The Golf and sporty GTI hatchbacks were redesigned during the 1999 model year, so this year's changes are minor. All models have a new theft-deterrent system that immobilizes the engine unless it recognizes an ignition key with the proper electronic code.
Both the Golf and the GTI models use the same front-drive platform as the Jetta sedan, and they have the same general styling, engines and interiors. The big difference is that the Jetta has a regular trunk instead of a hatchback. The upright design means the driver and passengers sit more vertically than in most other small cars, and there is adequate space for four adults. The cargo area behind the rear seat holds 18 cubic feet, and the rear seatbacks are split on all models and fold for additional space.
A new eight-channel, 200-watt Monsoon sound system rattles the windows of the GTI GLX model as a new standard feature and is a new option on the others. A trunk-mounted six-disc CD changer also is available. All models have standard air conditioning, automatic power door locks and a cassette player.
The Golf comes in two- and four-door hatchback styling and the GTI in the two-door configuration. At 163 inches long, both are a foot shorter than the Honda Civic sedan yet they have more cargo space and nearly as much passenger room.
Under the Hood
Three engines are available. A 115-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder is standard in the Golf GL and GLS and GTI GLS. A 1.9-liter, turbocharged direct-injection diesel, four-cylinder with 90 horsepower is optional on those models. The GTI GLX uses a 172-horsepower, 2.8-liter V-6. The diesel comes only with a five-speed manual and the others with a choice of the manual or four-speed automatic.
The 2.0-liter gasoline engine has adequate zip, and the V-6 is energetic and entertaining. The diesel is surprisingly quiet and quick and delivers impressive fuel economy (40 mpg city and 49 mpg highway, according to the EPA).
Volkswagen is on a roll in the United States; its sales have more than doubled in the past few years. Excitement over the New Beetle is part of the reason, but more people now recognize the Golf's virtues of being functional and fun to drive.
Both the Golf and GTI are versatile enough to be the only car for a couple or small family and cool enough to warrant consideration by young buyers. A long list of standard features includes side-impact airbags for the front seats and anti-lock brakes, features that are optional or not available on most rivals.