Volkswagen Golf — A pleasing hatchback

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

When advising people on what's available in the compact hatchback segment we rattle off several models deserving of consideration. Much to our chagrin we seldom include one of the most classy, refined, fuel efficient and performance-oriented compact hatchbacks on the market — the Volkswagen Golf.

Let’s at least partially right that wrong. The Golf, now in the third model year of its seventh generation — VW introduced the hatchback to the U.S. 41 years ago — uses VW’s new MQB platform, the same structure found in the Audi A3 compact sedan, the Audi TT sports car, and the 2018 redesign of the VW Tiguan compact crossover.

The Golf's accurate steering and flexible chassis will please driving enthusiasts, while its comfortable, well-made interior will strike the right note for the family.

The Golf is now only available as a four-door hatchback — the two-door has been discontinued. And all Golf’s are powered by a 170 horsepower turbo 1.8-liter four-cylinder driving the front wheels through a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission.

While the Golf comes in on the short side of the compact equation in the terms of length and wheelbase — its about a half foot shorter than most nameplates with — on average — a three-inch shorter wheelbase, it actually feels bigger inside because of its more boxy styling that allows for scads of headroom, decent rear-seat legroom, and useable storage behind the seats measured at 22.8 cubic feet. And cargo space with the rear seats folded is among the largest in the segment at 52.7 cubic feet.

In top SEL configuration the Golf could be mistaken for an upscale near-luxury ride leaning more toward the Audi side. The SEL is loaded with standard features reminiscent of compact luxury nameplates such as adaptive cruise control, automatic up and down windows on all four corners, navigation and an upscale Fender Audio System. Combine the myriad of standard stuff with a quiet cabin, high quality interior fabrics, a very compliant and comfortable ride and the aforementioned energetic turbocharged four and you have all the luxury you can get south of an actual premium nameplate.

Volkswagen has made great use of its excellent engine in numerous variants, and it works extremely well in the Golf. We were pleased with performance at all speeds including merging onto a fast-moving freeway and passing slow-moving cars. For comparison the Golf has been clocked at under 7 seconds from 0-to-60 and just a tick or two over 15 seconds in a quarter mile.

While gas mileage is not at the top of the segment, it is respectable measured at 25-mpg city, 35-highway and 29-overall with the automatic transmission using regular gas. In 200 miles of mixed driving we recorded 32.5 miles per gallon.

When it comes time to have a little winding road fun the Golf handles itself well. Steering is responsive, and body lean is at a minimum under hard cornering, getting a good bite from its 18-inch tires. When it comes time to stop, the Golf is also near the top of its class with a 60-to-0 stopping distance measured at just117 feet.

And here's the thing — the 1.8-liter engine comes in all Golf trims regardless of price including S ($19,895), Wolfsburg Edition ($21,595), SE ($25,445) and SEL ($27,995).

Standard safety on all Golf trim levels is excellent with antilock brakes, stability and traction control, hill hold assist, review camera, and front side airbags and side curtain airbags. And all Golf models come standard with Automatic Post-Collision Braking. This safety system uses the airbag sensors to detect a primary impact, and applies the brakes to prevent the car from rolling forward and hitting other vehicles and objects after the initial impact. You need only to move up to the Wolfsburg trim to add forward collision warning, forward collision mitigation with automatic braking, rear cross-traffic alert and blindspot monitoring.

We found intuitive controls and switchgear including good old-fashioned tuning and volume knobs for the radio. Buttons directing the driver to navigation, audio, phone and etc. flanking the touchscreen are clear and easy to access. And Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are now standard equipment.

Our well-outfitted top trim SEL edition carried a bottom line of $30,810 that included the $1,995 Driver Assistance and Lighting Package. That package includes park distance control, parking assist, lane departure warning, and Bi-Xenon headlights with high beam assist.

If you want more horsepower and corresponding performance together with exceptional handling while retaining the overall Golf experience, we recommend the Golf GTI with six-speed automatic starting at $27,515 including destination charge. It sports a 210-horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder engine.

Base Price: $19,895; as driven, $30,810
Engine: 1.8-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 170 @ 4,500 rpm
Torque: 199 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
Transmission: 6-sped automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103.8 inches
Length" 167.5 inches
Curb weight: 2,963 pounds
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 22.8 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 52.7 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 25 city, 35 highway, 29 combined
0-60: 6.6 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Honda Civic Hatch, Chevy Cruise Hatch, Hyundai Elantra Hatch

The Good
• Excellent cargo space
• Premium looking interior
• Energetic engine

The Bad
• Small touchscreen

The Ugly
• Only one engine option