2015 Volkswagen Golf: 40 years of fun

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While many are heralding 2015 as the year of the Mustang due to its 50th anniversary, there are many other vehicles celebrating milestones. One of them is the Volkswagen Golf, a staple of the American automotive scene for 40 years. And while Mustang brags about nine million sold, the Golf’s number of over 30 million sold worldwide dwarfs the Mustang’s boast. The Golf became the world’s best-selling car, upsetting the VW Beetle for the crown. As it heads into its seventh generation, we understand then, and now, why the Golf is a perennial favorite.

Like Mustang, everyone has a Golf or a GTI story. We all either owned one, wished we owned one, or knew someone who owned one. The Golf was compact, cute, quick and delivered the fun, affordable German ride that many other manufacturers have tried to emulate over the decades. Some have succeeded, some have failed, but none have been able to exactly duplicate VW’s success with this boxy go-getter. Again, as the Mustang defined the ponycar segment, the Golf GTI gave the phrase “hot hatchback” a place in history. The compact hatchback segment, thanks to Golf’s early beginnings, has grown tremendously over the decades, and continues to grow, which is good news for VW, since Golf has a 13 percent share of the market, excluding hybrid models.

Our visit with the newest-generation Golf/GTI/eGolf took place in Northern California, where journalists had a chance to get behind the wheel of a variety of VW Golf trim levels, including gas-, diesel- and electric-powered models. While we’ll report on the Golf TSI, TDI, and eGolf here, click here to read Matras’ review of the GTI.

golf rearBigger and more efficient are the buzzwords for cars today, and the new Golf follows those guidelines. For dimensions, it’s about two inches longer and about a half-inch wider, with more track, more shoulder room, and more cargo capacity than before. Legroom front and rear remain almost identical, which is fine because the Golf was always a spacious compact. The plus with the bump in size is that Golf has more cargo capacity than any midsize sedan: one of the benefits of a hatchback.

The Golf rides on VW’s new MQB (Modular Transverse Matrix) platform that is the model of efficiency when it comes to being able to underpin a variety of VW products. The new platform also allows VW to be more flexible with the exterior design, giving the new Golf to a more aerodynamic style, including a shorter front overhang, a longer hood, and a lower roof. This allows for a steeper rake of the front windshield for less wind resistance (0.29 Cd versus the previous 0.32) and for a sportier overall stance. The good news is VW did all this without losing the “Golf-ness” of the overall hatchback design, meaning the back is still relatively squared up, and overall visibility, a Golf high point for decades, is still there. And don’t forget that the Golf also is available with either two or four doors, and doesn’t turn into a sedan when the extra doors are added, unlike just about every other compact hatch in the segment.

TSI interiorInside, the Golf also kept all that we loved and improved upon it. To keep the entry price low, there is a two-door Launch Edition for $17,995 that comes standard with a touchscreen radio, satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity, tilt/telescoping steering column, power windows, 15-inch steel wheels, and a six-speed manual transmission. Moving up to the TSI S model, you’ll pay $18,995 for the two-door with the manual trans, $20,095 for the two-door with a six-speed auto, and $20,095 for the four-door auto, which all adds alloy wheels, V-Tex leatherette seating, a leather steering wheel with audio controls, cruise control, and Car-Net. The next trim up adds a sunroof (TSI S with SR) the next step is TSI SE, and then TSI SEL, which, for $26,995, comes with navigation, automatic climate control, keyless access with pushbutton start, 12-way power driver’s seat, and ambient lighting (plus all the features from the model one step down, like foglights, rearview camera and auto headlamps). Don’t forget to add $820 to the bottom line for destination charges.

Two packages, a Driver Assistance Package that includes Forward Collision Warning and Park Distance Control ($695) and a Lighting Package with HID active headlamps, LED DRLs, and ambient lighting (standard on SEL) that’s $995 will round out your purchase.  All these prices, by the way, are for the gas-powered Golf. Stepping into a diesel-engine hatch in S, SE, and SEL trim ranges from $21,995 for a four-door manual up to $29,095 for the SEL with the DSG automatic. We’ll get to the engine specs in just a bit.

While all the required features are here, the interior continues to be functional and practical. We love the flat-bottom steering wheel, the gauges are easy to read, and the center console is within reach. We’ve never been big fans of VW’s audio controls; they don’t seem to be as intuitive as other manufacturers, but they are definitely getting better. Our time was spent mostly with the radio off, so we didn’t play around too much with the system on our short driving loops around the bay area. When we get the Golf for a longer test drive, we’ll give the connectivity system a thorough going over. We do know from previous experience, however, that the Fender audio that’s standard on SE and SEL trims is excellent. Seat comfort was also a bonus. You won’t be hearing any complaints on long trips, and the roominess, a Golf high point, also shuts down any whining from driver or passengers in the four-door models.

Because we did driving loops instead of a continuous three-hour tour, we had a chance to get behind the wheel of a variety of models. We drive the Golf TSI, the Golf TDI, the GTI, the eGolf, and a few of the heritage Golf models that VW provided (one from each generation). Nostalgia is wonderful when it comes to clothes and furniture — not so much when it comes to certain cars. We hopped in a few early-generation models, one of which had the first-generation horrible motorized shoulder belts that plagued the industry back then. Those moving shoulder belts nearly decapitated numerous drivers (us included) who jumped out of their cars quickly before the belt had a chance to move down in the channel. Plus you had to remember to buckle the lap belt also. Whoever came up with that design needed to be banished forever from the automotive kingdom. There’s a lot to be said for how fast automotive technology has progressed, thank goodness.

Golf TSI EngineDuring our drive of the TSI, we once again were impressed with the new 1.8L turbocharged inline four that produces 170 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque. The TSI models are relatively lightweight, with the two-door manual at 2,901 pounds, making for a quick launch, and there was always power when you needed it on the highway. The six-speed automatic was smooth, and the steering felt linear, with excellent road feedback. One of the Golf’s strong points over the years has been the fun driving equation, and that carried over to the seventh generation. Sharp inputs netted quick response, and pushing hard in corners, even if it wasn’t the more-performance-oriented GTI, still rewards the driver with a confidence-inspiring feel. The 1.8-liter inline four engine that replaced the 2.5-liter five-cylinder last year continues to be a plus for Volkswagen, and that also includes the improvement in fuel economy, with estimated EPA figures at 26 city, 37 highway for the manual transmission, and only one fewer mpg highway for the automatic transmission.