2012 Volkswagen Golf Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
February 19, 2012

The 2012 Volkswagen Golf feels like a premium vehicle, and it's priced like one too, especially its fuel-efficient TDI edition.

Volkswagen has been synonymous with compact cars since the days of the original Golf, but the latest edition of the hardy hatchback perennial faces some problems. The Golf--unlike VW's newest Jetta and Passat sedans--was developed at a premium price point. It's still charming to drive, and has a premium feel that's pervasive and superior to most of the competitors, but it's also expensive compared to the likes of the Ford Focus, Mazda3, and Kia Forte/Soul, and it's no longer the clear-cut winner in handling, either.

Those newer, price-savvy competitors also have a styling edge that's been honed down, and off the conservative-looking Golf. A small percentage of shoppers will put a premium on its timeless, sparingly detailed looks. The rest will find it frumpy, especially when compared with the visual drama generated by the Focus, or by the funky freshness of the Soul. The Golf can't really be called sexy, but it does have some classy details baked into its five- and three-door shapes. It looks best from the rear three-quarters, where the cutlines around the doors give it a little forward thrust. Stacked against those competitors, it doesn't look dated, just backpedaled. The interior's solidly designed and built, more so than VW's own Jetta sedan, which only gets soft-touch plastics now in the highest of trim levels.

Choosing a Golf means choosing between two relatively unusual powerplants. The base versions have a five-cylinder engine that's more than enough to power the hatchback to city speeds at the usual pace, but it's nothing spectacular, and its noise and vibration are relatively unrefined in feel, and gas mileage is low. Either a manual or an automatic transmission are available. The spendy option is a turbodiesel with spectacular fuel economy and a sticker price beginning at about $24,000, even before you opt for our preferred dual-clutch transmission, which plays well with the diesel's narrow powerband.

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No matter whether you choose the three-door or five-door Golf, you'll find responsive electric power steering and a taut, not jarring, ride. Diesel models have even a bit more sport tuned into their suspensions. Braking is strong on the Golf, and in all, it's dynamically a cut or two above the Korean competition when it comes to road fluency--but the margin of victory is much smaller when it's compared with the likes of the very nimble, very responsive Focus.

The three- and five-door Golfs ride on the same wheelbase, and in both, front passenger space is ample. The three-door's rear seats might seem a little cramped, since you'll have to clamber in through long doors. The rear seats have adjustable headrests and an armrest, and fold down nearly flat to expand access to the trunk. The Golf doesn't measure up in back-seat leg room compared to the Honda Civic or Kia Forte, which seems surprising given the boxy shape, but headroom is quite good and the seats themselves are firm and well bolstered.

The IIHS calls the Golf a Top Safety Pick, and new features bring it closer to the ample standard equipment found in some Korean-made cars; Bluetooth is now available across the lineup, and a CD player is standard. Base prices are high, though, at almost $18,000 for the three-door, and $20,000 for the five-door--while the Hyundai Elantra starts below $16,000. VW has repackaged features into three trim levels for either powertrain this year, but all Golfs still come with standard power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; air conditioning; and an AM/FM/CD/MP3 player with an auxiliary jack. The Golf TDI diesel tops that list with more standard gear, including an LCD-screen music interface; Sirius Satellite Radio; a multifunction steering wheel; a six-disc CD changer; and Bluetooth.

The turbocharged Volkswagen GTI and Golf R are reviewed separately.

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 VIN numbers to see if their cars are eligible for buyback.)

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2012 Volkswagen Golf

Styling

It's anonymous compared to some of the latest designs, but the Volkswagen Golf's conservative threads have some fine details.

For more than thirty years, the VW Golf (and sometimes, the Rabbit) has looked about the same. To some, it's a reason to claim boredom and to move on to some of the jazzy designs from America and Korea.

To others, it's a sign of stability, and of a well-honed design that's earned a spot in some conservative hall of fame. It's a two-box shape, but there's some subtlety in the sculpting of its front end and in the cutlines that sharply delineated the body into sections. Drama? It leaves that behind for the Focus or the Elantra, though there's more wedge and more attitude in the three-door.

In the Golf's favor are some really nicely executed, appealing details. A handful of interesting creases have shown up on the hood. The front end has a slightly wider grille and halogen headlamps. There's a small spoiler at the back, where the hatch hinges to the body. The Golf TDI is distinguished only by oval fog lamps and if you order them, xenon headlamps. In all, the Golf has grown a bit broader, a little more balanced, but remains evolutionary in looks.

We'll be happy if the cabin stays true to the tightly constructed, sober look it has now. There's more of a modern imprint in its simplified, better-detailed dash, in this year-old redesign, and better control interfaces--while the big round gauges remain front and center, in perfect view. The Golf hasn't gone where the 2011 Jetta sedan has gone: the hatchbacks have better textures and materials than the Mexican-built Jetta, which grew longer and cheaper in a pitch to woo more American buyers. Given the choice of cabins to sit in, we'd opt for the richer Golf environs than the spacious, hard, plasticky cockpit of the Jetta almost any time.

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2012 Volkswagen Golf

Performance

Unless you're blowing past the base Golf for a GTI or R, you can stop right here at the TDI--the best Golf to buy when you're seeking economy.

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.

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2012 Volkswagen Golf

Comfort & Quality

It feels solid and well-built, but the Golf's rear seat isn't particularly spacious--especially on three-door models.

Sporty front seats and a pervasive feel of quality give the Golf a discernible personality in its class, but it's a little smaller than the boxy body might suggest.

We like the Golf's front bucket seats, in cloth and in the available "leatherette" upholstery. Their adjustments are a little difficult to reach--one's a knob, two are levers, and they're all in different places--but the seats themselves have great shape and support, and they're firm for comfort over long-distance drivers.

The adjustments are fewer in back, and it's here where the Golf doesn't quite measure up to the newest compacts in the class. There's not quite as much rear-seat legroom in the three-door Golf as in the Honda Civic or the Kia Forte, a mild surprise given the Golf's boxy shape, and it can be a chore to clamber in the back. Headroom is quite good, though. The rear seats have adjustable headrests and an armrest, and fold down nearly flat to expand access to the trunk.

Volkswagen puts high-quality materials in the Golf's cabin. Visibility is good, too, but the base of the windshield is rather high, a result of European pedestrian collision standards.

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2012 Volkswagen Golf

Safety

Some crash-test scores are in, and the Golf's safety performance is encouraging.

The VW Golf hasn't been rated completely by the two major crash-test agencies, but the results so far are encouraging.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports that the 2012 Golf is one of its Top Safety Picks, which means it's earned "good" scores in front, side and roof impact tests. However, the IIHS applies those results only to the five-door hatchback, with the three-door left in limbo.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't rated either model. The federal agency changes its test procedures for the 2011 model year and hasn't yet re-tested the Golf.

Standard features include six airbags, anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control, and brake assist. Rear side airbags are an option in the five-door Golf, but it lacks parking sensors or a rearview camera, features that are becoming more common in the segment.

We'll revisit these ratings once the NHTSA issues its findings.

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2012 Volkswagen Golf

Features

Every Golf brings game; the TDI model gets standard satellite radio and Bluetooth.

As the entire compact class ups its game with tech-savvy features and luxury-like standard equipment, VW and the Golf have responded. They're not quite as plush for the dollar as some of the newest Korean cars, but the Golf lineup now has competitive gadgets to keep enthusiasts in the fold, straying just a bit from its econocar roots in the process.

All Golf hatchbacks now come with standard cruise control; power locks, mirrors and windows; air conditioning; and a CD player and an auxiliary port. TDI versions add an LCD interface for the audio system; satellite radio and a CD changer; steering-wheel audio controls; and Bluetooth.

On the options list, VW lists Bluetooth for base models, a sunroof, and heated seats. TDI versions can upgrade their listening pleasure with a 300-watt Dynaudio Lite audio system that sounds crisp and clear, and worth the added premium over the base system. The truly big-ticket option on the Golf is a navigation system that includes a 30GB hard drive for music and maps, DVD playback, an SD card slot, and USB connectivity.

All new Volkswagens include a new three-year, 36,000-mile maintenance plan, a new value proposition that could tip the balance for buyers shopping a price point.

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2012 Volkswagen Golf

Fuel Economy

Five-cylinders Golfs post average fuel-economy numbers; the TDI diesel's a mileage champ.

With hybrid-like fuel economy, the Golf TDI is one of the stars of the compact class. Its five-cylinder companion is just average, though.

With the turbodiesel four-cylinder, the VW Golf actually does a better job than some hybrids. The EPA rates it at 30/42 mpg, no matter if it's equipped with a six-speed manual transmission or VW's excellent dual-clutch transmission.

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 VIN numbers to see if their cars are eligible for buyback.)

The stock five-cylinder engine isn't a star, though. It's still capable of delivering up to 33 mpg on the highway, but with new compacts like the Focus and Elantra delivering up to 40 mpg highway, the Golf's fallen behind. The Golf is rated by the EPA at 24/31 mpg with this engine and an automatic transmission; opting for the manual cuts city mileage down to 23 mpg, but boosts highway numbers to 33 mpg.

The Golf lineup includes distinct R and GTI models with turbocharged engines. They're covered separately.

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Styling 7
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