- Premium feel
- Well-damped ride
- Quick electric power steering
- DSG, TDI are a winning combination
- Great visibility
- Frumpy looks
- Mediocre gas mileage on base Golfs
- Less room than expected in three-doors
- Premium pricing
The 2012 Volkswagen Golf feels like a premium vehicle, and it's priced like one too, especially its fuel-efficient TDI edition.
Volkswagen has been synonymous with compact cars since the days of the original Golf, but the latest edition of the hardy hatchback perennial faces some problems. The Golf--unlike VW's newest Jetta and Passat sedans--was developed at a premium price point. It's still charming to drive, and has a premium feel that's pervasive and superior to most of the competitors, but it's also expensive compared to the likes of the Ford Focus, Mazda3, and Kia Forte/Soul, and it's no longer the clear-cut winner in handling, either.
Those newer, price-savvy competitors also have a styling edge that's been honed down, and off the conservative-looking Golf. A small percentage of shoppers will put a premium on its timeless, sparingly detailed looks. The rest will find it frumpy, especially when compared with the visual drama generated by the Focus, or by the funky freshness of the Soul. The Golf can't really be called sexy, but it does have some classy details baked into its five- and three-door shapes. It looks best from the rear three-quarters, where the cutlines around the doors give it a little forward thrust. Stacked against those competitors, it doesn't look dated, just backpedaled. The interior's solidly designed and built, more so than VW's own Jetta sedan, which only gets soft-touch plastics now in the highest of trim levels.
Choosing a Golf means choosing between two relatively unusual powerplants. The base versions have a five-cylinder engine that's more than enough to power the hatchback to city speeds at the usual pace, but it's nothing spectacular, and its noise and vibration are relatively unrefined in feel, and gas mileage is low. Either a manual or an automatic transmission are available. The spendy option is a turbodiesel with spectacular fuel economy and a sticker price beginning at about $24,000, even before you opt for our preferred dual-clutch transmission, which plays well with the diesel's narrow powerband.
No matter whether you choose the three-door or five-door Golf, you'll find responsive electric power steering and a taut, not jarring, ride. Diesel models have even a bit more sport tuned into their suspensions. Braking is strong on the Golf, and in all, it's dynamically a cut or two above the Korean competition when it comes to road fluency--but the margin of victory is much smaller when it's compared with the likes of the very nimble, very responsive Focus.
The three- and five-door Golfs ride on the same wheelbase, and in both, front passenger space is ample. The three-door's rear seats might seem a little cramped, since you'll have to clamber in through long doors. The rear seats have adjustable headrests and an armrest, and fold down nearly flat to expand access to the trunk. The Golf doesn't measure up in back-seat leg room compared to the Honda Civic or Kia Forte, which seems surprising given the boxy shape, but headroom is quite good and the seats themselves are firm and well bolstered.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 has repackaged features into three trim levels for either powertrain this year, but all Golfs still come with standard power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; air conditioning; and an AM/FM/CD/MP3 player with an auxiliary jack. The Golf TDI diesel tops that list with more standard gear, including an LCD-screen music interface; Sirius Satellite Radio; a multifunction steering wheel; a six-disc CD changer; and Bluetooth.
The turbocharged Volkswagen GTI and Golf R are reviewed separately.