The 2013 Golf range--especially if you consider the TDI diesel, the sporty GTI, and the high-performance Golf R--covers a wide span of performance. In each case, the Golf performs remarkably well, and to different expectations.
If your expectations fall into the realm of green performance, you can't do much better than the Golf TDI. Its 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine is rated at just 140 horsepower, but it's the 236 pound-feet of torque that it churns out that makes this engine a gem. All said, it's very slightly slower than its gasoline counterpart (about 8.6 seconds to 60 mph), but its mammoth low-rev torque output always makes it feel stronger and more eager. For that it's good both for urban driving and on the highway, where EPA ratings range up to 42 mpg.
The TDI comes with either a six-speed manual, which is on the notchy side, or the a six-speed dual-clutch automatic (DSG) with paddle shifters. We tend to prefer the latter option, as it's so well-suited to the diesel's powerband and is one of the best transmissions of its kind for performance.
Base models come with a five-cylinder gas engine that's adequate but far from thrilling or particularly efficient or refined. It makes 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, though it's unexciting and flat in response to the throttle. We tend to prefer the six-speed automatic transmission (not the DSG here, but a regular automatic) over the vague five-speed manual in base cars)--and in five-door Golf models the automatic is the only transmission anyhow.
The GTI offers a much sweeter gasoline powertrain--the familiar 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged TSI engine that's used elsewhere in the VW (and Audi) lineup--and here it's paired with either a six-speed manual or six-speed DSG. GTI models drive much better from an enthusiast perspective, because of upgraded brakes and suspension, s well as a Cross Differential System (XDS).
That's for those who want a sportier drive; but true enthusiasts--and admittedly those with deeper pockets--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.
As you might guess, handling varies quite a bit between the base Golf and the Golf R. But no matter which model you choose, the Golf is nimble, balanced, and confident, with well-sorted electric power steering that has good weighting and feedback. Ride quality, even in GTI and Golf R models is taut but not jarring, and braking is strong. The Golf R is surprisingly stoic and composed for a tuner special, although at the same time it has a throaty exhaust note, sharper and quicker steering, plus a little more harshness as a tradeoff for the heightened responsiveness.