For those who err on the side of caution, the Volkswagen Golf has always been a pillar of sensible vehicle ownership. Not everybody needs to be flashy. Most people just want a car that doesn't look bad, has competitive equipment and won't be worth $1,000 in six months' time. In that sense, the Golf is a damn smart purchase.
Two-door cars aren't the most sensible vehicles, and Volkswagen does offer a four-door Golf variant, but this Golf I tested made up for its lack of doors with a rear hatchback, providing more than enough space for both cargo and rear passengers. Most competitors don't even offer coupe variants of their vehicles, nevertheless hatchbacks, and especially not two-door hatchbacks (VW doesn't call this a three-door, for whatever reason). The only one that comes to mind is Mini.
So if you are looking for a small hatchback, options are limited. Thankfully, the Golf won't really leave you wanting for more. It's not loaded with standout equipment, but based on what you get for the price you pay, it's a solid bet.
If you've seen one Golf, you've seen them all. It doesn't matter if it's an old one or a new one, the formula hasn't really changed in decades, and neither has the design language. There's no flash here, like there is on a Civic Coupe. It's restrained, it's approachable.
Volkswagen's conservative design is largely a good thing, as cars with fantastical elements and sharp creases from fore to aft don't age well, which can affect resale value. The Golf doesn't have that problem.
The Golf maximizes the feeling of usable space by keeping the dash nice and thin, too. I don't like excess dashboard real estate -- if I can't reach the area where dashboard and windshield meet, that's interior space wasted.
Overall interior layout is ace. HVAC and seat-heater switches live in one area, and the touchscreen infotainment system and its corresponding buttons and dials (hooray!) live above that. I found it easy to commit everything to muscle memory in a short time.
A monochrome information display tucks in between the straightforward black and white gauges, which you peruse with the help of buttons on the steering wheel.
The cloth seats feel rugged and waxy. Personally, I prefer this kind of material, but other editors have called it out for being a bit too hard. The leather-wrapped steering wheel isn't too chunky, but also not thin enough to belong on a 1994 Buick.
While I usually associate coupes with cramped rear seats, the Golf's hatchback shape works wonders. My 6-foot frame fit easily in the back, with loads of headroom and a front seat with a built-in handle for quick ingress and egress. It also benefits cargo volume, and with the rear seats stowed flat, I wasn't exactly hurting for storage space.
Infotainment is slowly expanding beyond the head unit and incorporating smartphones, and it's encouraging to see Volkswagen at the forefront of this trend. Even on the next-to-base TSI S model, the Golf comes equipped with a 6.5-inch touchscreen display that includes both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, along with Volkswagen's own App-Connect system.
The infotainment system itself is a breeze to use. Navigation buttons on the side make switching from page to page a low-distraction affair, and it even features a proximity sensor, hiding the icon dock from view until your hand nears the screen. It's a pretty trick feature on a $20,000 car.
Oddly enough, this is actually the first year that Volkswagen offers a USB port on the Golf. Before this, it relied on a proprietary cable system, which was both expensive and annoying for families with multiple brands of phone. I wish there was more than just the one port in the center stack, but it's better than nothing.
A backup camera is also standard on this trim level. Its resolution is high, which is an issue with not just competitors, but certain automakers in general.
The information screen between the gauges is absolutely loaded with information. Unlike others, the music tab will actually tell you what song is playing, not just the radio station you're tuned into. Once I got a feel for the steering wheel buttons, I found it easy to flip between pages without even looking. Much of the Golf's information can be easily accessed with a minimal amount of distraction.
Whereas most of its competition comes with a six-speed manual transmission (if a manual is even on offer), the Golf makes do with a five-speed. That's its biggest letdown in what is, otherwise, a rather lovely driving experience.
The predictable clutch makes this an easy car to learn on, and the shifter feels precise without being notchy. But having just five forward speeds doesn't do this 170-horsepower, 199-pound-foot engine justice. In fact, if you opt for the manual, Volkswagen detunes the engine to produce just 184 pound-feet, which is surprising. Will 15 additional torques really shatter the transmission, which is apparently made of tissue paper and glass?
On the road, steep drops in revs between gears forced me to downshift frequently. If you don't have the engine's torque at the ready, be prepared for very little forward thrust. Honestly, the six-speed automatic transmission makes this car much snappier. I should know -- I own a 2016 Golf, and while it's the heavier SportWagen, it feels quicker than the two-door manual.
Otherwise, the Golf's driving dynamics are a home run. Chunky tire sidewalls on this specific trim soak up bad roads like a champ, so despite the car's stiff chassis, the ride never once borders on the harsh side. Even with thinner tire sidewalls, ride quality is still among the best in the segment.
Steering is quick without being sensitive and twitchy, and understeer is hard to come by unless I'm really trying for it. The brake pedal feels solid, but the brakes themselves are prone to giving up the ghost much earlier than I would have anticipated.
I picked up on the brake fade while filming on a homemade autocross course that we created as part of our next Shootout video. After just a few sessions, brake fade was rather apparent. The five-speed's tall gearing wasn't the best on our homemade course, either, where my choices were limited to nearly banging off the rev limiter in first gear or being outside the torque band in second gear.
As for fuel economy, it's not as good as I'd hoped. EPA estimates of 25 mpg city and 37 mpg highway are impressive in a bubble, but when you look at the competition, it falters. Thankfully, the EPA figures are easy to beat. With a light foot, I was seeing closer to 30 mpg city and 38-39 mpg highway. Just keep the upshifts low on the tachometer, and the car will stay thrifty.
Volkswagen does not include many options with each trim level. As such, this $19,575 Golf TSI S had an out-the-door price of $20,395, with $820 for destination and handling.
The Volkswagen Golf is part of a strange competitive set. Its most prominent competitor is the Honda Civic Coupe, since it's also rather new, although it lacks a hatchback. What does have a hatchback, though, is the Mini Cooper Hardtop, but its starting price is thousands of dollars above the Golf's, which may limit its cross-shopping appeal.
Beyond that, there are a few random outliers, like the Scion tC and the Kia Forte Koup. Everything else has four doors, which is more in line with the Golf's four-door variant.
On paper, the Volkswagen lags behind the Civic. It's down 1 mpg in both city and highway figures, and its base price is higher than a similarly equipped Civic Coupe. Hell, it's even more expensive than the base Focus five-door hatchback. It's priced a bit higher than the tC or the Forte Koup, but the Golf is far better on gas than those two.
I loved the Golf because it provided a surprising amount of versatility for a two-door, and it has a better on-road demeanor than its closest competitor. It is a bit more expensive, but the fit and finish, inside and out, is excellent. Fuel economy isn't all that, but a light foot can boost the figures in the Golf's favor. If you want a classy, albeit conservative car for not that much money, the Golf is a tough act to top.