New & Used Volkswagen Golf: In Depth
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For four decades, the Volkswagen Golf has been VW's mainstay vehicle, a compact hatchback offered with three or five doors and a variety of powertrains. It has shared underpinnings with the Jetta four-door sedan, which remains more popular in North America, but the Golf is the company's most recognized car globally.
For the 2015 model year, Volkswagen launched an all-new seventh generation of the Golf. That car had gone on sale a couple of years earlier in Europe, but Golfs sold in North America are now built at a huge factory in Mexico, just as the Jetta has been for a decade or more. The latest Golf is lighter, more spacious inside, and sports a new range of powertrains as well as many more electronic safety features.
The new Golf in the U.S. offers a 170-hp, 1.8-liter TSI (gasoline, turbocharged) four-cylinder engine or a new version of the 2.0-liter TDI clean-diesel engine. Thankfully, we can wave goodbye to the underpowered and outdated five-cylinder base engine from the previous generation. The new Volkswagen GTI hot-hatch model, meanwhile, will be powered by a 217-hp turbocharged 1.8-liter four. There will be a low-volume all-electric Volkswagen e-Golf as well, though it will not be sold at all VW dealers but likely limited to those states and regions friendly to plug-in electric cars: California, the Northeast, and a few others.
The 2015 Golf includes more electronic safety systems, a wider array of standard and optional equipment, and better soundproofing and noise suppression, while retaining most of the sporty driving characteristics that peg it as German. And its lines instantly identify it as a Golf, marching to the same drumbeat as its six predecessor generations.
The Volkswagen Golf competes at the sportier end of the compact hatchback spectrum, against the Mazda 3, the Kia Forte (and perhaps the Soul tall wagon), the Hyundai Elantra GT, and the hatchback model of the all-wheel drive Subaru Impreza. In its four decades, it has kept the transverse-engine front-wheel drive layout, though it has grown over the years from what we'd call today a subcompact to its current compact size.
Over the years since its 1974 launch, the Golf was sold in the U.S. as the Rabbit in its first and fifth generations and has spawned a variety of models, including a low-volume three-door hatchback, two generations of Cabrio convertibles, the quintessential hot-hatch GTI variant, and even limited-edition and very powerful all-wheel drive Golf R models. Today, the Golf comes as a three- or five-door hatchback, and the GTI has become its own model range.
The Volkswagen Golf was first introduced back in the mid-1970s, and at that time was rather revolutionary, with front-wheel drive and an economical water-cooled four-cylinder engine. Originally it was called the Rabbit in the U.S. and due to replace the rear-engine Beetle, though the Beetle continued for a few more years.
Fast-forwarding through Golf history, the third-generation Volkswagen Golf, which ran from 1993 until '99, is likely the oldest Golf you'll currently find on used lots. They're known for being a little more smooth, safe, and refined than Golf models from the 1980s but at the same time a little less nimble and tossable. Most of these Golfs came with a 115-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that was quite perky with the manual transmission but not so happy with the automatic. The Golf GTI performance model was a genuine hot-hatch, packing VW's 2.8-liter narrow-angle six-cylinder VR6 engine under the hood; it made 172 hp but made the Golf faster than almost any other affordable small car of the time.
For 1999, new fourth-generation Golf models began reaching U.S. dealerships. This model was completely new, with a more solid, grown-up feel than its predecessor, though the powertrains carried through largely unchanged at first. The same 115-hp four felt a little overwhelmed with a full load and didn't return great fuel economy, but models with the two other engines—either the 150-hp, 1.8-liter 1.8T or the 90-hp (or 100-hp) 1.9-liter turbo-diesel four—were both faster and more fuel-efficient. Those who are upgrading from other small-car models will notice that the Golf feels like a more expensive vehicle from the inside, with a firm but supple ride and a nice, fashionable interior. However these Golfs earned a reputation for reliability issues and especially electrical problems.
In 2006 the Golf was redesigned, with it this time getting a standard 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine that, while stronger and torquier was not very impressive in the fuel-economy department. The Golf continued its trajectory toward solidity and safety but has improved handling over the previous model, and a new sporty GTI model stood alone in offering a 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four. For 2006, Volkswagen renamed its hatchback the Rabbit for the U.S. market, but that has only lasted through 2009.
Volkswagen again redesigned the Golf for 2010. While certainly not a radical redesign visually, that sixth-generation Golf included a host of improvements, especially to the interior, refinement, and ride comfort—as well as improved feel from the electric power steering. Engines included a base five-cylinder 2.5-liter four, and the 2.0-liter turbodiesel that was our pick in the model line. VW's small diesel accelerated nearly as quickly as the base engine but was rated at 30 mpg city, 42 highway for fuel efficiency. Both the TDI as well as the sporty new GTI (again powered by the 2.0T engine, and covered separately) used VW's excellent DSG automated manual gearbox. In 2012, an uber-powerful Golf R model, with all-wheel drive, appealed again to serious enthusiasts. An optional navigation system appeared on the Golf for the first time, with hard-drive music storage, USB connectivity, and an SD memory slot.