The 2016 Volkswagen Golf serves as the designated adult of the compact hatchback class. It’s sensibly styled inside and out, refined to a degree, and utterly composed on the road. From behind the wheel, you get that classic German feel so important to VW fans, tempered by the smooth drivability that most Americans favor.
Redesigned for 2015, the Golf receives a few tech updates for 2016, including new infotainment touchscreens that support Apple Car Play and Android Auto. A rearview camera is now standard on all but the base mode, and the newly available Driver Assistance package offers advanced accident-avoidance technology. The turbodiesel TDI model has been dropped due to emissions issues.
The Golf is offered in two-door, four-door, and wagon body styles. Most are powered by a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 170 horsepower, matched to your choice of a 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission. The 1.8-liter is EPA rated at 25/37 mpg City/Highway and 30 mpg Combined with the manual. Adding the automatic reduces by these ratings by 1 mpg.
Performance versions get a 2-liter turbo four-cylinder that produces 210 or 292 horsepower depending on the model. The regular 2-liter is EPA rated at 25/34 mpg City/Highway and 28 mpg Combined, while the high-output version is rated at 23/30 mpg City/Highway and 25 mpg Combined. These ratings are virtually identical with the automatic.
Golf ($18,495) comes standard with the 1.8-liter engine and all the basics, plus a cooled glovebox and an eight-speaker sound system. Golf S ($19,575) adds a rearview camera, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and an upgraded infotainment system with HD and satellite radio.
Golf SE ($25,225) gets the automatic transmission as standard, plus a sunroof, 17-inch wheels, heated front seats, leatherette upholstery (standard on wagon), and a premium Fender sound system. Golf SEL ($27,425) adds a navigation system, front sport seats with driver power, dual-zone automatic climate control, and 18-inch wheels.
GTI packs the 210-horsepower 2-liter engine and upgraded steering and suspension systems. It’s available as a two- or four-door in S ($24,995) and SE ($28,025) trims. The high-performance Golf R ($35,650) comes with the 292-horsepower 2-liter, a stiffer suspension, and all-wheel drive. It comes only as a four-door in a single, well-equipped trim level.
The Golf has grown more rounded over the years, but its basic shape is still upright and crisp. The long, nearly flat roof permits ample rear headroom and cargo space, though it’s not as sexy as the sloping tops worn by some competitors. While the Golf looks handsome and confident, there’s nothing dramatic to see. The styling is as sensible as it gets in this class.
The GTI gets some visual tweaks to complement its sportier performance, including aerodynamic side skirts, a rear spoiler, and dual chrome tailpipes. The sport suspension reduces overall height slightly. The Golf R looks the same, except for its special badging and quad exhaust outlets. Both the GTI and R get their own wheels designs.
The conservative styling theme carries over to the inside, which features clean, angular shapes and well-defined controls. Most surfaces are covered in soft, nicely grained materials. Light metallic trim helps brighten the otherwise black dash and console. The mood is subdued and sporty, not unlike German cars costing far more.
The relatively boxy body provides impressive head and shoulder room for this class. Front passengers will be plenty comfortable on long trips, and the back feels spacious enough for a pair of full-size adults. You get a 22.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, and an exceptional 52.7 cubic feet with it folded. If that’s not enough, there’re always the wagon, officially called SportWagen, with a total of 66.5 cubic feet, which bests many compact crossovers.
The GTI and Golf R get a sport steering wheel and shift knob, red ambient lighting, and upgraded instrumentation. Seats are clad in tartan fabric instead of the solid cloth or leatherette used everywhere else in the lineup.
The 1.8-liter is more powerful than most base engines in this class and pulls the Golf along with authority. Quick bursts of power are there when you need them, and yet the engine never feels like it’s working too hard. In fact, it’s unusually refined for its size.
The electric power steering feels light, precise, and well-tuned for everyday driving. The relatively firm suspension provides stable handling, but it’s compliant enough to permit a comfortable ride. The Golf’s rolling smoothness and low noise levels make it a surprisingly good long-distance cruiser. While it’s not the sportiest choice in this class, it’s certainly one of the most balanced.
Although the GTI focuses more on performance, it’s also very easy to live with on a daily basis. The 2-liter engine and beefier suspension transform the Golf into a genuine driver’s car. It’s quick, nimble, and composed at high speeds. The available Performance Pack tacks on upgraded brakes and 10 extra horsepower for even edgier performance. You can also order an adaptive suspension system that smooths out the ride without interfering with handling.
The Golf R feels like a GTI that’s been to a tuning shop. The highly modified 2-liter takes the R from zero to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds. Various suspension upgrades and the performance-tuned all-wheel drive system give the sensation of being bolted to the pavement. Even so, the R can behave like a perfect gentleman when you want it to. There are three driving modes (Comfort, Normal, Race) to suit your mood, plus an Individual mode that you can program yourself.
The Golf is a well-rounded compact that concentrates on what matters most to buyers shopping in this class. It manages to be highly practical without losing its uniqueness. Those wanting something different will be able to find it. That makes the Golf one of the few cars that appeals to the masses and the soul.