The Volkswagen Golf is one of the world's most successful and beloved compact cars. Here in the United States, the two- and four-door hatchback's enticing combination of practicality, comfort, refined road manners and an upscale, roomy cabin make it an appealing choice for new and used car shoppers. The last three generations (including one in which it was known as the Rabbit again) have been fairly similar, representing a constant evolution in terms of design, engineering improvements and feature availability. Anyone searching for a more practical and/or upscale alternative to a traditional compact sedan would be wise to check it out.
Current Volkswagen Golf
Redesigned for 2015, the current Volkswagen Golf is, in keeping with tradition, a subtle evolution. Modest changes to styling and dimensions disguise a significant overhaul under the skin, where VW's engineers have lightened and modernized the Golf. It gets improved engines and a redesigned interior with even better materials quality and a more eye-pleasing design.
The Golf is available in two- and four-door hatchback body styles and there are four major trim levels: Launch Edition, S, SE and SEL.
A new 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder serves as the Golf's base engine. It produces 170 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. The Launch Edition is only available with a five-speed manual transmission, while the S can be optioned with a six-speed automatic. The SE and SEL are only offered with the automatic. You can also get a diesel-powered four-cylinder engine for the Golf (TDI). This turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel makes 150 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard and a six-speed automated manual transmission known as DSG is optional. Expect the TDI's fuel economy to be in the high 30-mpg range in combined driving.
The Launch Edition (two-door only) only comes with a manual transmission. Standard features include air-conditioning, hill-hold assist, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, a 5.8-inch touchscreen audio interface and iPod connectivity. The S is available in either body style and features alloy wheels, cruise control, premium vinyl upholstery and VW's Car-Net emergency telematics system. The SE trim is only available as a four-door with the automatic transmission and comes with 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic wipers, a sunroof, heated front seats, a rearview camera and a premium audio system. The SEL features 18-inch wheels, keyless ignition and entry, dual-zone automatic climate control, sport front seats, a power driver seat and a navigation system.
The TDI models are four-door only. The Golf TDI S includes all of the Golf SE features but substitutes 16-inch alloy wheels. The Golf TDI SE adds 17-inch wheels, while the TDI SEL is appointed identically to its gasoline SEL counterpart.
Option highlights include bi-xenon headlights, LED daytime running lights, ambient interior lights, front and rear parking sensors and a forward collision warning system.
In reviews, we've found that the front seats are very comfortable but although the rear ones are roomy, they're somewhat low, making them best for smaller passengers. As expected, the cabin is trimmed with class-leading materials, and most controls are easy to use. On the road, the 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder engine provides brisk acceleration, while the TDI continues to offer an impressive combination of performance and high fuel economy. The Golf rides comfortably over ruts and potholes and feels secure when going around turns. Still, more demanding enthusiasts will notice an abundance of body roll and likely feel that the steering is too light and not as communicative as some more sporting rivals. For them, there is always the high-performance Golf GTI.
Used Volkswagen Golf Models
For 2010, the Volkswagen Golf name returned, marking the first year for the redesigned sixth-generation model. It was produced until 2014. The compact hatchback was again available in a two- or four-door body style. Changes were limited to minor equipment shuffling until 2014, this generation's final year, when that two-door body style was dropped and the 2.5L model could no longer be had with a manual transmission.
Base Golfs were powered by a 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine with 170 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual was standard (until its final year) and a six-speed automatic was optional. Standard equipment included air-conditioning, full power accessories, cruise control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and an auxiliary audio jack. The Golf TDI model featured a 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel with 140 hp and a robust 236 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual was standard and VW's six-speed dual-clutch automated manual (DSG) was optional. EPA-estimated combined fuel economy was an impressive 34 mpg. The TDI trim also featured a sport-tuned suspension, Bluetooth connectivity, an upgraded stereo and an iPod interface. A navigation system and xenon headlamps were optional.
In reviews, this Golf stood apart from other entries in the compact class thanks to its higher overall level of refinement, upscale interior, composed ride quality and subdued yet classy styling. Should you be shopping for a Golf from this generation, we strongly recommend the TDI model because of its higher level of equipment, better performance and superior fuel economy. The 2.5-liter engine is powerful for the class, but fuel economy suffers for it.
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.