by Gabe Beita Kiser
The paradoxical genius of good engineering is that the jumble of complex equations and late nights spent at the office—the work it takes to build any good machine—tends to manifest in a form that's simple and straightforward to the observer. Think of Apple's iOS or in this case, the 2018 Volkswagen Golf. Unlike the iPhone, the Golf SE that Volkswagen sent us for a week's worth of vetting is cheap relative to its competitors, but included in the price is a reputation for well-roundedness that can only be explained by ironclad engineering.
It's tough for industry outsiders to see how much work goes into the Golf from the outside despite body panels that exude modernity and confidence along with youthful athleticism implied by smallish dimensions and a short wheelbase, but all it takes to reveal the ingenuity behind the Golf is a step inside the cabin. With large windows and a shaded sunroof letting light cast shadows on a Beige V-Tex Leatherette interior to counter the dark Iron Blue exterior, the cabin of our Golf is as roomy as it is inviting. It's a packaging marvel really. It could be the lightly colored interior playing tricks on our mind, but the Golf never feels as though it trades its masterful ability to park in cramped areas for a confining interior.
That's a trick a number of hatchbacks can pull off, but none do so as well as the Golf for one reason: luxury. It's not that Volkswagen pulled a bunch of features from Audi or Porsche and stuck them in the Golf, but there's hardly another small car on the market that'll seat five with 22.8 cubic feet of storage space to spare and allow you to enjoy the commute as much as the Golf. A good chunk of its ability to invoke feel-good feelings on the drive comes from the signature Volkswagen ride, which lists ingredients like direct steering feel, linear brakes, a tightly woven chassis, buttons that feel expensive, and a bottom-heavy center of gravity.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that latter feature makes for better cornering, and the grounded feeling it supplies through the composed suspension does inspire confidence, but it's all undone in the corners with body roll that feels excessive for a car that barely tips the scales at 3,000 pounds (curb weight). Like just about every German car in existence, the throttle coaxes the 1.8-liter turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine into sending 170 horsepower and 199 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels with staggered response. Press the throttle lightly and it'll inch forward without a hint of urgency, but continue past a certain set point and it whisks the lightweight chassis away with a turbo hiss underpinning the engine's metallic growl.
If control over the whole operation is what you want, Volkswagen gives you the option of having the Golf with a six-speed manual if the six-speed automatic with paddle shifters isn't to your liking. We would have loved to try the stick shift out, but the auto did just fine during our multiple trips between Los Angeles and San Diego, which included plenty of frustrating traffic and mixed in with pleasant cruises through swanky Laguna Beach. During the trip, the large 8-inch infotainment system loaded with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto made traffic bearable provided that we had a steady stream of stress-reducing podcasts pumping through the sound system and it allowed for seamless navigation using Apple Maps.
With the touchscreen granting interaction with the short list of features the steering wheel-mounted buttons couldn't toggle through, we spent more time staring at beautiful sunsets on the coastline (in lieu of the road) than we'd like to admit. Adaptive cruise control would have made that trick easier to pull off, but our confidence was enhanced by the forward collision warning system that reserves the right to pump the brakes if it senses the Golf is about to plow into the car in front of it. Not like it's choked for safety features either—the high-res backup camera and rear traffic alert makes sure of that.
On the other hand, the few reminders a driver gets that this is a budget compact car come when searching for a button to complete a task and finding out that Volkswagen made that feature an analogue operation. All of that is forgivable though, because as a Lexus-owning friend in the passenger's seat said while cruising the madness that is Los Angeles streets during rush hour, "this is a pretty nice car man." For the bargain price of $25,799 including the $850 destination charge and 33 miles per gallon to sweeten the deal, we agree.