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Volkswagen's Golf hatchback--along with its sporty GTI and high-performance Golf R variants--has a look and style that remains unmistakable among hatchbacks. And while it might have in many respects been a trendsetter over the long haul, the market for small, sporty hatchbacks is finally hitting the mainstream, with the Ford Focus, Mazda3, and Subaru Impreza hatchbacks, along with the Kia Forte and Hyundai Elantra GT, appealing to more than a narrow niche.
Yet the 2013 Golf stands out as a different kind of car than those other models. On one hand, it has more of a premium small car look and feel, and that's a good thing. But the down side is that while the Jetta and Passat sedans were developed to be stronger values for America--meaning more space, lower price point--the Golf's true European pedigree keeps it one of the priciest models in the class.
Compared to other hatchbacks, the 2013 Volkswagen Golf is still charming to drive, with a premium feel inside, excellent handling, and a firm but comfortable and quiet ride. If you spring for the base-model Golf, which starts at less than $19k, you should be aware that the base 170-hp five-cylinder engine is perky, but not all that refined or fuel-efficient. The best model in the standard Golf lineup is the TDI, with its excellent and very torquey clean-diesel turbo four-cylinder engine, available DSG dual-clutch transmission, and an EPA highway rating of 42 mpg, but that it's essentially priced as a premium vehicle, with a sticker price that starts more than $6,000 higher than the base gasoline Golf. The sporty GTI actually starts at a lower price than the TDI, and it's a blast to drive in its own right, as it includes all sorts of upgrades, in addition to VW's flexible and smooth 200-hp, 2.0-liter TSI gasoline four.
Across all of these models, you'll find responsive electric power steering and a taut, not jarring, ride. Diesel models (and GTIs, of course) 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.
True enthusiasts are going to go for the new Golf R, which adds a higher-output version of the engine making 256 hp and 243 pound-feet, and brings it to the pavement with a version of VW's 4Motion all-wheel drive system, a performance Haldex clutch pack, and many other performance improvements including stronger brakes, a lower, stiffer suspension, and dual exhaust outlets. And perhaps as a reminder that this is a low-volume performance model, it's only offered with a manual gearbox.
No matter which one you choose, you get an interior that offers the same amount of space and usability--and nearly the same amount of comfort and refinement. The Golf, even in its base form, includes good front seats and has a pervasive feel of quality throughout the cabin. But compared to other small-car models, it lacks backseat space--especially in three-door models. Overall, refinement and ride are excellent across the model line for both Golf and GTI models. Only with the Golf R do you get a ride that's somewhat harsher--as well as a little more engine noise.The Golf itself might not impress as quite as plush for the dollar as some of the newest Korean cars, but it has all the features and modern conveniences to distance itself from any econo-car roots. TDI versions add an LCD interface for the audio system; satellite radio and a CD changer; steering-wheel audio controls; and Bluetooth.On the GTI, there are a few more standard features like heated side mirrors, a sport steering wheel, 18-inch 'Detroit' alloy wheels, and a series of other appearance upgrades inside and out. A sunroof and touch-screen navigation are offered, but the Golf doesn't include Bluetooth at the base level and even at the upper end of the model line it's missing the active-safety options that have become available on some models, even in this class.