Luxe compact hatchback, no schnitzel

When my friends talk about compact hatchbacks, sometimes the Volkswagen Golf gets left out of the conversation. But it really shouldn’t be that way: The Golf is far and away the best-selling compact in Europe. There are good reasons for that, not least of which is the Golf’s supreme practicality.

Here in America, we don’t get quite as many Golf variants as Europe does. We get the highlights, though: regular Golf, sporty GTI, raucous Golf R, cargo-friendly Golf Sportwagen, and most recently, soft-road-ready Golf Alltrack.

Volkswagen has sent me two Golf Rs in the last year. You might consider those the most evolved version of the car, in terms of overall performance. Fast and fun to toss around the twisties, the R also happens to be the most expensive version of the Golf — expect to pay $40,000 if you want one. But this time, VW sent me a regular Golf TSI SEL, a luxurious hatchback without all the high-performance hype — and it’s 25% cheaper than the Golf R, even though it’s loaded with options. It proved itself to be a great little transportation pod for my family of four.

Design Notes

2017 Volkswagen Golf TSI SEL — Driven Exterior
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The Volkswagen Golf has an attractive two-box design that screams “practicality” without also screaming “boring.”

The Volkswagen Golf has an attractive two-box design that screams “practicality” without also screaming “boring.”

The front of the car has a simple, thin grille opening bisected by a prominent VW logo between the Golf’s two hexagonal headlights. A larger opening below the front bumper strike surface handles most of the actual cooling duties for the radiator.

From the side, the VW Golf is handsome, with short overhangs that give it a sporty appearance. The front wheel arch appears to nearly reach all the way to the hood. There’s a motion to the design when viewed from this angle, the car always appearing to be ready to pounce into action.

2017 Volkswagen Golf TSI SEL — Driven Exterior
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At the rear, the Golf has a subtle lip spoiler above the rear glass, which shades the center high-mounted stop lamp

The creases along the side of the car are purposeful — the crease just below the hood shutline traveling on to form the sills under the side windows, the middle crease below the door handles forming the car’s beltline, and the lower crease serving to give the Golf’s profile a solid base.

At the rear, the Golf has a subtle lip spoiler above the rear glass, which shades the center high-mounted stop lamp. The hatch itself is cleanly designed, integrating the inner half of the taillights, which are joined by a sharp crease that serves to continue the beltline seen in profile view.

Inside, the Golf TSI SEL had the same design I saw in the Golf R, minus a couple of things like the embroidered “R” logos on performance-bolstered front bucket seats. The interior is simple — some say boring — but I found it purposeful and non-distracting, as I have found most VW interiors in recent years.

2017 Volkswagen Golf TSI SEL — Driven Exterior
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Exterior Dimensions

Wheelbase (in/mm) 103.8/2,637
Length (in/mm) 167.6/4,258
Width (in/mm) 70.8/1,799
Height (in/mm) 58.2/1,477
Track front/rear (in/mm) 61.0/59.8 (1,549/1,520)
Ground Clearance (in/mm) 5.4/137

Drive Notes

2017 Volkswagen Golf TSI SEL — Driven Drivetrain
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All Volkswagen Golf hatchbacks in America are equipped with a 1.8-liter TSI turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine

All Volkswagen Golf hatchbacks in America (the Golf R excepted) are equipped with a 1.8-liter TSI turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine, and that’s no bad thing — unless you’re looking for the best fuel economy in the segment. If that’s your bag, look elsewhere. I saw 31 MPG over a 350+ mile week. That’s not bad, considering the car’s EPA ratings of 25 MPG city, 35 MPG highway, 29 MPG combined. However, it’s not as frugal as, say, a Nissan Sentra’s EPA scores (29/37/32 when equipped with an automatic transmission).

But the competitors, for the most part, lack the refinement of the 1.8-liter turbo four in the Golf. It has 170 horsepower on tap and a stout 199 lb-ft of torque. In VW’s typical style of recent years, torque comes on early and stays strong through the middle of the rev range, providing plenty of grunt to get up to speed around town or when merging onto the highway. My tester was coupled with an excellent six-speed automatic transmission (at no extra charge) that was admirably quick to shift down when I gave the skinny pedal a little more weight.

2017 Volkswagen Golf TSI SEL — Driven Exterior
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Despite a relatively short wheelbase of 103.8 inches, it handled itself very well over rough pavement and tracked straight and true on highways

The suspension of the Golf was well-sorted. The driving experience was purely European. Despite a relatively short wheelbase of 103.8 inches, it handled itself very well over rough pavement and tracked straight and true on highways. Steering feel was better than most in this segment. No compact car I have driven in the last couple of years has steering feel this good. Sport-tinged models like the Nissan Sentra NISMO or Hyundai Elantra Sport might come close, but they are laden with compromises that the Golf SEL doesn’t make.

Drivetrain Specifications

Engine 1.8L, inline four cylinder, 16V, turbocharged and intercooled, DI
Displacement 1798 cc
Compression Ratio 9.6:1
Horsepower 170 HP @ 4,500 RPM
Maximum torque 199 LB-FT @ 1,600 RPM

Technology Notes

2017 Volkswagen Golf TSI SEL — Driven Interior
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My Golf SEL was equipped with VW’s Discover Media system, which included a 6.5-inch touchscreen head unit

Being a top-spec SEL trim, my 2017 Volkswagen Golf was equipped with a raft of technology features.

Among the headline items was VW’s Front Assist, which included autonomous emergency braking in my test car. Also on-tap was adaptive cruise control and keyless access and start, blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert, rearview camera, and a multifunction digital display in the gauge cluster that handled all trip computer functions and displayed other information like tire pressures and turn-by-turn navigation directions.

My Golf SEL was equipped with VW’s Discover Media system, which included a 6.5-inch touchscreen head unit with AM/FM/HD/XM radio tuners, a CD player, and USB and AUX inputs. The sound system was from Fender — yes, the makers of guitars — and it provided full, rich sound once I figured out how to turn up the subwoofer in the audio settings. We’re not talking window-rattling, disturbing-the-peace stuff from this audio system, just well-done sound.

One quirk carried over from lesser VW sound systems, unfortunately: The volume seems to have an aggressive cam on it. Adjustments in the lowest 25% of the volume range seem to be much larger than they are in the next 25%. From halfway up to full roar, the difference in volume seems minimal. It’s strange. I would like smaller, more evenly spaced volume increments for each click of the volume knob or each touch of the steering wheel-mounted volume controls.

Cabin notes

2017 Volkswagen Golf TSI SEL — Driven Interior
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It offers a total of 93.5 cubic feet of passenger room and 22.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats

The technology is nice, but it’s the practical cabin space that really makes the Volkswagen Golf attractive to family men like myself.

The boxy Golf interior makes the most of the car’s relatively small footprint. It offers a total of 93.5 cubic feet of passenger room and 22.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, which was plenty for grocery-hauling. If you fold down the rear seats, there’s 52.7 cubic feet of hauling space in this box, which would be plenty to haul my drum kit.

Seating surfaces in the Golf are lower to the ground than some compacts (Nissan Sentra) but similar to others (Hyundai Elantra). As a result of that and my 6-foot, 3-inch frame, I felt a little bit cramped in the front seat as I tried to make some room for my six-year-old son behind me. The dash was pretty close to my knees, as was the steering column. The seating position was go kart-like, with my knees a bit higher than my hips. I could raise the seat base, but ended up with my head touching the headliner before my legs were at a more comfortable angle.

2017 Volkswagen Golf TSI SEL — Driven Interior
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Front-seat occupants have a VW-reported 41.2 inches of legroom, compared to 35.6 inches in the rear.

Having said that, Volkswagen measurements show 38.4 inches of headroom up front and 38.1 inches in the rear. Front-seat occupants have a VW-reported 41.2 inches of legroom, compared to 35.6 inches in the rear.

There are smaller cars that offer better legroom. For example, a Nissan Versa Note has 41.3 inches of legroom for front-row occupants and 38.3 inches for rear-seat occupants. Where Golf has the advantage is its width, where it has 55.9 inches of shoulder room up front and 53.9 inches in the back seat. Compare that to the Versa Note’s 51.7 and 51.9 inches, respectively.

But no Versa Note, can touch the interior refinement of the Golf, nor can most subcompact hatchbacks. My tester had heated leatherette seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob, and emergency brake lever. The doors of the Golf shut with a reassuring, Germanic thud instead of the hollow clank of economy-minded subcompact competitors. The Golf seemed quieter than most compacts on the highway, too. Quality, not quantity, is the name of the game for VW here.

2017 Volkswagen Golf TSI SEL — Driven Interior
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Interior Dimensions

Headroom fron/rear (Inches) 38.4/38.1
Shoulder room fron/rear (Inches) 55.9/53.9
Legroom fron/rear (Inches) 41.2/35.6
Passenger Volume (cu ft) 93.5
Cargo Volume, trunk (cu ft) 17.4
Cargo Volume, seats down (cu ft) 53.7

Competitors

Categorizing the Golf for the purpose of comparing to its competition is tougher than it seems on the surface. Technically a “compact” by EPA size classification standards, it actually hews closer to what many of us consider “subcompact” in all but its width.

Its price, too, defies convention. You could buy a base 2017 Golf as cheap as $19,895, which is on-par with a lot of mass-market compacts like the aforementioned Nissan Sentra and Hyundai Elantra, but load it up with options like my SEL test car, and you’re soon breaking the $30,000 barrier. The tested Golf had a sticker price of $30,810. That’s nearly in the pricing territory of entry-level compact luxury contenders like the Mercedes CLA Class or the Infiniti Q50 2.0t. Depending on dealer attitudes about discounting, a car like the Infiniti might be available at a modest monthly payment premium.

Volkswagen says the competitive set for the Golf is found in cars like the Kia Forte, Subaru Impreza, and Ford Focus. And true, with the exception of the Kia, those entries can be optioned up to absurd price levels for cars that began their lives as proletariat family transportation. But of those, I’m going to pick the Subaru to start.

Subaru Impreza

2017 Subaru Impreza High Resolution Exterior
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The smallest Subaru gets high praise from those who deal with snowy roads because it has standard all-wheel drive, but for those of us who live in warmer climes, there are a lot of shortcomings in the Scoob.

First and foremost, the Impreza’s feel is much cheaper. Doors are tinny, the dashboard is an expanse of hollow-sounding, scratchy plastic, and the car lets in a lot more road noise than the Golf, which isn’t blissfully quiet at highway speed itself.

Second, the Subaru 2.0-liter naturally aspirated “boxer” four-cylinder engine feels more agricultural than VW’s silky smooth 1.8-liter turbo inline four, and it’s less powerful (152 horsepower vs. 170.) Another powertrain demerit: The Subaru pairs this lumpy flat-four with a CVT if you don’t want to shift for yourself. Most folks will find the VW’s traditional six-speed automatic more satisfying.

But Subaru does offer the WRX to compete with the VW GTI, and the hotter-still WRX STi makes a pretty convincing Golf R competitor for slightly less money. Also, the Impreza offers slightly more interior space, and for those poor souls who prefer a sedan over a practical hatchback, Subaru does offer you that option.

Read our full review on the 2017 Subaru Impreza.

Ford Focus

2015 Ford Focus Hatchback – Driven
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Ford’s Focus is an interesting competitor. Like the Subaru, it is offered in hatchback and sedan form. Also like the Subaru, it offers competitors to the performance-oriented Volkswagen GTI (Focus ST) and Golf R (Focus RS). The Focus RS is probably the hottest of the compact hot-hatch segment, though it pays a penalty in its rough, noisy ride.

As far as normal Focus models go, Ford has an advantage over VW in its powertrains, where the Focus can be purchased with either a 2.0-liter four-cylinder naturally aspirated engine or the tiny turbo 1.0-liter EcoBoost three-cylinder fuel-saver. Ford also wins a lot of praise for the handling prowess of the Focus, which has perhaps the most European “feel” of any non-European compact hatch.

I’m no fan of the interior of the Focus, with its busy layout and design. Its rear seats are tight. Front seat room is better, but I’ve always found the ergonomics more awkward than the Golf. There’s a lot less cargo volume than the Golf, too — the Focus rings in at a competitive 23.3 cubic feet behind the second row, but fold those seats, and you get just 43.9 cubic feet total cargo space. Not sure I could squeeze a drum kit back there.

Styling on the outside comes down to a matter of preference. I find the Focus attractive in hatchback form, perhaps even more attractive than the conservative Golf. But that may result in a vehicle that appears to age faster than the timeless lines of the German.

A definite plus is Ford dealers’ willingness to deal on the Focus. It’s no irregular thing to see a Focus advertised below $15,000 by Ford dealers looking to move the metal. Finding a Golf with that level of discount is akin to finding a unicorn.

Read our full driven review on the Ford Focus

Nissan Sentra

2016 Nissan Sentra
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Here’s the oddball of my group: The Nissan Sentra does not come in hatchback form for America. Europeans are lucky enough to get the Pulsar — basically a Sentra hatchback that competes directly with the Golf.

Having said that, it’s also probably the value leader of the group. If you’re determined to get a cheap compact car that will return decent fuel economy and a low cost of ownership, it’s a compelling entry. It’s roomy, its seat cushions are further off the ground than the Golf (which is no bad thing for those of us who are piling on the years), and it’s relatively attractive inside and out, despite an aging platform.

Admittedly, a run-of-the-mill $20,000 Sentra, with its weak-sauce 1.8-liter naturally aspirated engine, is far slower than a comparably priced base Golf. That can be addressed by opting for the 188-horsepower Sentra SR Turbo, which also has a stiffened chassis and suspension designed to wring a little more handling out of the Sentra.

In theory, the Sentra NISMO is Nissan’s competition to the VW GTI, but Nissan didn’t give the 1.6-liter turbo engine a power bump. If Nissan wises up and gives the Sentra NISMO an RS version with the same 225-horsepower tune I’ve experienced in the Nissan Juke NISMO RS, I’ll be more ready to compare it to the GTI.

This comparison highlights a quandary in VW’s product lineup, however: The VW Jetta, which is more of a direct competitor to the Sentra, offers more interior passenger space than the Golf, and usually at a much lower price. The Jetta also has a more efficient, if slightly less powerful engine than the Golf.

Read our full review on the 2017 Nissan Sentra.

Honorable mention: 2018 Hyundai Elantra GT

2018 Hyundai Elantra GT High Resolution Exterior
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Though my tested VW Golf was a 2017 model, Hyundai released its 2018 Elantra GT hatchback update just a few weeks after my Golf test drive. Basically an Americanized version of the European Hyundai i30 hatchback, it may be the closest competitor to the Golf in terms of fit-and-finish, design, and cabin space.

The Elantra GT has an attractive exterior and an all-new interior with a tablet-like infotainment screen standing atop the center stack, mostly independent of the dashboard. It has available leather seats and can be bought with either a manual, automatic, or in the GTI-competitor “Sport” trim, a dual-clutch automatic transmission.

In terms of interior practicality, the Elantra felt a lot like the Golf. It had a similar size. I felt a little cramped in the driver’s seat if I made room for my son behind me. The cargo area was ample. Switchgear and door-closing felt solid, much like the Golf.

However, in terms of driving experience, the Golf was the more solid choice. Its engine felt stronger despite being smaller — the Hyundai has a 2.0-liter engine, but it’s naturally aspirated and feels lethargic in the midrange compared to the more powerful turbocharged 1.8-liter Golf. The Elantra GT’s six-speed automatic leaves a lot to be desired, as well. I felt like a shorter final drive ratio would have improved the Elantra GT’s ability to climb hills without downshifting a couple of times, as it did on most hills, but it probably would have resulted in worse fuel economy.

The Elantra GT can be loaded up to nearly $30,000 with optional equipment that includes a glass roof and a technology package that brings navigation and Android Auto/Apple CarPlay capability, so it does share some pricing commonality with the Golf.

Read our full review on the 2018 Hyundai Elantra GT.

Conclusion

2017 Volkswagen Golf TSI SEL — Driven Exterior
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Volkswagen Golf has a long and storied history of carrying the torch for compact hatchbacks, even during times when that has been far from the most popular genre of family car. It plays to a niche of buyers, and it’s exceptionally good at it because it has features that would appeal to anyone, whether they’re “into” compact hatchbacks or not.

As a married, working-class father of two, I appreciate the Golf for being a versatile, European take on the compact genre that also has an approachable price point for my budget. While more expensive than some of its competition, it offers better handling and arguably better styling than most in the segment. It also happens to be pretty good at the dad-car role, hauling my kids and other assorted cargo without fuss.

I’m not sure I’d drop $30K on a Golf like the one I tested — and I admit, at that price I expect real leather, not vinyl leatherette — but lower-trim Golfs are a mighty tempting option for this lover of hatches and small cars.

Disclosure: Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of fuel for this review.

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