2020 Volkswagen Golf review: Supremely practical, somewhat sleepy
If versatility, real-world efficiency and easy-driving simplicity are top priorities, the Golf is an excellent choice.
It's not going to win any accolades for groundbreaking design, and nobody will confuse it with some souped-up sports car, but what the Volkswagen Golf lacks in emotional appeal, it more than makes up for in other areas. This machine is simple and honest, a real salt-of-the-earth hatchback that's not only versatile but unexpectedly satisfying.
The Golf has been around since the mid-1970s, which means VW has had decades to perfect its build. Hatchback versions of the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla are strong competition for this VW, but the folks in Wolfsburg have done their homework. The Golf has more backseat legroom and passenger volume than either the Mazda3 or Corolla, its exterior design is almost certain to age better than the Civic's, and it's got significantly more torque than that Elantra GT .
Making things easy, the 2020 Golf is available in just one trim level. Standard equipment is fairly generous and includes driver aids like blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection. Rain-sensing windshield wipers, keyless entry with pushbutton start and a sunroof are also included at no extra charge, as are one-touch down and up power windows. That last item is a real convenience that should be standard on every vehicle these days.
Unfortunately, Volkswagen does not offer adaptive cruise control, lane-centering tech or automatic high beams. To get these goodies, and more, you have to step up to the sporty GTI, which, to be fair, is a superb little hot hatch, but it costs thousands more than the humble Golf. Another disappointment is the instrument-cluster screen. A simple white-on-black affair, it looks like it was ripped from an old-school graphing calculator and is totally out of place in the 21st century. Flanking that display is a quartet of analog gauges that are crisp and attractive.
On the infotainment front, just one system is offered, Volkswagen's MIB II touchscreen array with a 6.5-inch color display. This bare-bones affair is unattractive and not particularly pleasant to use, though it gets the job done. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are included, but infuriatingly the car only has one USB port and it's of the type-C variety. This is great if you've got the latest and greatest phone, not so good if you're rocking an older model and don't have an adapter. Also, how are passengers supposed to charge their devices if there's only one port?
For better or worse, leatherette seating surfaces are your only option. A fancy name for imitation cow skin, this material looks fine and feels OK, but cloth might have been a better choice. The Golf's cabin features a nice mix of hard and soft plastics; the squishy stuff is richly textured and applied generously throughout the interior, while the solid polymers aren't egregiously cheap. I'm particularly fond of this car's dashboard layout, which is clean and unpretentious.
Most of the Golf's buttons and switches are Audi-esque: substantial feeling and of high quality. Curiously, however, the climate-control dials are super low-rent, limp and flimsy as you rotate them. Flanking the shifter on the center console is an array of plastic block-offs, injection-molded reminders of all the features you don't get.
This Vee-Dub's front bucket seats are flat and broad, designed for larger clientele. Scrawny folks like me are unlikely to find them particularly comfortable or supportive, but hey, at least they're heated. Rear-seat riders should have little to complain about. The Golf's aft accommodations offer plenty of space for heads and legs, though the backrest itself is a touch too upright for long-haul comfort.
True to form, the Golf has a generously sized cargo hold. With the rear seats upright, it offers 22.8 cubic feet of volume; fold them flat and that figure grows to 52.7. For extra versatility, there's a two-level floor at the rear. In its lowered position, it gives you a couple extra inches of height, which is ideal for hauling taller items.
In keeping with its single trim level, just one engine is offered in this car, a smooth and quiet-running 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. With direct injection, it cranks out a middling 147 horsepower, less than what you get in the Civic, Corolla or Elantra, and significantly behind than the Mazda3's 186 ponies. Rather than going for a huge horsepower figure, VW engineers tuned this engine for torque. And with 184 pound-feet available at just 1,400 rpm, it has more twist than any of those competitors, save the Mazda , which has a mere 2 lb-ft advantage.
Giving drivers some under-hood choice, two transmissions are offered in the Golf. You can get a standard six-speed manual, which is what my tester is fitted with, or you can spend an extra $800 for the available eight-speed automatic. This Golf's shifter isn't quite as crisp as I remember from past VWs, but it's still an excellent piece of engineering that moves slickly through its gates. The clutch's weighting is just about perfect, and it has a broad engagement range for easy use. This is one of those cars you can just jump in and drive without thinking about anything. Shifting with buttery smoothness, either up or down, is easy as pie.
The Golf's boosted four-cylinder provides plenty of midrange torque and gives the car unexpectedly quick acceleration, but it is possible to catch this hatchback flat-footed. You need at least 2,000 revs on the clock for it to really respond. Shift a little too early and the engine can fall into a hole that's tough for it to climb out of, a problem with other downsized, turbocharged powerplants. Another minor annoyance is this VW's habit of hanging on to revs. When you stab the clutch at or near redline to grab the next gear, the engine won't slow down, it lags for a second or so before the revs drop, something that can make changing gears a little jerky. Thankfully, when driven at a more leisurely pace it doesn't do this.
Equipped with a manual transmission, the Golf stickers at 28 miles per gallon city and 36 mpg highway. Combined, it should return 31 mpg. There's nothing wrong with those efficiency scores, though in real-world driving they prove to be woefully inaccurate. At least according to the onboard computer, I have no trouble demolishing that combined figure, averaging better than 37 mpg, even after plenty of wide-open-throttle romps. To be fair, that figure does not include any real stop-and-go commuting, but still, you should have no trouble getting astonishing fuel economy in this VW.
The car's 205/55R16 Bridgestone Ecopia tires undoubtedly help deliver that amazing efficiency score. But while great for cutting consumption, I do not care for them. They feel hard, a bit greasy and seem to lack grip when cornering. At least the tires are pretty quiet. Even when ripping down the highway they don't produce much noise.
Speaking of corner-carving, the Golf's leatherette-wrapped tiller feels nice in my hands, being both well sculpted and solid. Snake this VW through turns and it feels forgiving, though there is a touch more body roll than I'd like. Enhancing maneuverability, the steering is super light at low speeds, which makes this car a snap to park, though it bulks up nicely when driving faster for proper straight-line stability.
While it doesn't come with every single modern convenience, the 2020 Volkswagen Golf is still a lot of car for the money. Including $920 in destination fees, my tester rolled off the assembly line in Puebla, Mexico wearing a sticker price of $24,115, which makes it a relative bargain in today's world where you can push a Mazda3 hatchback into the mid-$30,000 range.
No, I don't love everything about this VW -- the front seats could be better, and I wish it offered adaptive cruise control -- but it's still a refined machine that's both versatile and impressively efficient. It won't set the world on fire, but the Golf is ultimately a satisfying machine.