The Volkswagen Golf is a front-wheel-drive compact in two-door and four-door body styles. Both are hatchback designs that seat five. We found the Golf enjoyable to drive, smooth and fuel efficient. The front seats are comfortable and the cabin is roomy and functional, austere but of pleasingly high quality.
The 2012 Golf is a sixth-generation product, which was introduced as a 2010 model. For 2012, Volkswagen is producing a limited run of 5000 of the high-performance Golf R model, which features more power and firmer suspension settings than the already impressive GTI, which is based on the Golf (covered in a separate report). Otherwise, the 2012 Volkswagen Golf lineup carries over largely unchanged from the 2010 introduction.
The Golf offers a choice of a 2.5-liter five-cylinder gasoline engine, a 2.0-liter TDI turbocharged diesel engine, or the high-performance, turbocharged 2.0-liter gasoline engine in the new Golf R. The standard 2.5-liter five-cylinder is the least expensive, the diesel offers the best fuel economy, and the Golf R offers the best acceleration performance.
Today's Golf looks like it always has. It's roomier than it looks, and the trunk is large for the class. Inside is an austere cabin with comfortable seats. Audio and air conditioning controls are simple and easy to use. Driver visibility is excellent.
We found the Golf cruises quietly and easily with either of the two base engines. Handling and ride quality are better than that of the competition, and the brakes work well and hold up without overheating during repeated hard use.
The standard Golf models most people buy come with a 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine that puts out a very usable 170 horsepower at 5700 rpm and 177 pound-feet of torque at 4250 rpm. Most come with the Tiptronic 6-speed automatic transmission or, though the base 2-door is available with a 5-speed manual. The inline-5 gets an EPA-estimated 24/31 mpg City/Highway with the Tiptronic (23/33 mpg with the manual). The Golf accelerates briskly from a standstill to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds and responds readily to the gas pedal at highway speeds. The Tiptronic automatic shifts smoothly in automatic or manual mode. The 5-speed manual gearbox is easy to shift, with a smooth, easy clutch pedal and offers improved performance (0-60 in 7.8 seconds).
The Volkswagen Golf TDI comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged diesel engine. TDI stands for turbocharged direct injection. The Golf TDI offers a choice of a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed dual-clutch automated manual, called the Direct Shift Gearbox, or DSG. This alphabet soup of technology results in superb fuel economy: an EPA-estimated 30/42 mpg City/Highway with either transmission. The TDI turbodiesel produces 140 horsepower at 4000 rpm, and an impressive 236 pound-feet of torque between 1750 and 2500 rpm. Note the TDI offers substantially more torque than the 177 foot-pounds generated by the gas engine, and the TDI delivers its peak torque of 236 foot-pounds at much lower rpm than does the gas engine. Torque is that force that propels you from intersections and up hills, so these numbers suggest responsive performance around town from the TDI, the kind of driving most of us do most of the time. And that's exactly what we experienced during our test drive. However, the gas engine propels the Golf off the line more quickly. The Golf TDI can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 8.6 seconds (with either transmission), which is substantially slower performance than the 8.1 seconds offered by the standard Golf 2.5-liter gas model with automatic. Once up to speed, however, the diesel is responsive and competent.
The Golf R, on the other hand, is a high-strung sport hatch that lets in more sound and handles like a true sports car. The Golf R features a high-performance version of the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine from the GTI. In the R, it makes 256 horsepower and 243 lb-ft of torque. The lone transmission is a 6-speed manual, and estimated fuel economy ratings are 19/27 mpg. The Golf R gets all that power to the pavement better than other Golf models because it comes standard with a Haldex all-wheel-drive system. Golf R comes with a sport-tuned suspension, upgraded brakes, 18-inch wheels and electronic stability control tuned to allow sportier driving. Volkswagen says the Golf R can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds, and the top speed is limited to 130 mph. On the road, the Golf R is much more raw than other Golfs, including the GTI. The reactions of the steering, throttle and brakes are much quicker. While the engine does its best work above 4000 rpm, it revs freely, making the R a blast to drive hard.
This is the sixth-generation Golf, launched as a 2010 model. Over the years, body proportions have remained stoically the same, making the Golf instantly recognizable.
The stylists did a good job of giving the C pillar (the body panel behind the rearmost side window) a consistent shape and proportion on the 2 door and 4 door body styles, given the reality of both cars sharing the same wheelbase and being equal in overall length. A clearly defined character line tracks rearward from the top of the front fender blister all the way to the upper taillight element, giving the rear fenders a hint of a shoulder. Wheelwells encircle the tires leaving the barest of gaps, visually pulling the car down onto the pavement. Minimalist door handles are snug for hands wearing anything larger than medium size gloves. Gaps between body panels are pencil thin, which suggest high-quality construction.
Taillight housings mirror the ovoid shape of the headlights, boosting the rear fenders' shoulder look the aforementioned side body panel character line establishes. The wraparound rear window glass fills the top of the lift gate. A large, round VW logo parked in the middle between the taillights doubles as the lever for opening the liftgate.
The TDI is distinguished from the 2.5-liter gas model by an eponymous chrome logo beneath the right taillight, balancing the chrome Golf badge both cars wear below the left taillight.
The Golf R has several distinct features. The front end has a more aggressive look, with large air intakes at each corner that house LED daytime running lights, and a gloss-black radiator grille. Along the sides, there are sportier rocker panel moldings and gloss-black-painted brake calipers that peek through the unique five-spoke 18-inch wheels. The rear features a center-mounted chrome twin tailpipe and a racing-style gloss black diffuser.
Inside, the Volkswagen Golf shows a Teutonic dedication to austere functionality. Brightwork is confined to touches on steering wheel spokes, around air registers, door handles and tasteful outlines on various knobs and the shifter. Textures give good touch. In fact, the older Golf features more soft-touch surfaces and a generally higher interior quality than its newer cousin, the Jetta. A contrasting silver ish strip separates top and bottom dash sections and dresses the uppermost element of the door trim panels. Completing the Bauhaus-ian theme is the cloth upholstery, to which the base Golfs offer no option.
The Golf feels roomier than it looks, and it is, actually. Passenger space equals or is at least competitive with the other major players in its niche, including the Ford Focus hatchback, Mazda3 hatchback and Kia Forte hatch. The Golf trails those vehicles in cargo space, though, as it is considerably shorter than all of them. Still, the Golf comes with both a 60/40 folding rear seat and a standard rear passthrough to allow multiple cargo and passenger configurations.
The front seats are comfortable. Getting in and out of the car is easy, in spite of sporty seat bolstering. That bolstering is welcome when exploring the Golf's relatively high handling limits, as is the grippy cloth upholstery. The eight way adjustable driver's seat works well with the tilt and telescope steering wheel to allow all but the tallest and the most stout drivers a nearly perfect triangulation with steering wheel, pedals and shift lever. Even the front seat passenger gets eight way adjustability for the seat.
The Golf R has sportier, grippier seats with more bolstering and leather seating surfaces. The leather-wrapped steering wheel feels good in the driver's hands, and the metal pedals add a sporty flair. The Golf R interior has a racing-inspired flat-bottom steering wheel, leather upholstery with R logos, a unique shifter knob, and special door sill plates.
In all models, the air conditioning and sound system controls are comfortably basic in shape, size and duty. Knobs and buttons handle the essential operations.
We especially like the navigation system, finding the fonts and colors to be the most attractive on the market. Selections permitted by the navigation system's touchscreen while the car is in motion appear in large, finger friendly, virtual buttons. These controls require only a glance by the driver to identify their assigned duties and then can be manipulated in the driver's peripheral field of vision. Or better yet, the passenger can press them.
Outward visibility is excellent, unimpeded except for the large C-pillars (the rearmost roof supports).
For a car this size, and with these powertrains, the Volkswagen Golf excels, easily cruising mile after mile at highway speeds. Wind noise, even at those seriously elevated speeds, is well muted. On one test drive, in fact, the most remarkable road-sourced sound was the hiss of rainwater on the interior of the wheelwells.
The Golf accelerates briskly with the standard 2.5-liter gasoline engine. Volkswagen claims a 0 60 mph time of 7.8 seconds for the 5 speed manual, 8.1 seconds for the 6 speed automatic. During our European test, the engine readily answered the gas pedal at highway speeds, even at Autobahn rates until it ran out of steam around an indicated 122 mph (it's electronically limited to 125 mph). The manual transmission's five speeds are really all that's needed for everyday driving. Clutch engagement is smooth. Shift throws are comfortable, the linkage certain in its gear selection.
The Tiptronic automatic transmission delivers smooth transitions between gears whether left to its own or chosen by the driver via the gearshift or steering wheel paddles.
The Golf has traditionally offered chassis sophistication unmatched in the class. The balance between ride and handling has always been impressive, with agile moves, a buttoned down feel and a firm but smooth ride. That hasn't changed. Steering response is confident, if not markedly crisp. Handling in corners is mostly neutral, with understeer (where the car wants to go straight when the driver wants it to run) the dominant at the limit mode. The only shortfall in the ride is a tendency, associated with all cars with a relative short wheelbase like the Golf, of the suspension to lope over pavement heaves common to the U.S.'s concrete roadways.
What has changed is the competition. The redesigned Ford Focus also benefits from a European take on ride and handling, and it exhibits a similar type of chassis sophistication, as does the distantly related Mazda3. The Ford and Mazda feel a bit lighter and not quite as solid as the Golf, but they're close competitors for the Golf dynamically. The Honda Civic's ride and handling is comparable, though it doesn't show quite the same confidence when pushed as hard.
The Golf's brakes work well. We used them repeatedly on Germany's Autobahn to drag the Golf down from triple-digit speeds to 60 mph with no drama. Pedal feel was solid throughout, as was the Golf's directional stability.
For those who haven't driven a modern diesel, the TDI with its 2.0-liter diesel engine will be a pleasant surprise. It takes about a second longer to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph, a significant difference, and performance is comparable with either the standard six speed manual or the optional 6 speed DSG transmission. On urban freeways, throttle response is quick and linear, with little hint of turbo lag. Thanks to the diesel's hefty torque curve, the engine pulls strongly well past legal U.S. speeds, but it doesn't rev as high and isn't as lively as the 2.5 liter much beyond 110 mph. The manual has two or three more gears than the diesel needs, thanks to its hefty torque curve. The DSG, however, is more than merely an automated manual. With one or the other of its dual clutches always engaged, it almost instantaneous shifts as slick as, or even slicker than a full automatic, making full use of its six speeds to produce a seamless delivery of optimized power to the front tires. The TDI model's 17 inch wheels wear lower profile tires and deliver more certain turn in. While handling is basically neutral, understeer appears in the TDI at the limit, which again is a bit higher than the limit of the 2.5-liter model.
In terms of fuel economy, the TDI tops the competition by as many as six mpg. The 2.5-liter engine, however, is thirstier than the new offerings from Ford, Honda and Mazda, all of which have made considerable efficiency strides with recent updates.
The new Golf R is a different beast entirely. Even GTI owners will find it to be far more willing and agile than their already capable cars. Whereas the GTI is sporty yet refined, the Golf R is more sudden and rambunctious, along the lines of a Mitsubishi Evo or a Subaru WRX STI. It's not quite as quick or powerful as those cars, but the 2.0-liter engine is a blast to drive. It revs freely up to its 6500 rpm redline, with a constant hum that lets you know this is a performance machine. Power is available immediately, but it swells over 4000 rpm to really pull this hot hatch from 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds. By comparison, the Evo and STI do the same in under five seconds, but the Golf R is just as engaging to drive, if not moreso. The Golf R's Haldex all-wheel-drive system eliminates torque steer (a tug on the steering wheel in front-wheel-drive cars that pulls it to one side), which can be a problem in powerful front-drive cars.
The Golf R's 6-speed manual transmission has a pleasing mechanical feel with positive and relatively short throws. We weren't enamored of the clutch, though. It's too light and offers little feel upon engagement, which can result in some stalling.
Handling is more immediate than in other Golfs. The Golf R's razor sharp, ultra-quick steering teams with firm suspension settings to make it dive quicker into turns and feel almost twitchy. Still, the solid roots are there, and the car is fairly relaxed in everyday traffic. Between the immediate responses and the constant exhaust note, the Golf R is best left for enthusiast drivers who will appreciate those features rather than be annoyed by them.
The Volkswagen Golf is enjoyable to drive, with an impressive balance of ride and handling, as well as a classy interior. The standard Golf offers Volkswagen quality and refinement at Honda prices. The Golf TDI gets excellent fuel economy, but its diesel engine isn't cheap. The new Golf R is a viable competitor for the likes of the Mitsubishi Evo and Subaru WRX STI, with sharp handling and a high-strung engine.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Kirk Bell reported from Herndon, Virginia; with Tom Lankard in Wolfsburg, Germany; and Mitch McCullough in Los Angeles.