The Volkswagen Golf sets the standard for its class. New to the lengthy lineup is the 2017 Golf Alltrack wagon. Based on the Golf SportWagen, the Alltrack has standard 4Motion all-wheel drive and an extra half-inch of ground clearance. All-wheel drive now is available for the 2017 Golf SportWagen S as well. Also new is the 2017 Volkswagen Golf Wolfsburg Edition positioned above the Golf S.
Turning to the sporty GTI, entry-level S models now have plaid cloth upholstery rather than imitation leather. Sport trim level is new for 2017. 2017 Golf Sport, Autobahn, and SE versions now include the Performance Package, which boosts engine output to 220 horsepower.
Last redesigned for the 2015 model year, the Golf group consists of two- and four-door hatchbacks, sporty GTIs, and a pair of wagons, plus the battery-powered e-Golf. Diesel-engine models are gone, in the wake of the emissions-testing scandal that was uncovered in 2015.
Base engine is a turbocharged 1.8-liter, direct-injected four-cylinder that makes 170 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque. A 5-speed manual gearbox is standard in some trim levels, with 6-speed automatic transmission optional. All-wheel-drive SportWagens and Alltracks may have either a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic or a 6-speed manual.
In the GTI, a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine produces 210 horsepower (220 hp with Performance Package), mating with the 6-speed manual or dual-clutch automatic. We lean toward the dual-clutch unit, which yields precise, crisp shifts. That GTI easily does double-duty, serving well as both a performance car and a daily commuter.
Strongest of all is the 2.0-liter turbo four in the Golf R, generating 292 horsepower, with Haldex all-wheel drive. Golf R and GTI models may be fitted with adjustable dampers, aimed at fine-tuning the car’s responses.
Safety is a strong point. In crash-testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Golf earned a five-star overall score, but four-star for frontal collision and rollover protection. When equipped with advanced safety features, the Golf was named a Top Safety Pick+ by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, with Good scores in every crash-test. Active-safety features are standard on the Wolfsburg Edition and GTI Autobahn, and optional for other upper trim levels.
Golf S ($19,895) has cloth upholstery, 5-inch touchscreen audio, Bluetooth, and USB connectivity, manual shift, 15-inch wheels. Four-door models include steering wheel-mounted controls and a rearview camera. A panoramic sunroof is available, and an automatic transmission ($1,100). (All prices are MSRP and do not include destination.) Golf Wolfsburg Edition ($21,595) comes with heated leatherette seats, keyless ignition, 16-inch wheels, forward collision alert with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and rain-sensing wipers. Available with automatic ($1,100). For 2017, Golf SE and SEL trim levels are sold only to order.
Golf SportWagen S ($21,580) is equipped similar to S hatchback, with available all-wheel drive ($2,250). SportWagen SE ($27,030) comes standard with automatic transmission, plus a sunroof and foglamps. SportWagen SEL ($29,970) has automatic plus active safety features, including adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, and blind-spot monitoring.
Alltrack S ($25,850) rides slightly higher than a SportWagen, with all-wheel drive and body cladding. Active safety features are available. Manual gearbox is standard, automatic transmission optional ($1,100). Alltrack SE ($29,430) adds a sunroof and keyless entry/start. Alltrack SEL ($32,890) has automatic transmission, power front seats, automatic climate control, and navigation.
Golf GTI S ($25,595), the only two-door GTI model, comes with the 210-horsepower 2.0-liter engine, a rearview camera, cloth upholstery, foglamps, and air conditioning.
GTI Sport ($27,995) includes a Performance Package (220 horsepower), keyless entry, and pushbutton start. GTI SE ($30,890) has leather seating surfaces and a sunroof. GTI Autobahn ($34,095) includes a power driver’s seat, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert.
Golf R ($35,655) is similar to GTI, but with performance upgrades that include the 292-horsepower engine, all-wheel drive, and a stiffer suspension. Golf R is available with navigation and dynamic chassis control, which aims to minimize harshness and road noise ($39,375).
Styling is unabashedly conservative; perhaps even old-fashioned and straight-laced. Practicality, not stunning beauty, is the Golf’s forte.
Standing apart from the regular Golf, the GTI maintains a more assertive stance with its lowered sport suspension, brandishing such details as LED taillights, red brake calipers, a rear diffuser, distinctive side skirts, and 17-inch Brooklyn wheels.
Also establishing its own identity is the new Alltrack, fitted with lower-body cladding, foglamps, a honeycomb grille, and unique bumpers.
Stepping inside the Golf, the comparatively prosaic body is likely to be forgotten, overridden by a spacious, functional cabin. Hard surfaces abound in the base model, though material quality is reasonably good. The simple, straightforward layout is strictly driver-focused. For instance, the center stack leans toward the driver, who faces hooded gauges.
Upper trim levels use better-quality materials, with the same layout. Base models get a 5-inch touchscreen, while upper trim levels feature a 6.5-inch screen. Volkswagen provides good infotainment systems, too.
Front seats are class-leading. Highly supportive, they adjust easily to accommodate a variety of body types and sizes. Rear occupants may find space a little tight, but getting into and out of the back seat isn’t an ordeal at all. We recommend cloth seats rather than the too-rubbery standard leatherette.
Cargo volume in the Golf hatchback totals 22.8 cubic feet behind the back seats. Pull the quick-release latches to lower the seatbacks, and you have 52.7 cubic feet. SportWagens, built on a longer wheelbase, offer even more cargo space: 30.4 cubic feet behind the seat, and 66.5 with seatbacks folded. Seatbacks don’t fold completely flat.
GTI and Golf R models feature a sport-type steering wheel, performance-aimed instrument cluster, and special gearshift knob. Sport seats in the GTI have a tartan pattern. Red ambient lighting, stainless steel pedals, and a black headliner are standard.
Handling and drivability are the Golf’s top merits. Overall, the Golf’s comportment is more serious than its price structure might suggest. Even the practical but competent base models handle quite well. Though a basic Golf blends comfort with sport, it cannot stay as flat while cornering as a Mazda3. However, VW’s compact feels more at home with everyday driving, yielding an absorbent ride and smoother responses.
Even the base 1.8-liter powertrain performs well, though the long strokes needed to shift the manual transmission sap some of the pleasure. Most drivers are likely to be happy with the automatic. Any turbo lag is essentially imperceptible. Road noise is minimal.
Stepping up in performance and handling, the GTI provides a delightful balance between practicality and fun. Gear changes within the 6-speed automatic are neatly-timed and crisp, while the GTI’s manual gearbox has better feel than the base 5-speed. Progressive steering and a performance-tuned suspension make the GTI more satisfying to drive at higher speeds.
The hot Golf R gets a big boost, to 292 horsepower, along with more aggressive suspension tuning. Excellent road grip with all-wheel drive helps make the Golf R a solid competitor to Subaru’s WRX STI. Four driving modes (Comfort, Normal, Race, and Individual) affect the powertrain, steering, and ride quality.
Both the SportWagen and new Alltrack promise a smooth, polished driving experience. Despite the Alltrack’s slightly higher stance and all-wheel drive, plus an Off-Road Mode, off-pavement ability is only mildly improved.
All Golfs are acceptably fuel-efficient. Models with the base 1.8-liter and manual transmission are EPA-rated at 25/36 mpg City/Highway, or 29 mpg Combined. Automatic drops the highway estimate to 35 mpg.
Wagons with the 6-speed dual-clutch automatic are EPA-rated at 25/34 mpg City/Highway, or 29 mpg Combined. GTI models manage 24/34 mpg City/Highway with manual, and 24/32 mpg with automatic. The Golf R is EPA-rated at 22/31 mpg City/Highway with manual, and 23/30 mpg with automatic.
Styling might be too conservative for some tastes, but lack of visual stimulation is easily outweighed by the Golf’s admirable performance and strong safety record. Carefully-planned interiors provide plenty of cargo space. Overall, Volkswagen’s compact, whether hatchback or wagon, is among the most refined cars in its category.
Driving impressions by Aaron Cole, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.