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The Volkswagen Golf was one of the first compact hatchbacks to rise above the 'economy car' label. And still today it stands as a class benchmark against the Mazda 3 and Ford Focus, which have nudged their way onto that particular stage, while Honda, Hyundai and Kia still take occasional swings at the Golf and its performance variant, the GTI.
While those other hatchbacks have gotten lighter and more lithe, the Golf has been putting on weight, going a little grey in recent years. That's stopped with the 2015 VW Golf -- a two- or four-door hatchback that turns back the clock to its best days. It's lighter but larger, more powerful but more fuel-efficient, more spacious but more nimble, too. And as of mid-year, VW has added a Golf SportWagen too--the newest generation of what we previously knew as the Jetta SportWagen, though it was a Golf wagon everywhere else.
If there's any compromise the Golf makes, it's in styling. The upright shape comes as little surprise, though the wheels have been pulled closer to the front, the pillars have been slimmed out, and the roofline's picked up a slight arch. There's a pronounced character line in the sheetmetal starting at the back of the front fender and running alongside the doors, but for the most part this is a design that favors curves and gentle sculpting over angles and sharp creases.
Inside, the dash is canted more toward the driver, with the whole instrument panel carrying more of a gently sculpted, flowing look as a whole and a cockpit look up close to the driver, a la Audi. A mix of light and dark materials as well as sparing bright accents looks like it will help lift VW further up from the drab, dark interior themes of previous Golfs.
VW's ancient in-line five finally is history: the Golf TSI gets a 1.8-liter turbocharged four with 170 horsepower that nets up to 6 miles per gallon better than its predecessor, and up to 37 mpg highway with the manual gearbox. If you’re really looking for fuel economy, though, skip right to the Golf TDI's 2.0-liter turbodiesel, rated at 150 horsepower. In testing, we've already observed 47-49 mpg, and EPA estimated range up to 45 mpg highway.
The two Golfs have distinctly different driving feel. The TDI has a torsion-beam rear suspension, at least for this year, but still handles very well, with firm steering responses and a ride that strikes the right balance of comfort and sport. Much the same is true for the TSI, though it has a fully independent suspension that gives it a far more absorbent ride that most of its competitors. It also has some of the best electric power steering tuning, and road-noise isolation.
Volkswagen's sporty GTI is the most deliberate of the hot hatchbacks -- and yes, the least edgy and spontaneous-feeling -- in terms of appearance and driving personality. Yet this is no slight. What starts out with the basic packaging and shape of the frugal Golf ends up, in each iteration, as a more finely focused performance car, yet one that can also work just fine for daily commuters.
The GTI gets an upgrade to VW's 2.0 TFSI engine, now making 220 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque (at just 1,500 rpm). There's a choice between six-speed manual and six-speed dual-clutch (DSG) gearboxes, with acceleration to 62 mph in just 6.5 seconds for the standard versions. A 'progressive' steering system and a suspension that's tuned for performance make the GTI more satisfying to drive fast than the Golf -- although its heavy-handed stability-system electronics can get in the way for serious enthusiasts.
The 2015 Volkswagen Golf is still right in the middle of the compact class, with an overall length of 167.5 inches. That's 2.2 inches longer than the previous generation, and its wheelbase is 2.3 inches longer—creating more interior space and helping improve the crash structure. The front seats set the pace for the class, and VW claims more elbow room front and back, as well as an 8-percent gain in cargo space--16.5 cubic feet behind the rear seats, under the parcel shelf, or 22.8 cubic feet from the cargo floor to the roof.
With the seats folded down, the Golf hatchback has 52.7 cubic feet of storage space, easily enough to stow a bicycle. Then there's the wagon, which Volkswagen points out has more cargo space than some small crossover utility vehicles: 30.4 cubic feet with the rear seat in place, or a capacious 66.5 cubic seat once you pull the quick-release latches to fold down the seat back.
On the safety front, the Golf already has earned the IIHS' Top Safety Pick award, though the NHTSA hasn't crash-tested it yet. All versions can be fitted with a rearview camera, though it doesn't become standard equipment until prices reach into the $25,000 range. Bluetooth is also standard, and the Golf offers forward-collision warnings.
Feature-wise, a new touch-screen infotainment system is included in all Golf models; lower-level models include a 5-inch touch screen, while upper trims get an 8-inch version with navigation. Twin USB ports and full iPod control are part of the base setup. Leatherette upholstery and panoramic roof options
For performance fans, the VW GTI is priced from $25,215. It's reviewed separately. The high-performance Golf R isn’t due until the first quarter of 2015. Other Golf variants in the planning include the all-electric e-Golf due in the fourth quarter of this year as well as the Golf SportWagen due in early 2015, with the latter coming in both TSI and TDI flavors.