New & Used Volkswagen Golf: In Depth
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The Volkswagen Golf is a compact hatchback that’s available with three or five doors, and it shares many of its underpinnings with the Jetta sedan. Although the Jetta sells in higher figures, the Golf is still a popular choice in the Volkswagen lineup.
For the full details of the Golf model lineup, read our 2014 Volkswagen Golf review.
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 competes at the sportier end of the compact hatchback spectrum, against the new-for-2013 Hyundai Elantra GT, the Kia Soul, the Mazda3, and 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. An all-new seventh generation of Volkswagen Golf models will debut for the 2015 model year, from an assembly plant in Puebla, Mexico, where U.S. market Jetta sedans are already built.
That next generation of VW Golf hatchbacks is already on sale in Europe--but won't arrive in the U.S. until sometime next year. The new range of three- and five-door hatchbacks are lighter, more spacious inside, and sport a new range of powertrains as well as many more electronic safety features. In the U.S. we're likely to get four-cylinder gas and diesel engines, while waving goodbye to today's outdated five-cylinder base engine. The new VW GTI, meanwhile, will bring a turbocharged 1.8-liter four with 217 horsepower.
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, the latest Golf includes a host of improvements, especially to the interior, refinement, and ride comfort—as well as improved feel from the electric power steering. The Golf remains one of the most safety-minded small-car choices, including six standard airbags, plus electronic stability control and brake assist. Rear side airbags are optional in addition to the usual front side and curtain bags. A navigation system is now offered on the Golf, with hard-drive music storage, USB connectivity, and an SD memory slot.
The Golf TDI now includes a 140-hp, 2.0-liter turbodiesel that's our pick in the model line, as it accelerates nearly as quickly as the base engine yet delivers 30 mpg city, 42 highway. Both the TDI model as well as the sporty new GTI (again powered by the 2.0T engine, and covered separately) get VW's excellent DSG automated manual gearbox. Changes were minimal into 2012 and 2013, but beginning with the 2012 model year, an uber-powerful Golf R model, with all-wheel drive, appealed again to serious enthusiasts.
An all-new generation of the Golf will be introduced for the 2015 model year. A bit larger, yet lighter and more fuel-efficient, the 2015 VW Golf will offer 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.