New & Used Volkswagen Golf: In Depth
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The VW Golf is the German automaker's global best-seller, and it's been so for the past forty years. A five-door or three-door compact hatchback, the Golf comes with a wide range of powertrain choices--today, everything from a turbodiesel to a turbo four to a battery pack.
In the past the Golf has shared underpinnings with the Jetta four-door sedan, but the current models have diverged, with the Golf springing from VW's global MQB platform.
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.
Launched in 1974, the model we now call 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.
When the Golf was introduced back in the mid-'70s, it was seen as groundbreaking, especially for Volkswagen, as it offered an efficient water-cooled engine driving the front wheels. U.S. models were originally called Rabbit, and some were built here. The Rabbit was intended to replace the aging rear-engine Beetle, although that car lived on for several more years before leaving this market.
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 put out 172 hp and 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. This Golf continued the model's trajectory toward solidity and safety but had 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 change only lasted through 2009. For 2008, VW brought the Golf-based R32 extra-hot-hatch to the U.S., powered by a 3.2-liter VR6 engine backed by all-wheel drive.
Volkswagen again redesigned the Golf for 2010. While certainly not a radical redesign visually, that sixth-generation model included a host of improvements, especially to the interior, overall refinement, and ride comfort—as well as improved feel from the electric power steering. Engines included a base 2.5-liter five-cylinder and the 2.0-liter turbodiesel, which 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.
The new VW Golf
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.
This newest Golf is offered with a 170-hp turbocharged 1.9-liter, an improved version of the 2.0-liter TDI making 150 hp, and with a 2.0-liter turbo four in the hot-hatch Golf GTI; the GTI has 210 hp as standard or 220 hp with the optional Performance Pack. The old five-cylinder is now long gone, replaced by that efficient new 1.8-liter in the base model. A new Golf R promises 292 horsepower from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder hitched to all-wheel drive, similar to the setup in Audi's S3; the Golf R arrives mid-way through the 2015 model year. VW will also offer an electric-only e-Golf in select markets here and in limited numbers, as well.
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 Golf line now also absorbs the wagon formerly known as Jetta SportWagen, rechristened the Golf SportWagen and based on the latest underpinnings. It will go on sale here for 2016, bringing with it the well-liked TDI diesel version as well as a new Alltrack wagon with all-wheel drive. VW expects the wagon to outsell the Golf hatchback, in part due to the longer version's ability to go up against Subaru with four driven wheels. When the new wagon models come online, VW will have the most fleshed-out version of the Golf lineup it has ever sold, including diesel, electric, and gasoline powertrains as well as three different body styles—the new wagon in addition to the three-door and five-door hatchbacks.