The Golf was refreshed for 2018, but the changes are subtle, limited to minor updates like new standard LED daytime running lights and a revised dash layout to make room for a larger multimedia screen. Compare it with last year's model.

In addition to the regular Golf, the hatchback comes in many forms, including performance-oriented GTI and R models and SportWagen and Alltrack wagons. For the eco-minded, there's also the all-electric e-Golf. I reviewed the base Golf S; it's also available in an uplevel SE model.

The Golf competes against the likes of the Honda Civic hatchback, Hyundai Elantra GT and Mazda3 hatchback. See them compared.

Minimal-Frills Cabin

Although the Golf was refreshed for 2018, it's hard to tell from the subtle outside changes. Inside, the updates are more noticeable, starting with the multimedia system. The dashboard has been revised to make room for a new system with a bigger screen. Base models get a 6.5-inch touchscreen, while SE models get an 8-inch.

The 6.5-inch setup is decent for a base system. It's not too small and has clear buttons and an easy menu structure. On the plus side, Apple Car Play and Android Auto smartphone integration are standard and seamless to use, beaming your phone's music collection and navigation capabilities to the car's screen. What's missing, however, are satellite radio and a CD player, which aren't available on the base model, though standard smartphone integration makes those less important.  

VW also said it upgraded the cabin materials this year, but they still seem pretty basic — and in some places budget, with lots of black plastic lining the doors, dash and knee panels. Little extras, like sporty-looking brushed chrome paneling on the dash and interestingly patterned and comfortably bolstered seats, stand out.

You do miss out on a few things with the base model, however (as the plentiful row of empty switches by the gear selector indicates). The higher trim level gets leatherette (imitation leather) upholstery instead of cloth, keyless access with push-button start, heated front seats and a moonroof.

In front, the Golf offers a little less headroom and legroom than competitors, but at 5 feet 6 inches, I had ample room. In back, where the Golf's headroom and legroom numbers are midpack, space is decent for two passengers.  

I was surprised by how much space there was for two child-safety seats and how easy it was to install them. I fit two of my three kids back there without a problem, one in a booster and the other in a forward-facing convertible seat, and the convertible was easy to install thanks to the exposed Latch anchors. See our Car Seat Check.

Behind the backseat, there's 17.4 cubic feet of space — slightly less than competitors offer. The cargo opening is large, however, and I had plenty of room for a grocery run; the standard pass-through behind the flip-down armrest is handy for hauling long items. For larger items, the seats fold easily in a 60/40 split, which brings cargo capacity to 53.7 cubic feet. That's more than the Civic (46.2) and Mazda3 (47.1) hatchbacks, but less than the Elantra GT (55.1).  

Engaging Road Manners

Taking the kids to school is sometimes about as much fun as visiting a vehicle emissions testing station, but the Golf's pep and sporty road manners provided a distraction from the "I'm hungry because I refused to eat breakfast" whining and the "I forgot my homework" meltdown.

The Golf uses a turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder that feels like more than enough. It sprints to life in stop-and-go driving, and the five-speed manual makes it extra lively. The shifter has a smooth, short action, so it's easy and fun to plow through the gears. A six-speed automatic is optional.

Taking the kids to school is sometimes about as much fun as visiting a vehicle emissions testing station, but the Golf's pep and sporty road manners provided a distraction from the "I'm hungry because I refused to eat breakfast" whining.

On the road, the Golf feels sporty and fun, but in an accessible, comfortable way. Its ride is firm but not harsh, and it slices through city streets and highway ramps with a corner-hugging agility that rivals the skateboard-like moves of the Mini Cooper Hardtop. The Golf's perky power and agile handling, combined with its direct, sharp steering, makes it much more engaging to drive than your average economy compact hatchback.

I love its pep, but its fuel economy is less impressive. With the standard manual, the Golf gets an EPA-rated 25/34/29 mpg city/highway/combined, 1 mpg higher than automatic models. A Civic hatchback with its base engine and manual transmission is rated 29/38/33 mpg; it's slightly lower with the optional automatic. The base Mazda3 hatch with a manual is also rated higher at 27/37/31 mpg, similar to the automatic model's rating. The base Elantra GT with a manual transmission is rated lower, however, at 23/31/26 mpg.  

Safety

The 2018 Golf earned a five-star overall safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and it earned top scores in all of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's crashworthiness tests except the passenger-side small overlap test, where it was rated acceptable. This represents strong performance in the organization's small car class.

A backup camera is standard on all models, as is an automatic post-collision braking system, which applies the brakes when a crash is detected by the airbag sensors, helping reduce the chance of a secondary collision. Volkswagen's Intelligent Crash Response System is also standard; it shuts off the fuel pump, unlocks the doors and switches on the hazard lights if the car is involved in certain types of collisions.  

Many other advanced safety features are not available on the base model, however. Forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian monitoring are standard on the SE but unavailable on base Golfs; same goes for the blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert system.

It Wins as a Second Car

The Golf starts at $21,760 for a base model, which is a bit higher than base hatchback versions of the Honda Civic ($20,940), Hyundai Elantra GT ($20,235) and Mazda3 ($20,235); all prices include destination charges. However, the Golf gets VW's impressive warranty, which should also bolster its value: a six-year/72,000-mile transferable bumper-to-bumper warranty, which is unmatched by other automakers.

The Golf adeptly combines elements of the practical and the fun: It's quick and exciting to drive, and its backseat easily holds two car seats. While it wouldn't work as my daily driver, I'd fight my husband for school drop-off duty if it were my second car.

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