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The 2014 Volkswagen Golf, as well as its sporty sibling the Volkswagen GTI, are making their final appearance before the launch of an all-new and totally redesigned 2015 VW Golf. The seventh generation vehicle to bear the name will arrive arly in 2014, so the 2014 models will have a short year, and as such, they're purely carryover models.
The design of the current car (and the new one, for that matter) instantly marks it as a Golf, with styling cues that deliberately evolve in a recognizable progression. While the 2014 Golf competes against both traditional compacts like the Ford Focus, Mazda 3, and Subaru Impreza, as well as two more recent entries from Korea, the Hyundai Elantra GT and Kia Forte, it's a somewhat more premium model than those cars--and the higher price tag reflects that. With hatchbacks undergoing a bit of a resurgence, the Golf is well positioned--it's been a hatchback for 40 years now.
Across the range, the Golf remains a pleasure to drive, with a ride that's firm but compliant and quiet, taut cornering, and electric power steering that's responsive and conveys enough road feel to make the car feel sporty and connected to the road. The brakes are strong, and dynamically the Golf simply outguns the Korean competition--though the Ford Focus is within shouting distance. The higher price shows up in the ride and refinement, which are qualitatively and obviously better than cheaper and more mass-market competitors.
All these qualities come at a price, however. The Golf's premium pricing means that sticker prices can close in on $30,000 if you opt for the TDI diesel engine and dual-clutch automatic transmission plus a few carefully selected options. It's true that the base model of the Golf starts below $20,000, but its 170-hp five-cylinder engine is neither fuel-efficient nor refined. (That engine will finally depart from Volkswagen's lineup altogether in 2015.)
The GTI ramps the Golf's fine points up even more, adding sportier design touches and more powerful engine, but the interior fit, finish, and materials of every Golf and GTI are a cut above other compacts. Interior space is ample in the front, though tight in back, and the front seats are comfortable and supportive--with the GTI's sport seats the best of the bunch. The rear-seat disadvantage is particularly pronounced in the three-door model--it's the only three-door hatchback offered in the compact class that's not a specially styled variation--and that model sells in relatively small numbers against the more practical five-door version.
The TDI diesel sits at the top model in the Golf line--it's a whopping $6,000 more than the base car--though the 140-hp 2.0-liter turbodiesel comes with either a six-speed manual or the DSG six-speed dual-clutch automatic, which shifts more quickly and crisply than a conventional automatic and is paired well with the efficient diesel.
Then there's the sporty Volkswagen GTI, which essentially defined the "hot hatch" category in the early 1980s. Its base price is actually below that of the Golf TDI diesel, and its 200-hp 2.0-liter TSI turbocharged engine is smoother and more rewarding than any other engine in the lineup. But the TDI diesel is the fuel-efficiency champ, with a combined 34 mpg (30 mpg city, 42 mpg highway)--and most owners report that the car handily exceeds its EPA ratings in real-world driving. The base five-cylinder only returns 26 mpg combined with either a five-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed automatic--far below most other compacts. Even the sporty GTI model does better than that (27 mpg combined) when fitted with the DSG automatic, though it falls to 25 mpg combined with the six-speed manual.
Even in its last year, the Golf range is fairly well equipped. It's not as plush or feature-rich as high-end models from some competitors, but you'll never mistake it for an economy model. Its one drawback is the lack of standard Bluetooth pairing, though these days the high-end models might also be expected to offer added safety features--from adaptive cruise control to lane-departure warning--that are moving quickly down from luxury models into more modest segments.
Touchscreen navigation and a sunroof are options across most trim levels, and the TDI versions add steering-wheel audio controls, Bluetooth, satellite radio, a multi-disc CD changer (remember those?), and an LCD audio interface. The GTI hot-hatch version ups the spec again, adding 18-inch alloy wheels, a sport steering wheel, heated side mirrors, the characteristic checked seat upholstery, and various other appearance upgrades.