The Volkswagen Golf has long been a staple of economical travel. Over the years, the Golf family has grown to include a number of different variants, and barring some slight adjustments, the whole family is back for 2018.
The 2018 Volkswagen Golf underwent a mid-cycle refresh. There are new bumpers on every model, as well as LED taillights, some new paint colors and some new wheel designs. But those aren't the biggest changes -- that's left to the tech.
I was given the chance to drive every member of the 2018 Volkswagen Golf lineup, and I'll discuss each briefly below. But before I get to individual vehicles, I'll talk about the tech that's new for this year.
2018 Golf Tech Updates
The two major updates that affect multiple Golf variants are newer, larger infotainment screens, as well as Volkswagen Digital Cockpit, which replaces the gauge cluster with a screen.
The infotainment system is largely the same as the one that came before, but it's bigger, sharper and more responsive. The base screen is now 6.5 inches, with a larger, 8-ish-inch unit reserved for higher trims. Touch points on either side of the screen bring up common features like media and navigation, although I will say I dislike the fact that these buttons are now touch-based and not actual, physical buttons.
As for Volkswagen Digital Cockpit, I love it. It's bright and it lays out information in a straightforward manner. It contains all the same information that the Golf's smaller information display did -- fuel economy, navigation directions, audio information -- but it's more visually appealing. Having the navigation map between the gauges is always nice, too, but I wish that little map displayed the speed limit like the head unit does.
Sadly, Digital Cockpit is only available on certain e-Golf variants and the Golf R. Other models don't get it in the US -- for now, at least.
2018 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen
I am starting with the Golf SportWagen because Volkswagen killed off the three-door Golf in the US, leaving just the five-door hatch as its base model. But the SportWagen is only a thousand or two more expensive, and unlike the five-door, you can get one in the top SEL trim. Ignore the five-door. Spend the extra money and get the wagon. It's worth it.
Full disclosure, I own a 2016 SportWagen, and I love it. Nothing major has changed here -- it still wields a 1.8-liter turbocharged I4, mated to either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic and front-wheel drive. It rides nice, it holds a bunch of crap, and it's easy on the eyes. What's not to like?
However, I'm concerned that Volkswagen is prioritizing the Alltrack over the SportWagen. The Alltrack has access to VW's new LED headlights, which the SportWagen does not. The Alltrack carries 75 percent of long-roof Golf sales, so I get it, but still, why cheap out on this one specific feature? My 2016 has LED headlights and I swear by them. What a silly omission.
2018 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack
The Golf Alltrack is basically a lifted, all-wheel-drive SportWagen. The extra lift in the suspension provides for a slightly softer ride, especially in conjunction with tires featuring thicker sidewalls. It floats a bit more than the SportWagen, but otherwise, they're largely the same car. All-wheel drive is invisible, and you won't feel its effects until they're needed.
The six-speed automatic is smooth and hits all the right shift points no matter how you're driving. The six-speed manual is okay, featuring a relatively precise shifter, but the clutch pedal lacks a well-defined bite point, so it's harder to get going smoothly. I know this sounds heretical, but I'd probably opt for the automatic over the manual -- on this model, at least.
2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI
Now we're getting into the fun stuff. For 2018, the GTI gets 10 extra horsepower, bringing its net output up to 220 hp. The GTI's classic plaid seats are standard on the SE trim now, and you can finally get the seats in conjunction with a sunroof. The top Autobahn model gets driver assist systems, parking sensors and automatic parking assist.
The GTI remains one of my favorite hot hatches, acting now as a halfway step between the Golf and the Golf R. It's a little stiffer in normal driving conditions than the Golf R, thanks to a lack of a Comfort mode, but it's still soft enough to where daily commutes won't rattle your spine.
Its manual is much more precise than the standard Golf, too. The bite position is easy to suss out, and it's easier to drive smoothly, whether your foot's barely on the gas pedal or jammed into the floor. The engine note is nice, but it's partly synthetic, as it is on the Golf R, which not everybody enjoys. The steering is faster and heavier than on the Golf, too. It's a great all-around package for someone who wants fun but not too much fun.
2018 Volkswagen Golf R
The Golf R, on the other hand, is too much fun. With 292 horsepower on tap and standard all-wheel drive, it will hustle through corners with more aplomb than the GTI. Yet, with a Comfort mode, it's still damned easy to drive day-in, day-out. Plop this hot hatch in Race mode, though, and it stays planted through corners like it's establishing a root system into the asphalt. The suspension is surprisingly pliant in Comfort mode, despite the Golf R's large wheels and thin tires.
The big news for the Golf R this year, along with its dashboard screen, is a new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. I love the six-speed manual, but the new seven-speed is more responsive than it was before, and while it shifts in a hurry, it's not uncomfortable.
However, with a starting price just under $40,000, it's an expensive proposition in the face of new competitors like the $34,000, 306-horsepower Honda Civic Type R. The Golf R is an excellent car, but I'm still on the fence as to whether or not the slightly nicer materials, dashboard screen and all-wheel drive are worth $6,000. But if you do pony up the cost of admission, you're not going to have a bad time.