The Car Connection Volkswagen Golf Overview
The Volkswagen Golf is the automaker's compact car. It's the brand's global bestseller, and has been for 40 years. While the Jetta has become more specialized for American tastes, the Golf retains a more European flair.
With the Golf, Volkswagen offers three- or five-door hatchbacks, or a wagon body style. The range is powered mostly by a turbo-4, however an electric version is available in the e-Golf guise.
Competition for the Golf comes from several sporty hatches such as the Mazda 3, Kia Forte, Hyundai Elantra GT and the all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza.
MORE: Read our 2020 Volkswagen Golf review
For 2019, VW replaced the engine found in the Golf hatchback and front-wheel-drive SportWagen, and substituted one with smaller displacement, but it also made active safety tech standard on most versions and added more power to the Golf GTI.
In 2020—in advance of a new Golf due in 2021—VW dropped the Golf R and both Golf wagons from the lineup, and pared down trims.
The new VW Golf
For the 2015 model year, Volkswagen launched a new seventh generation of the Golf in the U.S., trailing the start of European sales by about a year. Golfs sold in North America are now built at a factory in Mexico, just as the Jetta has been for a decade or more. The latest Golf is lighter, more spacious inside, and sports a new range of powertrains as well as many more electronic safety features.
The newest Golf is offered with a 170-horsepower, turbocharged 1.8-liter inline-4 and a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 that makes 210 hp (or 220 hp when optionally equipped). The old inline-5 is now long gone, replaced by that efficient new 1.8-liter in the base model. A new Golf R makes 292 hp from a 2.0-liter inline-4 hitched to all-wheel drive, similar to the setup in Audi's S3; the Golf R arrived mid-way through the 2015 model year. VW offers an all-electric e-Golf in select markets here and in limited numbers, as well.
The 2015 Golf included more electronic safety systems, a wider array of standard and optional equipment, and better soundproofing and noise suppression, while retaining most of the sporty driving characteristics that peg it as German. And its lines instantly identify it as a Golf, marching to the same drumbeat as its six earlier generations.
The Golf line now also absorbs the wagon formerly known as Jetta SportWagen, rechristened the Golf SportWagen and based on the latest underpinnings. It went on sale here for 2015, bringing with it the well-liked TDI diesel version as well as the new 1.8T gas engine. VW expects the wagon to outsell the Golf hatchback, in part due to the longer version's ability to go up against Subaru with four driven wheels. Now that the new wagon models have come online, VW has the most fleshed-out Golf lineup it has ever sold here, including electric, and gasoline powertrains as well as three different body styles—the new wagon in addition to the three-door and five-door hatchbacks.
In 2015, Volkswagen admitted diesel engines in this model illegally cheated federal tests and polluted beyond allowable limits. As part of unprecedented settlements with federal and state governments, Volkswagen agreed to buyback from owners diesel-equipped models of this vehicle. To determine eligibility for all affected Volkswagen, Porsche, and Audi models, Volkswagen set up VWDieselInfo.com for owners. (Owners of affected vehicles can enter their VINs to see if their cars are eligible for buyback.)
For 2017, Volkswagen added an all-wheel-drive version of its SportWagen, dubbed Alltrack. It couples the 1.8-liter turbo-4 with a Haldex all-wheel-drive system that can send up to 50 percent of torque to its rear wheels.
VW in 2019 dropped the 1.8-liter turbo-4 from the Golf hatchback and front-wheel-drive SportWagen in favor of a smaller 1.4-liter turbo-4 paired to more sophisticated transmissions in the name of improved fuel economy.
Volkswagen Golf history
Launched in 1974, the model we now call Golf was sold in the U.S. as the Rabbit in its first (and again in its fifth) generation and has spawned a variety of models, including a low-volume three-door hatchback, two generations of Cabrio convertibles, the quintessential hot-hatch GTI variant, and even limited-edition and very powerful all-wheel-drive Golf R models.
When the Golf was introduced back in the mid-'70s, it was seen as groundbreaking, especially for Volkswagen, as it offered an efficient water-cooled engine driving the front wheels. U.S. models were originally called Rabbit, and some were built here. The Rabbit was intended to replace the aging rear-engine Beetle, although that car lived on for several more years before leaving this market.
Fast-forwarding through Golf history, the third-generation Volkswagen Golf, which ran from 1993 until 1999 is likely the oldest you'll currently find on used-car lots. They're known for being a little more smooth, safe, and refined than Golf models from the 1980s, but at the same time a little less nimble and tossable. Most of these Golfs came with a 115-hp, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that was quite perky with the manual transmission, but not so happy with the optional automatic. The Golf GTI performance model was a genuine hot-hatch, packing VW's 2.8-liter narrow-angle 6-cylinder VR6 engine under the hood; it put out 172 hp and made the Golf faster than almost any other affordable small car of the time.
For 1999, new fourth-generation Golf models began reaching U.S. dealerships. This model was completely new, with a more solid, grown-up feel than its predecessor, though the powertrains carried through largely unchanged at first. The same 115-hp inline-4 felt a little overwhelmed with a full load and didn't return great fuel economy, but models with the two other engines—either the 150-hp, 1.8-liter 1.8T or the 90-hp (or 100-hp) 1.9-liter turbodiesel inline-4—were both faster and more fuel-efficient. Those upgrading from other small-car models would notice that the Golf felt like a more expensive vehicle from the inside, with a firm but supple ride and a nice, fashionable interior. Despite the upscale trappings, these Golfs earned a reputation for reliability issues and especially electrical problems.
In 2006, the Golf was redesigned, with it this time getting a standard 2.5-liter inline-5 engine that, while stronger and torquier, was not very impressive in the fuel-economy department. This Golf continued the model's trajectory toward solidity and safety but had improved handling over the previous model, and a new sporty GTI model stood alone in offering a 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbo-4. For 2006, Volkswagen renamed its hatchback the Rabbit for the U.S. market, but that change only lasted through 2009. For 2008, VW brought the Golf-based R32 extra-hot-hatch to the U.S., powered by a 3.2-liter V-6 engine backed by all-wheel drive.
Volkswagen again redesigned the Golf for 2010. While certainly not a radical redesign visually, that sixth-generation model included a host of improvements, especially to the interior, overall refinement, and ride comfort—as well as improved feel from the electric power steering. Engines included a base 2.5-liter 5-cylinder and the 2.0-liter turbodiesel, which was our pick in the model line. VW's small diesel accelerated nearly as quickly as the base engine but was rated at 30 mpg city, 42 highway for fuel efficiency. Both the TDI as well as the sporty new GTI (again powered by the 2.0T engine, and covered separately) used VW's excellent DSG automated manual gearbox.
In 2012, an uber-powerful Golf R model, with all-wheel drive, appealed again to serious enthusiasts. An optional navigation system appeared on the Golf for the first time, with hard-drive music storage, USB connectivity, and an SD memory slot.