The Volkswagen Golf, redesigned for 2015, offers multiple personalities, whether the traditional hatch in two-door or four-door versions, the sporty GTI, the Golf R, the electric e-Golf, the all-wheel-drive Golf SportWagen, and the Golf Alltrack wagon. There’s also a four-door sedan, but that’s called a Jetta.
Much of what makes the Golf so good is the sweetest powertrain of its kind in the business. Its 1.8-liter turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder makes 170 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque, mated to a seamless six-speed automatic. (The base S model comes with a five-speed manual, and its engine makes less torque.) The Alltrack and all-wheel-drive SportWagen take either a six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch automatic.
Most of the changes for 2018 are in the packaging, the mixing of available equipment for each model, and it can be hard to follow. One thing you can see is new LED taillamps, and new infotainment available; one thing you can feel is 10 more horsepower in the front-wheel-drive GTI. Last year that 10 hp was available as an option called the Performance Package, but for 2018 GTI is already packaged with that performance. It comes with a six-speed manual or dual-clutch automatic manual that’s precise and crisp, the best in the business. VW invented the dual clutch, years ago, and hasn’t lost the lead. They call it the DSG, for direct shift gearbox. Mechanically and internally, it’s a manual transmission; but to the driver it’s a super-sharp automatic.
Then there is the one and only Golf R, using the beefy Haldex all-wheel drive system to plant on the pavement a heady 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. Standard transmission is a six-speed manual, but for 2018 a new seven-speed dual-clutch is available. The Golf R is rival to the Ford Focus RS and Subaru WRX STI.
The Golf S gets an EPA estimate of 25/36 City/Highway, or 29 Combined miles per gallon. Wagons with the six-speed dual-clutch automatic get the same 29 mpg. The GTI gets just a bit less, while the Golf R with its horsepower drops down to 22/31 mpg.
Last year the Golf was named a Top Safety Pick+ by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, when equipped with advanced safety features.
The Golf hatchback comes as S, SE, and SEL; the GTI as S, SE, and Autobahn; and then there’s the Golf R, the SportWagen and Alltrack.
Standard equipment on the Golf S includes power windows and locks, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, power-reclining front seats, a 6.5-inch infotainment screen, and 16-inch steel wheels. Golf SE adds an 8.0-inch screen, leatherette upholstery, and 16-inch alloy wheels. Golf SEL adds 17-inch alloy wheels, a moonroof, dual-zone automatic climate control, and ambient cabin lighting.
Golf SportWagen comes with VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive available in a package including 16-inch alloy wheels and heated seats. Golf Alltrack adds leatherette upholstery, and on the full-tile Alltrack SEL there’s a Fender sound system and 18-inch alloy wheels, along with the extra half-inch of ground clearance.
Golf GTI S is equipped like the regular Golf. The GTI SE adds LED headlamps, 8.0-inch infotainment screen, a blind spot monitor, and automatic emergency braking. The GTI Autobahn has leather, moonroof, and active dampers.
The Golf R has Volkswagen’s Digital Cockpit, a high-resolution LCD screen that replaces conventional gauges. It’s a system that came from Audi where it’s been praised. Like the GTI, the adaptive suspension with active dampers is optional.
Available safety features include automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, park distance control, and automatic headlamps.
Volkswagen is stubborn in its clinging to pure rather than trendy styling, and bless their hearts for it. The Golf is clean, especially the SportWagen, and it’s a great relief. It’s not edgy, it’s smooth. No attitude. It mirrors the engineering.
That said, the GTI does bring some sport and maybe attitude. Its stance is lower, on the sport suspension, while the red brake calipers show between the spokes of the 17-inch alloy wheels. There are side skirts and a rear diffuser, as well. And you can’t have a diffuser without showing your attitude.
The Alltrack has some exterior elements that the cleaner SportWagen doesn’t have: cladding on its lower sides, foglamps, a honeycomb grille, and its own bumpers.
The cabin is as clean as the body, functional and spacious. The materials are not expensive but don’t feel cheap. The instrumentation is intuitive and easy to read and operate. The driver doesn’t have to work to understand his car, unlike so many German cars. The centerstack is oriented toward the driver, and the gauges are hooded so there’s no glare. Some thinking has clearly gone into the design.
The GTI and Golf R have a sport steering wheel and shift knob, stainless steel pedals, and an instrument panel with no-nonsense gauges. The sport seats are a plaid fabric, with a black headliner and red ambient lighting.
We got great seat time during one week in a 4Motion SportWagen, a long road trip, and we found the cabin to totally easy, comfortable, relaxing, and very quiet. The powertrain and suspension had much to do with that, of course.
The front seats are the best, perfectly supportive and easy to adjust for all body sizes. The leatherette feels a bit rubbery, while the less expensive but rugged plaid upholstery feels just fine.
There three touchscreens: base 5.0 inch, upper trim 6.5 inch, and top option 8.0 inch. This big screen gets its own new infotainment system.
It might be a bit tight in the back seat for three passengers, but it’s easy to climb in and out. In the hatchback, there are 22.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, that’s quite a lot. The seatbacks lower with a quick pull release, to open things up for 52.7 cubic feet. Bring in the SportWagen, and you have 30.4 cubic feet behind the rear seat, and 66.5 with it folded, although unfortunately it doesn’t fold completely flat.
We put more than 700 miles on a 4Motion SportWagen in one week, and didn’t want to leave it. We averaged 30 mpg, most of it on a 70-mph interstate, and the 1.8-liter turbo and paddle-shifting six-speed DSG transmission were flawlessly smooth. They achieved that kind of perfection you want in a car like this: you didn’t know they were there, but they always were there for whatever you needed or wanted. Seamless acceleration with no turbo lag. We can’t remember the last time we drove a four-cylinder that was this smooth and effortless at 75 mph.
The ride, the clear and intuitive instrumentation, there’s nothing we would even nitpick. The SportWagen was an S model with no options, and there was nothing we missed. The infotainment, with satellite radio, was just fine. It lacked navigation, but we had our cellphone with mobile apps.
With any Golf, the handling and drivability match the merits of the powertrain. Maybe the S hatchback won’t corner like a Mazda3, but the GTI will, and the R goes beyond that.
We also got seat time in a Golf with the five-speed manual transmission, whose throws of the lever are rather long. The six-speed manual is stronger than the five-speed, and that sixth gear has a taller ratio, so the revs at freeway speed are lower and the car quieter. But still, the six-speed DSG automatic is so good that it’s our choice.
The sporty GTI is perfectly drivable to the grocery store, even with its firmer suspension and quicker steering. So it’s more fun and satisfying out in the twisties, if you like to play. And again you get those crisp DSG shifts with paddles.
Golf R is for serious players, with its 292 horsepower as opposed to the GTI’s 220 hp, and its aggressive suspension tuning. There are four driving modes (Comfort, Normal, Race, and Individual) that adjust the throttle, transmission and steering response, and the firmness of the ride. The Individual mode allows separate setting of these things. Most people don’t and can’t get that specific, and even if they did, things change with each section of the road. So it seems like Individual mode would really only make sense on the track, and changed with each track.
Smooth and refined, all the Golf models are more than contenders in their respective classes. The 30-mpg 4Motion SportWagen with the DSG offers a lot of value: Smooth ride and silent, clean cabin. It offers everything the Alltrack does except big wheels and cladding. The Golf R comes out favorably in many areas when compared to the Ford Focus RS and Subaru WRX STI. For years the STI was the star of the pocket-rocket class, now the Focus RS is, but the Golf R deserves more attention.
Sam Moses contributed to this report.