots. You can feel the similarities between the SE tested and the GTI in terms of composure, feel, damping theory and control weight.

Yes, the GTI is sportier and more focused, but the Golf SE acquits itself quite well. This is a stable platform that keeps its composure as it nears the limit, bleeding in understeer to keep things pointing the right way. Unlike previous generation Golfs (and GTIs), there are no kinematic hijinks that must be snuffed out brutally by the electronic stability control system should you decide to go play.

This isn’t a Mini with go-kart feel and reactions, but it is a four-door hatchback that can do “serious” as well as “fun” without tripping over itself in the process. There is a continuum in terms of response, feel, and control input, as well as a level of sophistication. Though its size and price class causes you to expect the worst, the Golf never gets thrashy.

As we have come to expect from VW, the interior is nicely detailed, and made from quality materials. The control layout is logical and easy to use, and the seats are comfortable. There is 93.5 cubic feet of interior room, 16.5 cubic feet of space under the parcel shelf with the split-fold rear seat up, and 53.7 cubic feet with it down. You can even lower the cargo floor by nearly four inches if your items are particularly tall. With the rear seats up that opens nearly 23 cubic feet  of space if you want to go all the way to the headliner with stuff.

About the only thing missing in the Golf is an all-wheel drive option, rugged looking body cladding, and a raised ride height. Thank God for that. This is a car, not some soft-roader SUV wannabe that will never go off-roading or have its third row occupied. It’s a car, and it does the things cars do quite well. And by buying one you don’t have to apologize for following the herd.

Our test Golf SE had no options and, with the $850 destination charge, had an MSRP of $25,605. That’s decent value. Why more folks don’t see it is beyond me.

The Virtual Driver