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The Volkswagen Golf's distinctly German feel comes through its steering wheel and tires and through its sheetmetal. It's a premium-feeling hatchback that's unfortunately finding those attributes don't mean as much when faced with price-savvy new competitors like the Ford Focus, Kia Soul and Hyundai Elantra.
The Golf can't really be called sexy, but there are some classy details baked into its three- and five-door bodies--particularly around the rear door cuts. Stacked up against the dashing new Elantra, the Golf doesn't necessarily look dated, just conservative. The interior's solidly designed and built, more so than VW's own Jetta sedan that shares the Golf's backstory, even though it no longer shares a platform.
Performance means a choice between two relatively oddball powerplants. The five-cylinder's enough to get the Golf to speed easily enough, and its automatic transmission shifts sweetly--but the offbeat in-line five throbs with a lumpy sound and dull torque curve. The TDI diesel is much better for off-the-line feel, and fuel economy is spectacular--just like its paddle-shifted dual-clutch transmission and its fine ride-and-handling blend.
Front passenger space is ample, but the three-door's rear seats might seem a little cramped.
The IIHS calls the Golf a Top Safety Pick, and new features bring it closer to the ample standard equipment found in some Korean-made cars; Bluetooth is now available across the lineup, and a CD player is standard. Base prices are high, though, at almost $18,000 for the three-door, and $20,000 for the five-door--while the Hyundai Elantra starts below $16,000.
VW's counting on you to appreciate that Teutonic tightness--and if you do carve a corner or two on a daily basis, the Golf's better dynamics make it a must-drive. It's no longer the best in that class, with the arrival of the Focus--which makes your compact-car choice even tougher.
The turbocharged Volkswagen GTI is reviewed separately.