“The 2019 Volkswagen Golf is the reigning hatchback king, with better fuel economy than ever.”
- Excellent fuel economy
- Peppy handling
- Relatively large cargo area
- Spacious cabin
- Could use more grunt
- Take-it-or-leave options
Ever since the Volkswagen Golf rolled off the assembly line in 1974, the compact hatchback’s philosophy has been simple: be a form of fun, affordable, and somewhat-upscale vessel of transportation. It’s a simple idea, but one that few have been able to replicate like Volkswagen. Despite the rise of subcompact crossovers and SUVs, the Golf soldiers on, continuing with the same philosophy that made it an instantaneous hit nearly 45 years ago.
The Golf lineup has grown to include a few performance variants – the Golf GTI and the Golf R – a wagon called the Golf SportWagen, and a crossover-competitor that’s known as the Golf Alltrack in a wagon body. Unfortunately, with an all-new generation of the Golf on the horizon, the Sportwagen and the Alltrack are done for. But the regular Golf, GTI, and R, well they’ll still be hanging around, showcasing just how important these models are to the automaker.
For the Pokemon Go fans out there (is anyone still playing that game?), think of the Golf as the base version of a Pokemon, a Charmander if you would, with the GTI and R being higher evolutions – Charmeleon and Charizard. It might not have the same allure or performance, but that also means it’s a lot cheaper. The base S trim, which is the one we tested, starts at $22,740. A slightly fancier SE trim is also available and that carries a price tag of $25,040. With the average price of a new car hovering around the $30,000 mark, the Golf is a reminder that cheap transportation is still around.
Despite a nip and tuck as recently as 2018, the Mk7 Golf’s bones date it back to 2015. Without the red touches like the ones found on the GTI or the wide haunches of the more manic Golf R, the regular Golf struggles to excite in the looks department. Against sharper, newer, more youthful competitors, the Golf plays it a little too conservatively. The generic, bulbous design of the Golf is bleaker than a book on an apocalypse, but it serves a function, allowing the hatchback to flow through the air with a low drag coefficient of 0.29.
The run-of-the-mill styling carries to the interior where the design borders on spartan. Boring, though, doesn’t mean uncomfortable or dysfunctional. It’s the exact opposite. In a tech-heavy world with bings, bongs, dials, buttons, and screens, the Golf’s simplistic cabin is a subtle reminder of how things used to be – straightforward. Simple lines, simple dials, simple buttons, simple gauges, they’re all simple, easy to read and easy to use, highlighting the Golf’s emphasis on functionality.
In addition to getting a simple cabin that’s easy to use, things are also spacious on the inside. Because of the bulbous exterior design, the Golf treats passengers to a good amount of space and an excellent amount of cargo space. Behind the spacious and comfortable second row, there’s 22.8 cubic feet of cargo space. Fold them down, and you’re looking at 52.7 cubic feet. Those figures not only make the Golf one of the more spacious compact hatchback, but they also put it in the same category as some subcompact crossovers.
While giving you the minimum to get around, the Golf hardly provides you with extra niceties. The base S trim we tested was as barren as vehicles come these days. Automatic climate control, heated seats, leather upholstery, these are all things you can’t get with the S trim. You do get partially power-adjustable front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, as well as power door locks and windows, but if the S trim came with manual windows, we wouldn’t be surprised. You, do after all, still have to use a physical key to start the car.
If you’re not on the “base-or-die” train, the higher SE trim that’s an extra $2,300 brings a lot more interior features. The SE brings leatherette upholstery, heated front seats, and the option to add an auto-dimming rearview mirror. It’s a much better list of standard equipment.
Performance isn’t the only thing that separates the regular Golf from the GTI and the Golf R; Volkswagen also separates the trio with standard tech features. The entry-level S trim comes with a modest 6.5-inch touchscreen running VW’s MIB II system that comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto through Volkswagen Car-New App-Connect. The infotainment system’s lackadaisical in a similar way to a dog on a lazy Sunday – slow to react, no matter how many times you prod, poke, or shout. We also had a few instances where Apple CarPlay freaked out when we inputted a destination into our phone and it refused to display on the screen. If you choose not to use one of the smartphone systems, you’re only left with a handful of other things to toggle through that will probably only be used once to set everything up to your liking. In other words, the infotainment system isn’t exactly robust and unless you’re toggling through radio stations, there’s nothing interesting there.
There’s very little in addition to the touchscreen. There’s only one USB port that’s located in an odd cubby at the bottom of the center console, Bluetooth, and a six-speaker audio system. The SE trim gets an 8-inch touchscreen, satellite radio, and keyless entry with push-button start.
On the safety front, Volkswagen has bolstered the Golf’s list of standard safety features with more driver-assist features. While not as robust as Honda Sensing or Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, the Golf’s suite of standard tech has all of the major stuff. Forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, pedestrian detection, a rearview camera, and rear cross traffic alert are all standard on the S. The higher up SE brings the option of tacking on adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist.
Compared to the high-performance Golf models, the regular Golf isn’t too far behind the GTI when it comes to tech. The range-topping GTI Autobahn comes with a multifunction display, high-beam assist, a Fender audio system, and all of the SE’s equipment as standard. The R is the Golf’s most tech-forward option with the brand’s coveted Digital Cockpit system. Other than that, the R has the same tech as the Golf SE.
2019 sees the Golf receive the same 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine as the all-new Jetta sedan. Power for the small mill is rated at rated at up to 147 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. That might seem like a typo because last year’s turbocharged 1.8-liter four-pot was good for 170 hp and 199 lb-ft of torque with the available six-speed automatic. Besides creating an even larger gap between the regular Golf and the GTI and R, the new engine results in a drastic increase in fuel economy. The 2019 Golf is rated by the EPA at up to 29 mpg city, 37 mpg hwy, and 32 mpg combined. Last year, the best the Golf could get was 25 mpg city, 34 mpg hwy, and 29 mpg combined. In the real world, the figures are even more impressive, as we saw an average of 40 mpg with mostly highway miles.
Speaking of the gap between the Golf siblings, it’s larger than before thanks to the new 1.4-liter engine. The most efficient Golf GTI is rated at 27 mpg combined, while the Golf R is one mpg behind at 26 mpg combined. In our testing, the Golf GTI was spot on for its combined rating in the real world, while the Golf blew the doors off of its expected figures. If you’re happy trading performance for fuel economy, there’s a clear winner.
While it’s not the most powerful engine on the market, the new 1.4-liter turbocharged engine feels more robust than you would expect from the numbers. Keep your foot glued to the throttle pedal and you’ll even get a tiny bit of wheel spin. Around town, it’s a fine engine with a good amount of grunt. On the open highway, the engine’s lack of puff makes merging a little cumbersome, requiring a little bit of planning to ensure other drivers aren’t being held up. With the standard six-speed manual transmission, keeping the engine in its good spot is not only easy, but also enjoyable. It’s also refreshing to see VW continue to offer a manual gearbox on the hatch. If shifting a manual gearbox isn’t your thing, an eight-speed automatic is available for $1,100.
The decision to borrow the smaller, more efficient engine from the Jetta is a clear way for Volkswagen to make the Golf a stronger commuter. But the vehicle’s suspension was already in the commuter boat. Unlike the peppy GTI and the spirited Golf R, the Golf’s smooth, compliant ride will never get tiresome. Erring to the side of being soft, highways, rutted city roads, and odd potholes on side streets are dealt with smoothly. The small 15-inch alloy wheels that have a juicy bit of sidewall probably help, too.
While VW would rather you choose one of its more expensive options if you enjoy the occasional act of hooliganism, the Golf embodies the old adage of driving a slow car fast. You get the sense that the Golf is capable of so much more, as it hugs corners with a feeling that with the right coaching it could be a star. Rest assured, though, that if you’re looking for a commuter-friendly, city car, that’s the Golf’s sweet spot.
There are quite a few hatchbacks to explore on the market these days, which include the Mazda3, Toyota Corolla Hatchback, and Honda Civic hatchback. But a lot of consumers will probably compare the Golf to its sportier variants that share the same showroom floor. When it comes to performance, think of the Golf, Golf GTI, and Golf R as chilies. The Golf is a pepperoncini, which is to say mild at best, the Golf GTI a habanero, bold and spicy, while the Golf R is a straight up Carolina Reaper – hot, hot, hot.
Compared to the standard Golf, the Golf GTI is an extra $5,750, but comes more features that make it a performance option. For one, there’s the turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four that makes 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque – increases of 81 horsepower and 75 pound-feet of torque over the regular Golf. That’s a large difference. While the Golf has you hunting for more power on the highway and when being driven hard, some extra grunt wouldn’t be a bad thing. Extra performance parts on the Golf GTI include a limited-slip differential and sport suspension.
Beyond the sporty stuff, you’re getting more standard equipment, too. Heated windshield washer nozzles, red brake calipers, 18-inch wheels, heated front seats, partially power-adjustable front seats, and those fantastic plaid seats are included with the base GTI. Looking at all of the extras you get, an extra $6,000 makes sense.
In our review, we found the GTI to be the ideal combination of performance and comfort. While the ride’s firmer than the regular Golf’s the GTI isn’t uncomfortable and it’s much more capable on a curvy road. The extra oomph from the engine also means that there’s more than enough power to pass on the highway. The only complaint we had was fuel economy, but that’s a trade-off we’d be more than happy to make.
Comparing the Golf to the Golf R isn’t quite fair – just like giving someone that’s expecting a pepperoncini a Carolina Reaper. Costing nearly double the price of a base Golf (the difference is $18,550), the Golf R is for those that want neck-breaking performance in a versatile body. Power for the Golf R comes from a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that cranks out 288 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque – 141 horsepower and 96 pound-feet more than the humble Golf.
If 141 horsepower isn’t enough to entice you, the Golf R adds all-wheel drive, adaptive suspension, an XDS differential system, three-mode electronic stability control, and larger brakes. Non-performance features include adaptive headlights, 19-inch wheels, dual-zone climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and 12-way power sport seats. There’s more tech, too, as the Golf R comes with Volkswagen’s Digital Cockpit, adaptive cruise control, and a Fender audio system as standard.
You get the sense that the Golf is capable of so much more, as it hugs corners with a feeling that it could be a star.
If performance is what you’re after, the Golf R has it in spades. Opt for the automatic transmission and you get a launch-control feature that makes the hatchback as quick as bona fide sports cars. Then there’s the way the Golf R handles. With a firmer ride that can be adjusted via the adaptive suspension, it’s the most athletic of the trio around corners. There’s also more feedback coming through the steering wheel than the other two Golfs, while the beefy brakes are also the best of the bunch. Surprisingly, the Golf R retains the same comfort level as the GTI, making it capable of tackling the daily commute with the same poise. Once again, fuel economy is one of the few downsides.
Choosing between the three centers around one thing: what kind of heat level are you looking for in a chili?
2019 marks the last year of VW’s People First Warranty. The lengthy coverage includes a six-year, 72,000-mile limited warranty. That’s one of the longer ones on the market and should help keep any reliability concerns at bay. The Golf is also covered by a seven-year, 100,000-mile corrosion perforation warranty and a powertrain warranty of six years, 72,000 miles.
In the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) testing, the Golf earned a five-star overall safety rating. Breaking that score down, the Golf earned a four-star overall front rating, a five-star overall side rating, and a four-star rollover rating. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) didn’t give the Golf one of its awards. The hatchback did well in the IIHS’ crash tests, but had headlights that earned a rating of Poor, which is the lowest score available. For comparison’s sake, the Golf GTI was named a Top Safety Pick.
In addition to the safety features listed above, the Golf comes with electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, brake assist, and an intelligent crash response system.
Commuting to work is already a chore and the base S trim doesn’t have much to liven it up. The SE trim is the one we’d go with, especially as it adds the larger 8-inch touchscreen, remote keyless entry, push-button start, and a panoramic sunroof. It, crucially, can also be optioned with more safety features thanks to the Driver Assistance package, which adds high beam assist, adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, and more. The icing on the Black Forest cake is that it’s not all that more expensive than the entry-level S trim.
As an affordable compact, few can offer what the Golf can. With better fuel economy than before, the Golf cements its place as the rational choice among its peppier brothers. The Golf is starting to show its age, though, and options like the Mazda3, Civic hatchback, and Toyota Corolla Hatchback have fresher designs and more features. If you want a modicum of performance, the Golf GTI is the better option. Sporty this Golf is not.
Out of the three Golf models that Volkswagen offers, the GTI is the one we’d get. Being the middle child, it has the most enjoyable amount of power, nearly the same everyday ease as the regular Golf, and a few more features that give it a more refined feel. It’s also one of the most amusing hot hatches to drive.
Want more options? Check out our favorite cars of 2019.
Should you get one?
Yes, as long as you’re not interested in sportiness. With the new turbocharged engine, the Golf is clearly the option in the lineup that will help you save money on fuel at the expense of enjoyment. Smooth, comfortable, and refined, the Golf is an affordable compact car for the modern age.