By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist Photo courtesy of CARICOS
The Beetle is cute and lately, butch — but the VW that consistently sells best (and which has done so, for a long time) is the Golf … which was once the Rabbit … which was the car that succeeded the original (air-cooled/rear-engined) Beetle, back in the late ’70s… by which time it could no longer comply with Uncle’s ever-more-demanding laundry list of “safety” and “emissions” requirements.
The reasons for the Golf’s enduring success are not hard to fathom.
Though front-engined and (of course) water-cooled it is nonetheless very much in keeping with the spirit of the original Beetle — arguably more so than the current iteration of the Beetle, which has become more about style and performance than about economy, practicality and long-haul value.
Like the classic Beetle, the Golf is small but surprisingly roomy inside — in particular, headroom-wise and particularly in the second row (unusual in a small car) because of its high and flat roof. It is also one of just two cars in its class that’s available with a high-efficiency diesel engine. (Which is ironic — and sad — when you stop to think about that.)
Another practical plus is that VW sells the Golf in both three-door hatch (back for 2015 after a brief hiatus) and five-door hatchback versions. Several rivals in this class — including the Honda Civic — are sold in sedan form only and have small trunks and can’t really carry much besides passengers.
Finally, the Golf is the only German car you can buy in this class — and for less than $18k, sticker.
And if you think that being German-made is irrelevant, you really ought to try the seat heaters… .
WHAT IT IS
The Golf is VW’s entry-level compact.
Base price is $17,455 for a three-door TSI (1.8 liter, direct gas injection) Launch Edition with five-speed manual transmission. The same basic car with the optional six-speed automatic (and a few upgrades, such as cruise control and leatherette trim) starts at $20,095.
The five-door starts at $20,695 with the manual; $22,095 with the automatic.
Diesel-powered Golfs — which are all five-door Golfs — start at $21,995. The 2.0 TDI engine comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission; when ordered with the optional six-speed automated manual (a different transmission than the gas-engined Golf’s six-speed automatic) the MSRP is $23,095.
There is also an electric “e” Golf, but it’s different enough (and expensive enough) to merit a separate review. Same goes for the high-performance GTI and Golf R, both of which have their own unique drivetrains.
Possible Golf cross-shops include Japanese compact sedans like the Mazda3, Honda Civic and Kia Forte — as well as small American sedans like the Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze. Which incidentally is the only other car in this class that can be ordered with a diesel engine. However, Chevy only sells the diesel-powered Cruze in “loaded” form — and its base price with this engine ($25,660) is several thousand dollars higher than VW asks for a TDI-powered Golf.
The ’15 Golf doesn’t appear all that changed at first glance but is heavily — though subtly — revised. Among the functional upgrades: A new turbo four replaces the previous in-line five as the car’s standard engine; the three door hatchback is back; there’s much more cargo room behind the second row — and both versions ride on an updated (longer/wider) chassis.
The head and tail-lights have been slightly changed, too.
New gas turbo engine is much peppier — and more fuel-efficient — than previous in-line five.
It’s nice to be able to buy a three-door Golf again.
Diesel Golf is reasonably priced and can be ordered with a manual transmission.
Superior seat heaters.
Tall/box profile makes for a roomy (and versatile) interior.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Three-door Golf only offered in “base” trim form — and you can’t get it with the TDI diesel engine.
Gas engine’s manual transmission is only a five-speed manual.
No Sportwagen Golf for us.
TDI’s published efficiency advantage is slim compared with some of the latest gas-engined stuff (e.g., Mazda3 “SkyActive” — 41 highway vs. TDI’s 45 highway).
UNDER THE HOOD
VW has thrown the five cylinder engine (non-turbo) that used to be the standard Golf (and Beetle) engine in the woods, chiefly because it drank too much gas and didn’t make enough power.
In its place, a smaller (and turbocharged) 1.8 liter four cylinder. It makes the same rated horsepower as the retiring five — 170 — but lower down in the revs, with the peak happening at 4,800 RPM vs. the fives’s 5,700 RPM power peak. The four also makes more torque — and much sooner: 199 ft.-lbs. at 1,500 RPM vs. the old five’s 177 ft.-lbs. at 4,250 RPM.
The net result is a quicker feeling, stronger-pulling Golf (zero to 60 in 7.5-7.6 seconds) that also gets much better gas mileage. With the four and the standard five-speed manual, EPA says the car is good for 25 MPG in city driving and 37 on the highway. With the optional six-speed automatic, city mileage is the same but highway mileage dips slightly to 36 MPGs. Either way, it’s a significant improvement over the old five’s 23 city, 33 highway — especially given that last year’s 2.5 liter Golf was slower than the new 1.8 liter Golf.
An added plus: The 1.8 engine runs best on regular. Premium fuel is neither recommended nor required. This is unusual. Turbo engines typically require premium — or at least, premium fuel is recommended to get the best performance and economy out of them. This, of course, undercuts their overall economy given that premium fuel generally costs 20-40 cents more per gallon, depending on your area.
But that’s not the case here.
Optional in the Golf — and also unusual (in this class, at least) is a 2.0 liter turbo-diesel (TDI) four.
Notwithstanding the diesel engine’s being the way to go if the object is fuel economy, such engines are still very hard to find in economy cars. They are much more commonly found in high-end luxury-brand cars (e.g., BMWs, Benzes and of course, Audis).
At least, in the United States (it’s the reverse in Europe).
Indeed, the only other non-high-end passenger car currently available in the U.S. with a diesel (that’s not another VW) is Chevy’s Cruze sedan. But as mentioned above, the Cruze diesel is also pricey — which makes it harder to justify buying it, if the object is economy. Also, Chevy won’t sell you the diesel engine with a manual transmission.
A six-speed manual, in fact.
One-upping the gas-engined Golf’s five-speed manual box.
And the optional six-speed automatic that’s paired with the TDI engine is a more advanced dual-clutch (VW calls it direct shift, or DSG) automatic that combines the efficiency advantages of a manual with the ease-of-use of a fully automatic transmission.
The TDI engine is powerful, too — especially down low. It makes 236 ft-lbs. of torque, comparable to the output of 3 liter-ish, gas-fed V-6.
Mileage is exceptional: 30 city and 45 highway with the manual six-speed. With the DSG automatic, city mileage climbs slightly to 31 — while the highway number drops down to 43. Either way, it’s pretty damned good.
Now, on paper, these numbers are not too far removed from the rated mileage of some of the Golf’s gas-engined competition. The Mazda3’s new “SkyActive” 2.0 liter four touts 30 city and 41 on the highway; the ’15 Civic claims 39 highway. This is also excellent — and (on paper) maybe too close for comfort to the TDI’s numbers, especially given that the diesel-powered Golf is a bit more expensive than the gas engined Mazda and Civic.
However, in real-world driving, the diesel VW’s mileage routinely surpasses what the EPA gives it credit for. Ask around. I’ve driven this car myself and can report from direct, first-hand experience that it is capable of coming close to 50 MPG…
I like the Mazda3 a lot — but the only way you’ll get 50 MPG out of one — city or highway — is by coasting downhill with the engine off.
ON THE ROAD
Though the ’15 Golf doesn’t look much different from the ’14 Golf (until you look closely — and check some specs — which I’ll get into shortly) its performance — and general operating characteristics — are much improved.
The previous five had to be worked pretty hard to get anything out of it — and the sounds it made under duress were not particularly pleasant. That it wasn’t particularly fuel efficient on top of that had become something of an embarrassment.
It had to go.
The new 1.8 engine — which is a slightly stronger version of this engine than the one used in the Beetle, it bears pointing out — remedies all that. Its power/performance is actually not far off what the previous generation (2014) Golf GTI delivered (200 hp out of 2.0 liters). And the ’15 Golf is a bit lighter than the ’14 Golf (3,023 lbs. vs. 3,102 lbs.)
Indeed, VW felt it was necessary to up the 2015 GTI’s ante to 210 hp (220, with the optional performance package) to put some distance between it and the newly invigorated regular Golf.
Probably the most endearing quality of the new 1.8 engine is the hearty mid-range/part-throttle pull, for which you can thank the turbocharger. Today’s turbo engines do not behave the way turbo engines behaved in the past. In fact, the only way to tell there is a turbocharger under the hood would be to pop the hood and look at it. Because there’s no audible turbo whistle, no caffeinated rush of power, punctuated on either end by flat spots. These engines (not just VW’s) behave exactly like larger displacement (and not turbocharged) sixes, just without the appetite. Big torque, right now.
The Golf — though nominally an economy-oriented car — has become a pretty fun car to drive. Here again, it emulates the GTI. Or put another way, the Golf is about 80 percent of the GTI in terms of straight line running and (yes) corner carving. The balance between performance and economy is in my opinion just about right. I dig the GTI. But its performance must be put in context of its price — which is a lot higher (about $25k to start for the three-door) or rather, a lot closer to the price of other very fun to drive stuff — including EcoBoosted (and 310 hp) turbo Mustangs that do 0-60 in 5.4 seconds and Fiat 500 Abarths running 30 pounds of boost and hot roddy/super snarky Mini Coopers, etc.
But in the under $18k-to-start range, the Golf’s fun-to-drive quotient really stands out.
And perhaps more important, won’t stand out quite as much to your insurance company.
I won’t tell if you won’t.
AT THE CURB
Get out your tape measure — because it’s much easier to tell the difference between the old and new Golf this way. Exterior/interior styling changes are extremely subtle (slightly revised head and tail-lights) but the overall shape — and particular attributes of that shape — continue.
Just on a bigger scale.
The ’15 Golf is 2.6 longer overall (168 inches vs. 165.4 for the ’14) and wider by about half an inch. The wheelbase has also been increased to 103.8 inches (vs. 101.5 before).
Most of the additional space thus carved out is devoted to cargo capacity, which increases to 22.8 cubic feet with the second row seats up. This is a big uptick in both percentage and real terms from the old car’s 15.2 cubes. First and second row leg room remains about the same — which is ok because it was good before and remains so now: 41.2 inches for the front seaters and 35.6 for the back seat occupants.
It’s headroom, though — especially in the second row — where the Golf really stands out. There is almost the same head-space in both rows: 38.4 up front and 38.1 in the back. This is unusual. For some context, consider the Kia Forte three-door. Its second row is much tighter squeeze for the tall: 36.4 inches. The second row in the Honda Civic sedan is even tighter: 36.2 inches (and the trunk’s just 12.5 cubes).
The Golf’s more angular — ok, boxy — shape (and hatchback’d liftgate vs. a sedan-style trunk lid) is functionally superior, both in terms of headroom for passengers and usable space for cargo. Particularly in its class.
There are other “box” cars out there — the Honda Fit and Kia Soul, for instance. But they’re smaller cars (a subcompact, in the case of the Fit). Among its peers, the Golf stands out — and alone.
In another respect, too.
It is higher-line (even in base trim) than the Japanese/American competition. The car has an almost-Audi feel to it, which ought not to surprise given VW and Audi are the same automotive conglomerate and DNA is shared between them.
This is hard to articulate in words, but when you sit in the car and look around, you will know what I mean immediately. Materials used, panel fitment and trim plates have moved upmarket across the board — it is impossible to find anything new that’s analogous to what was typical in this class even just ten years ago. But the Golf has an extra dash of élan that surely derives from its kinship with Audis. For instance, the undersides of the hood and trunk (and door jambs) are as beautifully painted (and clear coated) as the exterior surfaces. In several competitors, these less visible areas are not clear-coated to save a couple bucks per car. It looks slightly shabby — and reminds you that you bought an economy car.
Higher trim SE and SELs have handsome brushed metallic and piano black facings, rich-looking leather and ambient interior lighting.
Unfortunately, VW restricts the higher-trims to the five-door body. The three-door hatch comes only in base Launch Edition and S trims. That means you can’t get a three-door with the superb Fender 10 speaker premium audio system, or the 10-way power Sport seats, or dual-zone climate control … unless you buy the extra set of doors to go with these items.
Similarly, the TDI engine is only available in five-door Golfs. But — and here VW earns some karma redemption points — the TDI Golf remains affordable — just over $21k, sticker. This is a departure from practice — including for VW. In the past — and for the U.S. market only — manufacturers would “bundle” the diesel engine with all kinds of other stuff and jack the price up accordingly. In Europe, diesels are sold for their economy advantages — which includes the cost of the car itself.
The TDI Golf is the only such car you can buy in the U.S. right now — and (apparently) for the foreseeable future, too. (Mazda’s “Sky-D” diesel engine — which was supposed to have become available last year — is still in limbo. Maybe by 2016… .)
A few small gripes:
Where’s the iPod hook-up? There is an iPhone hook-up. But what if you don’t have one of those? And that interface is crammed into a small slot ahead of the gear shifter, at the bottom of the center stack. It is not easy to access. Ditto the other slots for CD/DVDs and so on, which are in the glovebox.
The LCD info screen is also on the small side (5.8 inches) relative to what’s available in some other cars in this general price range (Kia Soul, for instance).
But the glovebox is air conditioned — and the cupholders are abundant and well designed; they securely hold large cups of coffee without spillage — even when you break right or left with enthusiasm. And the available three-stage seat heaters are superior. The first and second stages are hotter than the third stage in any Japanese car’s I’ve tested (which is all of them). With all three bars lit, the Golf’s seats get wonderfully, soothingly hot. Not merely tepid. And they don’t have the typically Japanese bad habit of cycling off within seconds of reaching their maximum (tepid) temperature.
This is a small but critical point of departure between German and Japanese (and also American) cars. If you want a car with seat heaters rather than warmers, you’ll want a car from das vaterland.
There is simply no comparison.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Going on 40 years’ running, the Golf continues to sell itself.