Set the luridly powerful GTI and Golf R aside for a second--or steer over to our reviews of that singular sensation on another page. We're talking about economy here, instead, and when it comes to great performance of that kind, there's just one Golf you need to shop--the TDI.
The TDI gets its lofty performance, of a fuel-economy kind, from its turbocharged diesel engine. It's rated at just 140 horsepower, but the 2.0-liter four also sports 236 pound-feet of torque. That makes it just a tick or two slower than its gas-powered counterpart, but its low-end torque is smooth and very strong--it's ideal for urban driving for that reason, even before it reaches for stellar economy of 30/42 mpg. VW rates it at a 0-60 mph time of about 8.6 seconds, about on par for the class, and the customary diesel vibration and noise are well quieted. It's offered with a choice of the typically notchy VW six-speed manual, or our choice, a six-speed dual-clutch automatic with paddle shifters, one of the best transmissions you can buy, and well-suited to the diesel's powerband.
The five-cylinder gas engine won't thrill users, but it's adequate. With 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, it's unexciting and flat in response to the throttle. The vague-feeling five-speed manual that comes with as standard equipment with the three-door Golf is better swapped out for VW's better six-speed automatic; the five-door only comes with the automatic. It's a bit quicker to 60 mph with this engine, about a half-second quicker, and fuel economy can be as high as 23/33 mpg, but the five-cylinder Golf just doesn't feel as engaging.
The Golf's handling, no matter which version you choose, is a strong point. Its electric power steering is well-sorted for good driving feel, and the ride is taut, not jarring. Diesels are set a bit more sporty, and it's not punishing at all. The front strut and independent rear suspension absorb big bumps with nary a crash or bang, and braking on the cars tested feels strong and controllable.