2016 Volkswagen Golf Review

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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection

The Car Connection Expert Review

Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Senior Editor
April 30, 2016

Buying tip

Volkswagen's excellent new gasoline engines have helped ease the blow of losing the TDI models. The gas engines are relatively efficient and fun to drive.

Between base, e-Golf electric, and high-performance GTI and Golf R versions, the 2016 Volkswagen Golf lineup doesn't forget about the space-and-versatility fundamentals of hatchback—or SportWagen—ownership.

The 2016 Volkswagen Golf has long been one of the benchmark models for compact hatchbacks, and today it stands as a broad family of hatchbacks and wagons, with variants ranging from frugal all-electric e-Golf models to the sporty GTI hatchbacks and the top-performance all-wheel-drive Golf R.

The Golf had in recent years been stepping farther up the maturity ladder, but that stopped last year, with two- and four-door hatchback versions of a new lineup that essentially turns the clock back a bit. It's slightly larger, yet also lighter, and in the transition of this model to VW's latest global MQB platform it's become a more pleasant-driving car as well as more versatile inside.

Hatchbacks aren't all of it, though. VW last year added the Golf SportWagen too—the latest generation of what we previously knew as the Jetta SportWagen, adding about a foot of extra length and full-fledged wagon practicality.

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Styling is still going to be seen by some as too conservative, at least from first look. The profile is much the same—handsome but essentially the same as the previous car—yet the wheels have been pulled closer to the front, the pillars have been slimmed out, and the roofline's picked up a very slight arch. Look a little more closely and there's a character line in the side sheet metal, but for the most part is a design that favors subtlety and sensibility. 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; and the mix of light and dark materials help make the interior feel less institutional.

At the base level, the Golf TSI gets a turbocharged 1.8-liter four with 170 horsepower that nets up to 6 mpg better than its predecessor, and up to 37 mpg highway with the manual.

Last year, Volkswagen pulled from dealerships its turbodiesel Golf after the company admitted it illegally cheated emissions tests. The company says its working toward a fix for cars already on the road, and it's unclear when—or if—diesel versions of the Golf will return to the U.S.

Most Golf models come with a four-wheel, fully independent suspension with a firm but absorbent ride, plus some of the best-weighted, most precise electric power steering tuning in this class, and road-noise isolation.

The 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, but altogether it has far more appeal, day-in-day out, than most of its rivals. As a more finely focused performance car, it can work surprisingly well for daily commuters.

The GTI gets an upgrade to VW's 2.0 TFSI engine, now making 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque (at just 1,500 rpm). There's a choice between 6-speed manual and 6-speed dual-clutch automatic, 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. It's not bad on fuel economy either. The EPA rates the GTI 25 mpg city, 34 highway, 28 combined with the 6-speed manual, 25/33/28 mpg with the automatic.

And then there's the Golf R, at the top of the lineup, which adds a 292-hp engine plus all-wheel drive, a stiffer suspension, and performance enhancements throughout. On the Golf R and GTI you can also opt for VW's dynamic chassis control suspension, which brings you better ride comfort and isolation without detracting from the drive—which, for the R, is edgier in all respects, although some will wish the powertrain response to be a little sharper.

The Golf is still right in the middle of the compact class, with an overall length of 167.5 inches. Its front seats set the pace for the class, while in back it's a bit tight (although getting in and out is easy thanks to the roofline). There's all the cargo convenience you might expect, too, with 16.5 cubic feet behind the rear seats, under the parcel shelf, or 22.8 cubic feet from the cargo floor to the roof.

VW points out that the Sportwagen 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.

A rearview camera is standard on all models of the Golf for 2016, and VW has buffed up its active-safety options to include a new automatic emergency braking system that, on SE and SEL models, allows them to achieve the top IIHS Top Safety Pick+ accolade. Otherwise, it offers several more noteworthy features, like blind-spot, lane departure, and cross-traffic systems, and outward visibility is actually quite good.

With a starting price of around $19,000, the 2016 Volkswagen Golf offers a good set of standard features—including touch-screen audio, satellite radio compatibility, Bluetooth, and power accessories. From that, it's quite the lineup, though—extending to well above $30k for a well-equipped Golf GTI and reaching for $40,000 in the high-performance, all-wheel-drive Golf R.

For 2016, Volkswagen has made the cloth seats standard on the Golf S (last year they were part of a Launch Edition model), and a rearview camera system is included in all models.

Volkswagen has made some major improvements to its touch-screen systems over the past several years. This year brings larger 6.5-inch (or 8.0-inch for the e-Golf SEL) screens as well as upgraded App-Connect capability. Keep in mind, though, that base Golf S models include a smaller 5.0-inch setup.

7

2016 Volkswagen Golf

Styling

The 2016 Volkswagen Golf is handsome and sophisticated, but it lacks the sporty edge inherent in the design of the Ford Focus or Mazda 3.

The Golf lineup got a full redesign this past model year; but unless you're a current Golf owner or serious "vee-dub" enthusiast, you might not even know it on first sight. With that redo, the latest Golf is lower, longer, and wider, yet styling has hardly changed. It's a shape that's far more practical than sexy, for sure; but there are definitely things to warm up to inside.

Anyone who's owned a Golf (called the Rabbit at some points in history) will recognize the latest one as such. There's some clear design lineage going all the way back to the original Golf in 1974, and over time it serves to remind us that the Golf has become a little larger and more rounded. Versus more recent models, the current Golf gets a little more fine detailing in front, with tauter lines, oblong headlamps pushed to the outermost corners, and fender tops that are slightly lower than the hood, aiding smooth flow through the air.

There's also a little more detailing in the small air inlet with horizontal bars, and the large round VW badge stretching between them, as well as in the rear lights; but otherwise the downward tuck of the profile is virtually the same.

The interior layout is probably the most business-like of that in any small cars. The dash's center stack is canted toward the driver, and the dash overall is a little more gently sculpted and flowing than before; it's not as drab, either, and it has some well placed bright accents. Just ahead of the driver is a hooded simple instrument cluster, with display screens (now 6.5-inch) in the middle of the dash. The traditional black dash and interior trim is offset in some models by available two-tone upholstery, yet compared to other cars in this class these are still very conservative interiors in look and feel.

The high-performance GTI hot hatch stands apart from other Golf models—slightly—if you can spot some of its key details, like the lowered sport suspension, twin chrome tailpipes, a rear diffuser, and special side skirts, which altogether give it a more assertive stance that tricks the eyes into thinking it's wider. LED taillights, red brake calipers, and 17-inch "Brooklyn" wheels also add to the look. Meanwhile, the Golf R gets special badging, quad exhaust outlets, and exclusive wheels.

Inside the GTI and Golf R you'll get a sport steering wheel, as well as a special shift knob and performance instrument cluster, plus sport seats—in a tartan pattern, a GTI classic. Other details include a black headliner, red ambient lighting, and stainless-steel for the pedals and foot support.

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8

2016 Volkswagen Golf

Performance

Most of the lineup offers a perky feel and relaxed but grippy handling—then GTI and Golf R models step up the performance in all respects.

The 2016 Volkswagen Golf lineup includes so many powertrain variants and intents—from efficiency-focused to ebullient—that it's hard to sum up all the models in one place. But if we had to assign a few words to Golf performance, it would be confident, precise, and responsive, no matter which combination of priorities you're homing in on.

The inline-5 that used to power the Golf (and Rabbit) at the base level is history, and that's a good thing. The base engine on the Golf is a 1.8-liter turbocharged, direct-injected inline-4 engine rated at 170 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. It earns up to 37 mpg highway, with the manual, and feels strong and refined here, with little if any delay when you need a quick burst of power.

With the base gasoline engine you get to choose between a standard 5-speed manual or available 6-speed automatic. With the manual, the shift action's long, and so is the clutch pedal's stroke, and the gears are tall, so we anticipate that the automatic will be the better option for most drivers, but we'd also bet nonetheless that VW sells more Golf manuals than any of its Korean or domestic competitors.

The Golf TSI balances comfort with sport, but it’s definitely not as flat through corners as the Mazda 3 or Ford Focus. The Golf feels more at ease in daily driving than they do, with a far more absorbent ride and less abruptness in response to steering and throttle inputs. There's simply less body motion as well—a counter-intuitive observation given the presence of body lean—but the Golf simply soaks up inputs from heavy-handed drivers and makes them look better. Road noise is very well isolated, too. Both Golfs now have electric power steering, by the way, and VW does some of the best tuning of these systems in its price class.

And if you're feeling sporty, you can step up to the Golf GTI with its 210-horsepower turbo four, or the 292-hp Golf R; and the surprising thing about both of these offerings is that you don't make big sacrifices in drivability or efficiency.

The GTI is probably the most deliberate of the front-wheel-drive hot hatchbacks—and that makes it the least edgy and spontaneous-feeling. Yet it's for the better here, because you keep the basic packaging and shape of the frugal Golf but end up with a more finely focused, daily-driver-worthy performance car.

With its upgrade to VW's 2.0-liter engine, making 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque (at just 1,500 rpm), acceleration is quick and responsiveness is robust. It's hard to catch this engine flat-footed, and both the 6-speed manual or 6-speed dual-clutch gearboxes are fine choices. Acceleration to 60 mph takes around six seconds—very quick considering the practicality here—while a "progressive" steering system and a suspension that's tuned for performance make the GTI more satisfying to drive fast than the Golf.

All Golfs now have the electronic limited-slip system that used to be exclusive to the GTI. The system brakes an inside wheel to help tighten the cornering line. Our only caution is that when you really push the car hard—as only serious driving enthusiasts might do, perhaps in track time—the electronics can be a little too present.

A Performance Pack raises the GTI's engine power by 10 hp and shaves a tenth of a second off that acceleration time. Performance Pack cars also get a torque-sensing limited-slip differential, as well as larger vented disc brakes front and rear (standard GTIs have solid rear discs).

As for the Golf R, it gets that significantly modified version of the 2.0-liter, making 292 hp; and there's also a more aggressive suspension tune as well as a number of other upgrades. But the most important performance upgrade may be the 4Motion all-wheel drive system, which employs a Haldex 5 center differential and brings an Audi-like lack of fluster to the driving experience. And with the multi-mode switch, you can order up Comfort, Normal, Race, or Individual modes affecting steering, powertrain, AWD, and ride.

As for the new Golf SportWagen, there's very little to add. It handles all but identically to the hatchback, and unless the large cargo bay is filled to the brim with stuff, you will easily forget that you're driving a wagon at all. It has the same powertrain options as the hatchback Golf, and far more than half of those wagons will be ordered with the diesel engine, and many with the manual gearbox.

And let's not forget about the e-Golf. The most efficient model in the lineup, going by EPA ratings, the e-Golf throws out the internal-combustion engine entirely and goes electric—with a 115-hp permanent-magnet AC motor delivering up to 199 lb-ft of torque and capable of accelerating this model to 60 in about ten seconds. Top speed is 87 mph, and the e-Golf can go an official 83 miles on a charge. 

The e-Golf, we've found, actually feels better-balanced than some of the gasoline or diesel models, as it has a more even weight distribution; its steering and ride-and-handling attributes are also very well-tuned.

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8

2016 Volkswagen Golf

Comfort & Quality

The 2016 Golf lineup has excellent front seats and cargo verstility—especially in SportWagen versions—but its back-seat space is slim.

The current Volkswagen Golf lineup took on a somewhat larger footprint this past year, amplifying an upright body that already was already more useful than other compact hatchbacks.

The Golf was one of VW's first vehicles built on its new modular global platform. With more high-strength steel, this Golf has a tighter body that's a little lighter than before. The strength helps quell vibrations and saves weight that gets put to better use as sound deadening. In all, the new Golf is also one of the quietest, most refined small cars in its class.

But back to space, ride, and cargo, it's more spacious, and that upright design does pay off—whether you're looking at the standard (rather short) Golf or the longer SportWagen. By the numbers, the new Golf is about 2 inches longer, an inch lower, and a half-inch wider than the last-generation car—at 167.5 inches long, on a 103.8-inch wheelbase.

In truly usable space, it translates to a less confining cabin than anything you'll find in a Mazda 3 or Ford Focus. It's also less drab than past Golfs, with much more metallic-painted trim on the dash to balance off the lower-grade carpeting lining door bins.

Front seats are some of the best in this price and size class; they're very supportive, and easily adjustable to fit a wide variety of bodies. We’d choose the cloth over the rubbery leatherette upholstery.

In back, leg room (and knee space in particular) is on the slim side—definitely more limited than some larger compact rivals like the Dart—but getting in and out is easy thanks to a roofline that doesn't rob headroom for visual drama.

Versus the previous-generation Golf, there's 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. And with the seats folded down, that grows to 52.7 cubic feet of storage space, easily enough to stow a bicycle.

The new Golf SportWagen is better yet: Its load bay has 30.4 cubic feet of volume, and if you pull the easy quick-release latches to fold down the seat back, that expands to a voluminous 66.5 cubic feet. VW notes smugly that its compact wagon has more cargo room than some compact SUVs.

Controls are the usual VW mishmash of levers, knobs, and some power controls, but it all feels a step above what you get in some models in this class.

All Golfs also use more soft-touch materials than before, and VW has added more storage inside the new Golf, with a sliding tray underneath the front seats (if they're manually adjusted), six cupholders, and a larger glove box that includes a CD changer.

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2016 Volkswagen Golf

Safety

Excellent crash-test scores and improved active-safety options add up to a reassuring picture of occupant safety.

The entire Volkswagen Golf family—from e-Golf to Golf R—delivers bit on safety, thanks to a strong new structure with great occupant safety scores so far, plus active-safety scores that have been upgraded for 2016.

The IIHS stepped up its requirements for active-safety features this past year; but so did the Golf. When equipped with the $695 Driver Assistance Package, the 2016 Golf gets a new forward-collision warning system that includes automatic emergency braking that might help you avoid an accident at a moment of inattention. That allows the Golf to earn the "Advanced" score for front crash prevention and, with top "Good" scores in every area of IIHS crash testing, that organization's highest Top Safety Pick+ accolade.

Both two- and four-door versions of the Golf have been tested by federal officials. Both models achieve a five-star overall rating by the NHTSA, including five stars for side crash protection and four stars for frontal crash safety.

Also, we think that outward visibility has improved with the latest versions of the Golf, and with a well-rounded safety set of available features such as a rearview camera, blind-spot monitors, auto-park assist, and lane-departure warning, the Golf offers a lot of security for the safety-conscious.

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2016 Volkswagen Golf

Features

Updated infotainment systems for 2016 add to what's already one of the better-featured interiors in this class.

Some years ago the Golf was sold as more of a premium-priced small car that didn't, even then, quite measure up on features; but that's far from the reality today.

With a starting price of around $19,000, the 2016 Volkswagen Golf offers a good set of standard features—including touchscreen audio, available satellite radio, Bluetooth, and power accessories.

From that, it's quite the lineup, though—extending to well above $30,000 for a well-equipped Golf GTI and reaching for $40,000 in the high-performance, all-wheel-drive Golf R.

For 2016, Volkswagen has made the cloth seats standard on the Golf S (they were part of a Launch Edition model), and a rearview camera system is included in all models.

The Golf S also includes alloy wheels, steering-wheel controls, and cruise control. A Sunroof package on four-door Golf S models adds a panoramic roof, while LED lighting and several active-safety features are among the extras.

The mid-level Golf SE only comes as a four-door with an automatic, and it adds heated front seats; 17-inch wheels; automatic headlights; a rearview camera; and Fender audio. Then the 2016 Golf SEL adds to the SE spec a navigation system; automatic climate control; keyless ignition; a power driver seat; and ambient lighting.

On both the SE and SEL (and on the GTI, Golf R, and e-Golf), a Driver Assistance Package nets parking assistants and forward-collision warning. That package has been upgraded for 2016 to include, on SE and SEL models, as well as in the GTI and Golf R, to include adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and blind-spot monitors with rear cross-traffic alert.

Volkswagen has made some major improvements to its touchscreen system over the past several years; while last year's model added capacitive-touch control—meaning you can scroll and swipe and zoom with the touch of a finger—this year brings larger 6.5-inch (or 8.0-inch for the e-Golf SEL) screens as well as upgraded App-Connect capability. Keep in mind, though, that base Golf S models include a smaller 5.0-inch setup.

The GTI remains offered in two- or four-door versions and includes air conditioning, cruise control, leather steering-wheel and shift-knob trim, LED fog lamps, power heated mirrors, heated washer nozzles, red brake calipers, cloth seating, heated front seats, and a touch-screen audio system with CD player, iPod integration, and VW Car-Net connected services. Then GTI SE models add a sunroof, keyless ignition, a rearview camera system, rain-sensing wipers, leather seats, and Fender premium audio.

On GTI SE models, an Autobahn package brings navigation, a power driver's seat, and automatic climate control. Also, a Performance Package adds a torque-sensing limited-slip differential, larger brakes and special calipers, and a 10-hp boost in engine output. On top of that (a $1,495 option), you can add the $800 adaptive damping system.

The Volkswagen Golf R equipment is essentially the same as the GTI inside, but it adds some key performance upgrades—including the stronger 292-hp engine, a stiffer suspension, and all-wheel drive. An important added feature on the Golf R is the dynamic chassis control, a sophisticated suspension system that can both eliminate road noise and harshness yet not detract from the driving experience. It's paired with navigation for an approximately $2,500 upgrade on the Golf R.

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2016 Volkswagen Golf

Fuel Economy

The Golf lineup is remarkably fuel efficient across the range, topping out at the e-Golf.

The 2016 Volkswagen Golf lineup includes two different turbocharged four-cylinder engines and an all-electric variant. A turbodiesel model was available in the U.S. until last year, when Volkswagen pulled that model for illegally passing emissions tests.

Even with the the automatic transmission, the Golf TSI is quite fuel-stingy and rated at 25 mpg city, 36 highway, 29 combined. With those numbers, it's up to 20 percent more efficient than the 2.5-liter inline-5 it replaced last year. The longer, heavier SportWagen mitigates its losses and keeps the same relative mileage that the hatchback does.

Move over to the performance-oriented GTI and you lose a little mileage, but really not much; the GTI achieves EPA ratings of 25/34/28 mpg on the highway, with the manual transmission. The automatic manages 25/33/28 mpg. Take it especially easy around town and you might even do better than the somewhat more stressed 1.8-liter in the Golf.

The all-electric 2016 e-Golf is the zenith of Golf efficiency—provided you're willing to deal with an 83-mile driving range. It achieves an EPA-rated 116-MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) in combined city/highway driving.

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November 7, 2016
2016 Volkswagen Golf 4-Door Automatic TSI S

Perfect balance of practicality and sporty driving.

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Great car. Fast, practical, economical. The only quibble I have is that it could be 2 inches longer. A little tight getting in and out for a little above average size guy. Once in the car, though, very... + More »
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October 29, 2016
For 2016 Volkswagen Golf

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No car comes close in this price bracket , wrt comfort speed reliability and safety,
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June 23, 2016
2016 Volkswagen Golf 4-Door HB DSG S

better than...

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So I just traded my '13 G37 on a '16 GTi. I can't get over how much better it is instantly than the Infinity! Quality of the interior is like night and day different. Everything feels expensive, soft textures... + More »
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