Editor's note: This review was written in May 2010 about the 2010 Volkswagen Golf. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2011, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Thanks to decades of refinement, the Volkswagen Golf is one of the most impressive small cars you can buy, combining interior quality with a sporty character.
With a starting price of $17,620 for the two-door, though, it's in the expensive range for compact hatchbacks, and the four-door Golf 2.5's standard automatic transmission puts it at $19,335, in league with hatchback versions of the Mazda3 and Subaru Impreza, as well as the Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback and the Mini Cooper and Cooper Clubman.
While Cars.com's Mike Hanley reviewed the clean-diesel Golf TDI two-door, I tested the more common gas-powered Golf 2.5 in four-door form.
Ride & Handling
Mike pointed out that the TDI's standard 17-inch alloy wheels provided a firm ride — likely too firm for some drivers. As a base 2.5, my test car had standard 15-inch steel wheels. Even with its higher-series tires, rated P195/65R15, there's more road feel than you'll find in some cars. You're aware of seams, expansion joints and broken surfaces.
What these disruptions don't do is cause any perceptible flex or vibration. As ever, the Golf feels solid, rigid — even vaultlike. You recognize it when you slam a door, travel over rough pavement or saw your way down a twisty road. The Golf's accomplishment is providing this solidity without feeling too heavy — it comes across as substantial without seeming sluggish.
This combination is rare, but it's also embodied in the Cooper, whose similarly short wheelbase gives it a comparably excitable ride and a nimble, darty nature. For a front-drive car, the Golf is admirably controllable when pushed hard. If it understeers, letting up a bit on the gas straightens it right out. In a hairpin turn, you can rotate the body by applying more or less throttle. The VW GTI obviously takes the performance aspect further, but the basic character is there in the Golf.
All-season tires are standard, but our test car mysteriously arrived fitted with Goodyear Eagle NCT tires, which seem to occupy a nether-region between all-season and summer performance. They offered decent grip, but not what I've come to expect from true summer tires, and they tended to squeal as they gave up traction — something few summer performance tires do. At the same time, they don't bear the "M+S" (mud and snow) designation that makes them suitable for winter use. If we get our hands on a Golf with all-seasons and find they change its handling character significantly, we'll report back here.
The Golf 2.5 never wanted for power. It delivered a quick launch and a broad torque curve all the way up the rev range, which you appreciate most with a car full of people or cargo. Being a four-door, our test car had a six-speed automatic transmission. It's optional on the two-door, which comes standard with a five-speed manual. Although VW's Tiptronic automatics have always suffered some kickdown lag, this one wasn't too slow to respond. For what it's worth, the market as a whole is getting worse in this regard. When in Sport mode, the car holds onto low gears longer and is quicker to downshift, too. You can also shift manually.
The Golf's 2.5-liter engine is an oddity, as it has five inline cylinders. More cylinders typically give you more power or torque, but it doesn't seem to make a dramatic difference in the Golf: It produces 170 horsepower and 177 pounds-feet of torque. Two competing hatchbacks with 2.5-liter four-cylinders produce 170/170 (Impreza) and 167/168 (Mazda3 s Sport).
A minor complaint is that the engine sounds gravelly. Odd cylinder counts never seem to come out balanced, though I didn't notice undue vibration — only the sound.
For a car of its size, the Golf's mileage isn't great at 23/30 mpg, though it remains ahead of the 2.5-liter version of the Mazda3 (21/29 mpg) and the Impreza (20/27 mpg). A comparable Honda Civic gets 26/34 mpg and the Cooper an impressive 28/37 mpg. Of course, neither is as powerful or quick as the Golf, but if power's important to you, you can always get a Civic Si or Cooper S. If mileage is more important, there's no more-efficient option in the Golf apart from the more-expensive, diesel-powered TDI. Some midsize sedans also beat the Golf in both city and highway driving.
Oddly, you can get more power and better mileage from VW in the GTI and the Jetta sedan from a turbocharged 2.0-liter that gets 24/32 mpg, but it calls for premium gas. The 2.5 runs on regular.
I'm not alone in emphasizing the Golf's sportiness. Volkswagen does so with its standard seats, which are more prodigiously bolstered than some cars' optional sport seats. The vigorous hug of the bolsters combines with coarse fabric to hold you in place during the most spirited of driving.
Mike griped in his review that the two-door Golf's front seats employ an out-of-reach knob for adjusting the backrest angle. Because the four-door's driver's seat doesn't need to tilt to clear the way for backseat access, it's a different design, with a power backrest adjustment along with the regular manual fore/aft handle and the jack-style height adjustment — overall, it's a good strategy.
There's practically no other interior difference between the two- and four-door. The seating dimensions and cargo volume are constant. (See them compared.) One regrettable difference between the trim levels, however, is that the 2.5 has no center armrest or storage console between the front seats, where the TDI does — nothing on the floor or attached to the seatbacks. For some people, this kind of thing is a deal-breaker.
Volkswagen interiors have been among the best for decades. Even if you consider them premium vehicles, their interior design, ergonomics and especially materials quality have been better than those of other premium vehicles — except for that whole missing-armrest thing. The Golf's interior is still exceptional, but I see a storm gathering … .
Exhibit A is the addition of silvery plastic trim, which VW had avoided in favor of more interesting and rich surfaces. It's now prominent on the Golf's doors, dash and stereo buttons. Exhibit B is the changing landscape: Car interiors are improving across the market. Toyota, which had a reputation similar to VW's, has been eclipsed in numerous vehicle classes. The Golf still has a lead, but new stuff is coming all the time, and manufacturers are getting more serious about small cars. After a decade of selling a half-baked version of the Focus in North America, Ford is going to bring to domestic markets the same high-quality model that's sold overseas — basically what VW has done all along. Though 2010 brought some subtle upgrades, VW didn't really turn up the heat very much, and the market is heating up.
With "Good" scores — the highest possible — in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal, side, rear and roof-strength crash tests, the Golf is a Top Safety Pick. Though this performance is impressive, the Golf has company: seven other models in IIHS' small-car class, including other top-sellers like the Civic and Toyota Corolla.
Airbags include frontal, front-seat-mounted side-impact torso bags, and side curtains alongside the front and rear seats. Unlike most cars, the four-door Golf offers seat-mounted side-impact airbags for the rear seats as an option. Standard safety features include antilock brakes with discs for all four wheels. An electronic stability system with traction control is also included. All the standard safety features are listed here.
Typical of cars — and many larger vehicles, for that matter — the Golf won't accommodate three child seats across the backseat, but rear-facing infant seats are no problem, and a rear-facing convertible seat fits if you move the front seat forward some. The Latch and top-tether anchors are more exposed and easier to use than they are in many cars.
Golf in the Market
Volkswagen commands premium prices across its lineup, and the Golf has been no exception. As illustrated above, though, it has more competition than it used to, and there's a lot more to come. Even for the price, the Golf is an impressive mix of fun, quality and utility. For practical buyers, however, it may seem less impressive, because it's a relatively small car. When you can get a nicely equipped Hyundai Sonata sedan with 24/35 mpg for $19,195, the little Golf's price starts to look high — and its mileage low.
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