One of the pioneers in the small hatchback segment, the Volkswagen Golf has had a bit of a roller-coaster ride throughout its life. Debuting in Europe in 1974, it came to the U.S. a year later wearing the Rabbit nameplate. Ten years later and coinciding with a redesign, VW shifted the North American version to the official "Golf" name. But even that did not last. In 2006, after selling three generations of the Golf to American buyers, Volkswagen had a nostalgic feeling and renamed its economy car the Rabbit for the U.S. market.
But guess what? Volkswagen had yet another change of heart and reverted back to the Golf name for 2010. Yep, it's confusing. But what hasn't changed is this boxy hatchback's enticing combination of practicality, comfort and refined road manners along with an upscale, roomy cabin.
Current Volkswagen Golf
The Volkswagen Golf is a compact hatchback available in a two- or four-door body style. Regardless of body style, the base Golf is powered by a 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine that produces 170 horsepower. A five-speed manual is standard and a six-speed automatic is optional. Standard equipment includes air-conditioning, full power accessories, cruise control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and an auxiliary audio jack.
The Golf TDI model features a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel that produces 140 hp and a robust 236 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual is standard and VW's six-speed dual-clutch automated manual (DSG) is optional. EPA-estimated combined fuel economy is an impressive 34 mpg. The TDI trim also adds alloy wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, Bluetooth, an upgraded stereo and an iPod interface. A navigation system and xenon headlamps are optional.
Like the Rabbit before it and the Golf before that, the current Volkswagen Golf stands apart in the compact class with an overall level of refinement that simply can't be matched. The near-luxury quality of the cabin, the European blend of smooth ride and driving involvement, and the subdued yet classy styling make the Golf's price premium worth it. Regarding the Golf's current lineup, we strongly recommend the TDI model because of its higher level of equipment, strong engine and superior fuel economy. The base engine is powerful for the class, but fuel economy suffers for it.
There is also a high-performance version of the Golf known as the GTI, which is covered in a separate review.
Used Volkswagen Golf Models
The Volkswagen Golf name returned for 2010, marking the first year for the redesigned sixth-generation model. Changes since then have been limited to minor equipment shuffling.
Previous to this, there was the fifth-generation model, which VW named the Rabbit. Should you be interested in a used Golf, it's important to keep this in mind.
Introduced midway through the 1999 model year and sold up until mid-2006, the fourth-generation Golf sported clean lines, an impressive standard features roster and the availability of turbodiesel power -- a rarity in any segment, let alone the economy car sector. In keeping with tradition, three body styles were available: a two-door hatchback, a four-door hatchback and a convertible (sold as a separate model under the Cabrio name).
Enjoyable to drive thanks to its responsive chassis, this Golf also offered a variety of engines. The GTI could be had with a 2.8-liter six-cylinder "VR6" engine (a compact, narrow-angle V6, which made up to 200 hp) or a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. The turbo-4, or 1.8T, as it was called, made either 150 or 180 hp, depending on the year; the 150-horse version was available on the standard four-door Golf in 2000 and 2001.
Known as the TDI, the Golf's diesel offering consisted of a 1.9-liter turbodiesel inline-4, initially rated for 90 hp and capable of returning nearly 50 mpg on the highway. Golf TDI models sold from 2004-'06 had an updated version of the 1.9-liter that delivered 100 hp. Late in the model run, the limited-edition high-performance R32 was offered, sporting a 3.2-liter 240-hp VR6, all-wheel drive and tasteful body accents; it was sold only as a 2004 model.
Most folks shopping the used Volkswagen Golf market within these years, however, will probably be looking at the volume-seller Golfs (the GL and GLS trim levels), most of which were powered by an outdated two-valves-per-cylinder 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. With just 115 hp -- compared to the 125-150-hp ratings of most peers -- and below-average fuel mileage, this power plant offered the worst of both worlds. Buyers looking at '99 models should note that both third- and fourth-generation Golfs were sold that year. Horsepower is the same, but the engines in the new Golfs had an upgraded cylinder head design for better low-end response.
If possible, we suggest looking for a fourth-gen Golf with either the 1.9-liter TDI or the 1.8-liter turbo instead. Note that Golf TDIs are relatively easy to find on the used car market, while four-door Golf 1.8T models may be hard to come by because of their short, two-year run. If you want the turbocharged 1.8-liter engine, you're more likely to find it in the two-door GTI.
Generally, our editors found this Golf to be a likable vehicle to drive. Compared to other economy cars or hatchbacks of the time, the VW Golf stood out because of its long list of standard features, high-quality cabin materials and generally fun-to-drive nature. Downsides included a high price when new (now largely negated by depreciation), the aforementioned 2.0-liter engine and mediocre reliability.
The third generation of the VW Golf ran from 1993 to mid-1999 and sported a more cohesive design than past models, with monochromatic bumpers that blended into the body and a strong character line chiseled into the profile. The 115-hp 2.0-liter inline-4 was the volume engine, while the GTI offered the VR6, a narrow-angle 2.8-liter V6 that provided a thrilling 172 hp. Golf TDI models were offered intermittently during this generation, as VW had difficulty getting its 90-hp turbodiesel four-cylinder to meet U.S. emissions regulations. Although fun to drive, this generation of the Volkswagen Golf was notorious for spotty electrical problems. Notably, '93 Golfs can be hard to find, as a strike at the assembly plant limited sales to California and the New England states.
Spanning the years 1985-'92, the second generation of Volkswagen's Beetle replacement had a busier version of the previous Golf/Rabbit's basic styling. Power ranged from a 1.6-liter, 52-hp diesel to a 2.0-liter, 131-hp 16-valve inline-4 as seen in the GTI. Most Golfs from this era had a 1.8-liter four-cylinder. Initially, the 1.8-liter was listed at 85 hp, but it was later re-rated for 100. As this generation generally wasn't known for ultimate longevity, chances are slim of finding a choice example in the used car market.
Read the most recent 2014 Volkswagen Golf review.
If you are looking for older years, visit our used Volkswagen Golf page.
For more on past Volkswagen Golf models, view our Volkswagen Golf history page.